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Divided Loyalties
Medill graduate student sorts out her allegiances to the United States and Korea. by Christina Ko

The anti-U.S. sentiment in South Korea, despite all the hype in the media, is nothing new.

When I was 11, some anonymous person in Seoul scratched my parents’ Ford over several weeks, forcing them to paint and repaint the car. I, the daughter of a U.S. citizen employed by the federal government, grew up witnessing ardent Koreans rallying outside the gates of Yongsan Garrison, the 630-acre Korea headquarters of the U.S. 8th Army in central Seoul. Recent protests not only concern the presence of the approximately 37,000 U.S. soldiers in the country but also the U.S. government’s approach to dealing with North Korea.

As a young child I casually watched these demonstrators from that same Ford. I was the epitome of a Korean American snob: I assumed they were all crazy, dismissed them with a shrug and entered the Yongsan gates, which can only be done with an identification card issued by the 8th Army.

Though born in Seattle, I moved to Korea at age 7 and attended an international school, based on a Western model, until arriving at Northwestern. Most of us students were Korean Americans, and we spoke English usually as a first and more comfortable language. For some reason, all of this resulted in feelings of superiority over more conventional Korean students — maybe because we didn’t have to wear school uniforms, or because we got to delight in all sorts of “American” things like school dances and proms.

This feeling was buttressed by my family’s access to the U.S. Army base facilities. Along with all the Korean goodies, I could also enjoy Doritos, Cheetos and the Sweet Valley Twins book series.

It was only after coming to Northwestern that I understood how living in Korea had obliquely strengthened my Korean identity. I suddenly became a racial minority but also a minority within a minority. Unlike most other U.S.-born Koreans, I had actually lived in Korea, which is vastly different from simply growing up here with immigrant parents. It’s one thing to feel pride in one’s cultural heritage, but it’s something else entirely to have lived in that culture. With this insight, I returned to Korea in summer 2001. Now the screaming protestors outside Yongsan became more than mere psychos on the street.

As an intern for the Seoul bureau of the Pacific Stars and Stripes, the daily U.S. military newspaper for Korea, Japan and Guam, I encountered protestors frequently. Once, when I covered a demonstration, I saw several posters vividly depicting the violence committed against Koreans by U.S. servicemen. Bruised and bloodied, many of the victims were women who had been raped and beaten.

The injustice felt by Koreans arises from the general — unequal — power relationship with the United States. According to the primary agreement that defines the legal status of U.S. forces in South Korean, local authorities can’t interrogate U.S. suspects without legal counsel. Testimony and evidence acquired in the absence of legal counsel cannot be used at trials. A revised treaty that was signed in January 2001 increases the number of crimes that Korean courts can rule on and allows U.S. suspects to be handed over to Korean officials before indictment for certain crimes.

Yet recently, when an American tank fatally ran over two Korean girls during a training mission, a U.S. military court acquitted the drivers, causing an uproar. When such events occur, resentment against perceived imperialism looms over the country. A “native” life seems to be of little value.

It’s important to remember, however, that the “bad” is what sticks out. On the “good” side, the U.S. presence in South Korea not only provides protection against a still shaky political situation on the peninsula but also contributes jobs for Koreans and American civilians. Many Koreans, especially the older generation that lived through the horrors of war, appreciate the U.S. military.

So here I stand, one foot in Korea and one in the United States. In Korea I learned of America, and in America I have learned of Korea. And as I observe the events unraveling around me, I can always place myself in both nations.

I have become a true Korean American.

Christina Ko (J03) is a graduate student in the Medill School of Journalism and a former intern for Northwestern magazine.

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