Koreans Believed America Was Exceptional. Then Covid Happened.December 3, 2020
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA—In Korea, the United States is called 미국 (pronounced miguk), which directly translates to “beautiful country.” It has always seemed like a fitting name, considering Korea’s longstanding admiration of the U.S.
These days in Korea, TV broadcasters talk about the U.S. with grim faces, flashing to B-roll of lines of Americans wrapped around buildings waiting for Covid-19 testing or graphs depicting an exponential growth of pandemic deaths. Newspaper headlines question the strength of U.S. democracy above pictures of demonstrators protesting mythical claims of voter fraud. One recent column in the Hankyoreh, a major center-left daily newspaper, is titled, “Covid-19 and the downfall of the U.S.” Another headline, in sisajournal, a popular weekly current events magazine, reads: “The surprising election system that makes you wonder ‘Is the U.S. actually a democratic country?’” And it’s not just in the news. In boardrooms, in classrooms and in casual dinner table conversations, you’ll hear the same sense of bewilderment: How did the U.S. lose its way?
It’s a shocking development for a country that has, for decades, largely viewed the United States almost like an older sibling—a model of success and progress that Koreans were proud to emulate. Now, many Koreans see the U.S. as a failing country, deeply divided and unable to meet basic challenges. The shift began after President Donald Trump’s 2016 win, when many Koreans were shocked to see him claim the presidency after a string of scandals. But the clincher has been America’s bungled response to Covid-19, followed by Trump and the GOP’s recent efforts to contest the legitimate results of the 2020 U.S. election. For Koreans, the past year has exposed the deep problems within the American system, from hyperpartisanship and deep distrust in government to a poor health care system—issues that have long been familiar to Americans, but not to Koreans, many of whom have maintained the idea of American exceptionalism far longer and livelier than many Americans.
Korea’s admiration of the U.S. was always bound to drop somewhat as Korea grew from one of the poorest countries in the world into its 10th-largest economy, says Lee Hyun-song, a professor of interpretation and translation at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies who wrote a 2015 article about Koreans’ changing perception of Americans up to the early 2000s. But, he says, Trump’s tenure, and really 2020 in particular, has accelerated that process, especially among younger generations of Koreans, who are expressing more pride for their country and less likely to turn to the U.S. for guidance.
“There was a strong belief that there was a lot to learn from the U.S., but then that faith in Americans crumbled after they voted from Trump,” he says. “As we’ve watched the U.S. fail to contain Covid-19 and rebel against mask-wearing through the media, we’ve come to realize that the U.S. is no longer a more ‘developed’ country than us.”
It hasn’t always been like this. Korea has historically maintained a friendly relationship with the U.S., and in a 2013 BBC poll, Koreans viewed the U.S. the most positively out of all the Asian countries surveyed. It’s an alliance that dates back to the 1950s, when the U.S. helped end the Korean War and stabilize the Korean peninsula. And since the 1970s, the two have become close trade partners: Korea was the United States’ sixth-largest supplier of imports in 2019.
Korea has also been a successful target of U.S. soft power. In 2016, 53 percent of the movies in theaters here were Korean, while 42 percent were American. As Hollywood infiltrated Korean theaters, the audience left star-struck by scenes of grand, glittery parties, patriotic soldiers and heroic protagonists. U.S. education has also long been seen as the gold standard in Korea, a necessary rite of passage for the elite or a ticket to social mobility for those that can scrape together the funds. It’s the second-most sought after destination for college, following just behind China, a more familiar destination which borders Korea.
There have been flares of anti-Americanism in Korean history, but most were short-lived and targeted specific American entities. Anger in the 1980s was directed at the U.S. government for siding with Korea’s military dictator and helping him suppress peaceful protests for democracy. In 2002, it was directed at armed forces stationed in the country, after a U.S. military vehicle accidentally killed two schoolgirls. And in 2008, Koreans shunned the U.S. beef market—and criticized President Lee Myung-Bak—after Korea announced it would resume imports of U.S. beef despite concerns of mad cow disease. This time around, though, the criticism is both broader and more fundamental: Koreans are beginning to doubt the very idea of America as a beacon of prosperity and progress, as well as its standing as a global superpower.
