Gangnam Nationalism: Why Psy’s anti-American rap shouldn’t surprise you

December 7, 2012

South Korea's Psy performs at a 2006 concert in Incheon. (Chung Sung-Jun -- Getty Images)

Nationalism is a complicated force, and it might not always mean the same thing within one culture as it does in another. Keep that in mind as you read about how Psy, the South Korean rapper beloved in the United States for his mega-hit Gangnam Style, participated in two anti-American performances a few years before he became a big star here. And keep in mind that this is bigger than just Psy and his performances, particularly as controversy is likely to build over President Obama and his family's plans to attend a charity concert featuring the Korean pop star.

In 2002, Psy walked onto the stage at a massive performance meant to protest the large U.S. military presence in South Korea. He wore an outlandish, glittered red costume and gold face paint. As the crowd cheered him on, Psy lifted a large model of a U.S. tank and, to cheers and applause, smashed it against the stage

Two years later, Psy joined several other performers in a concert, this one also protesting the United States and its military. He rapped a song titled "Dear American." The song is not his – the original is by South Korean metal band N.EX.T – but here are the lyrics, in English and in Korean, in case any readers would like to suggest a better translation:

싸이 rap : 이라크 포로를 고문해 댄 씨발양년놈들과
고문 하라고 시킨 개 씨발 양년놈들에
딸래미 애미 며느리 애비 코쟁이 모두 죽여
아주 천천히 죽여 고통스럽게 죽여

Kill those ------ Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives
Kill those ------ Yankees who ordered them to torture
Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law, and fathers
Kill them all slowly and painfully

Americans don't hear much about these anti-American protests in South Korea. It's a strong American ally, after all; a liberal free market democracy; home to tens of thousands of American troops; and a partner, ever since so many Americans fought and died in the Korean War, in containing North Korea's threat to the world. Shouldn't they love us?

This is all true, but the Korean-American alliance can sometimes look a bit different from the other end of the Pacific. Some crucial events inform – though do not, on their own, fully explain – why Psy and other Korean performers would show such animosity toward the United States.

On June 13, 2002, one of the many U.S. military vehicles in South Korea struck and killed two 14-year-old girls walking along the side of a road outside Seoul. Because of the terms of the U.S.-South Korean treaty that allows for America's military presence there, the incident was considered a "military operation" and thus outside of Korea's jurisdiction. A U.S. court martial acquitted the driver and his commander.

Furious at the acquittal, Koreans protested for months, some seeing echoes of the foreign empires that had dominated their country for centuries. Universities became hotbeds of anti-American rage. A Gallup poll found that 75 percent of 20-something Koreans said they disliked or hated Americans. Many charged that the United States was making South Korea its pawn. Psy's 2002, gold-faced performance was, for all its shock-value when seen in isolation, nothing atypical of the year's backlash.

The 2004 performance is more complicated. In May of that year, an extremist group led by al-Qaeda's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi captured a South Korean Christian missionary in Iraq. They demanded that Seoul cancel its plan to send 3,000 troops in support of the U.S.-led invasion and, when South Korea refused, sent a tape of his beheading to Al Jazeera. "Korean citizens, you were warned," the executioner announced. "Your soldiers are here not for the sake of Iraqis, but for cursed America."

Koreans again took the streets in protest, first against the terrorists in Iraq, but then against the governments they saw as responsible for putting Koreans in harm's way. "While most of the peninsula's fury was directed towards terrorists in Iraq as well as Korean government policy, some anti-US military protesters seized the moment to put forth their cause," Korea-based journalist Bobby McGill explains. "Once again, PSY was involved. This time he admonished not only the terrorists and then president Roh Mu-hyun, but he also allegedly unleashed a vitriolic condemnation of American military personnel and military brass." That would be the song "Dear American," lyrics from which are posted above.

Cultural and political forces much larger than Psy, or even than the 2002 and 2004 outbursts of anti-American sentiment in South Korea, may help inform how these two incidents led to such severe vitriol.

One of those forces is the "Sunshine Policy," South Korea's pursuit of rapprochement with North Korea from 1998 to 2008. The policy attempted to soften the tension between the two Korean nations, something that often required breaking, rhetorically or even politically, with the United States. President Roh Moo-hyun did this in part by criticizing the U.S. containment policy – and thus, implicitly, the enormous American military force stationed in his country – in an effort to demonstrate goodwill toward North Korea and, he hoped, to lay the groundwork for real cooperation. A 2003 State Department report warned that the Sunshine Policy, and the political rhetoric and media coverage it produced within South Korea, were raising anti-American sentiment and risking the entire U.S.-South Korean alliance.

But there is also something perhaps deeper, something alluded to in the 2002 protests, in which Koreans accused Washington of trying to control their country, as past Asian empires had done. As South Korea transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy, and from a poor rural country to an advanced urban society, Koreans started to feel "new stirrings of nationalism arising from their country's rapid economic growth and political liberalization," historian Jinwung Kim has written. That nationalism manifested, in part, as a rejection of "Korea's 'big brother,' the United States," Kim wrote. Research by Katherine H.S. Moon, an academic at Wellesley College, linked the "rejection of authoritarianism" and growing national consciousness to "resurgent nationalism" and a newly mainstream anti-Americanism.

These attitudes peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s – just as Psy dropped a model tank before cheering crowds in Seoul – and, Moon writes, focused on the ever-visible American military presence. South Koreans were newly organizing themselves around a national pride and consciousness. But their nationalist energies, which they had developed as they formed a civil society and rejected the military dictatorship, suddenly lacked an outlet. Probably no one decided to re-focus those energies on opposing the U.S. military presence, but it's not hard to see how that might have happened organically, as Moon suggests. Though the U.S. force serves South Korean interests, it also can be seen as an insult to Korean nationalism, a reminder that it still relies on outside powers, and an intimation, however true or false, that the country might not be fully in Korean control. 

These political currents – "sunshine" with North Korea, opposition to the U.S. military presence, rising nationalism – defined the era, however recent, in which Psy so egregiously insulted America. That doesn't mean what he said or did was okay or that Americans should shrug it off. If anything, the fact that someone like Psy – political, but mildly so, criticizing opulent wealth and materialism in his "Gangnam Style" hit – could have participated in such anti-American performances might be a cause for even stronger reaction.

The Sunshine Policy of the 2000s is over, and so are the protests from nearly a decade ago, but the enormous U.S. military presence remains in South Korea. As South Korea continues to rise and build a national sense of itself, it's not guaranteed that the country will welcome American G.I.s with open arms for all eternity. And it's not just South Korea; Japanese have been protesting U.S. bases in their country as recently as October, most recently over a soldier's alleged rape of a local woman. Nationalism in South Korea, or in Japan, could continue to guide policy toward the United States, something that will only become more important as China continues to rise. Psy's silly tank stunt and shocking rap lyrics aren't definitive of how South Korea feels toward the United States, but they do represent a very real cultural force that matters for America's place in the world, whether we want it to or not.

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Max Fisher · December 7, 2012