Some of that questioning began with Trump, whom many Koreans saw as a shocking U.S. presidential choice who bulldozed democratic norms and sowed division. It didn’t help, either, that he also often let loose on longtime U.S. allies, including Korea. He demanded a 49 percent increase in South Korea’s contribution to their shared defense costs, hiking the price up to $1.3 billion; he’s strained the economic relationship by demanding new amendments to trade deals; he even bashed the Academy for awarding Korean film “Parasite” Best Picture. As a result, Koreans’ confidence in Trump sits at just 17 percent.
But disappointment in the U.S. has peaked this year, particularly as Korea has been praised for its pandemic management while the United States maintains the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in the world. Following strict contact tracing, universal mask wearing and transparent communication from the government, Korea currently has seen about 35,000 cases of the virus and experiences less than five Covid-19 deaths a day. In response to the two countries’ diverging paths, favorability of the U.S. in Korea has dropped from 80 percent in 2018 to 59 percent in 2020, according to Pew Research Center.
The shifting attitude is particularly noticeable in the Korean media, where news broadcasters and reporters often inject commentary into their work. Essentially every news segment about the U.S. right now is tinted by criticism. During one recent report by center-left broadcast station YTN about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s apology for ignoring their own advice that discouraged Thanksgiving traveling, the anchors closed with a scathing line: “The hypocrisy of these leaders who are in charge of people’s health and coronavirus control, during a period that is crucial to curbing the pandemic, makes you wonder if their apologies are even sincere.”
Kim Won-jang, a reporter for KBS, the national public broadcaster of Korea, made his disappointment clear in a recent column tilted, “There is no #1 America.” Kim, who studied in the U.S. in 1993 and later brought his whole family to the country in 2012 for a year, documents his dismay at the president’s rhetoric against immigrants, the U.S.’ failing response to Covid-19, the unfounded claims of voter fraud and Trump’s refusal to concede the election.
“Is the U.S. actually a No.1 country?” Kim questions in his article, published on Nov. 9. “It can’t even manage a presidential election, the largest event in the country. Yet again they need the help of the police. And if things get out of control, they aim at citizens. It’s like Zimbabwe. The president denies the election results, and social trust is at a rock bottom.”
While some may point to a booming stock market in rebuttal to America’s critics, Kim told POLITICO that it’s clear economics cannot be the only measurement of a successful country: “No matter how well Tesla’s stocks perform,” Kim says, “the U.S. will only stray further and further from its greatness if its people—many of different languages and ethnicities—can’t unite under common values.”
For Kim and many Koreans, the change in American leadership over the past few years can be summed up by comparing two elections. In his column, Kim describes John McCain’s 2008 concession speech as gracious, in which the former Arizona senator accepted his defeat the night of the election and promised to support Obama as “my president.” That night in Korea, broadcasts were near universally approving, characterizing the election as a moment that elevated the first Black U.S. president and bolstered the U.S.’ reputation of progress and innovation.
Kim’s retelling of the 2020 election isn’t as kind: “Fast forward 10 years. Donald Trump is tweeting ‘71,000,000 Legal Votes. The most EVER for a sitting President!’ while ignoring reality,” he wrote.
Kim says he decided to write the article because the current state of the country is far different from his earlier memories of the U.S. When he was younger, he remembers watching “A Few Good Men,” a movie that taught him the diverse country united under a common identity of being American. The same cannot simply be said anymore, he says, and a division among the people has cost the country both its faith in elections and public health.
What does this mean for the future? Despite this drop in respect, Korea will still continue its alliance with the U.S. to keep neighboring countries like China, Russia and North Korea in check. And familiarity will also keep the two countries close, says Kim, since Koreans still spend an exorbitant amount of money on American brands: There are 3.3 million Netflix subscribers in Korea, and the country annually spends over 1 trillion won on Starbucks. But the U.S. might continue to become a less popular destination for Korean emigrants and students—to the detriment of the American talent pool. Discouraged by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and complicated visa policies, the number of Korean international students in the U.S. has already been declining with no sign of return: 23,488 Korean students signed up for a visa in 2018, a 23 percent drop from the 30,565 students in 2015.
It’s possible President-elect Joe Biden might be able to slow or reverse the U.S.’s dropping reputation in Korea and help mend relations between the two countries. Lee says many here were relieved to see him beat Trump. All eyes will be on the new president to see if he can curb the “America First” mentality that has wrecked its alliances with multiple countries, adds Kim.
Some of the damage, however, may be irreversible. It won’t be so easy for Koreans to forget TV clips of full U.S. hospitals and maskless crowds. “To be clear,” Lee says. “Koreans won’t be sending their unconditional support to the U.S. as they did before.”