Ken May

Anti-American protests in Korea

How the ugly american ate the ugly duckling

This month’s article is about recent anti-American protests in Korea and the current campaign to shut down or censor Internet chat rooms used by expatriates. Korean netizens are presently trying to get “undesirable” teachers expelled, and threats have been made to assault male teachers at popular nightclubs. The implication of these protests can have impact on web sites across Asia. Could the events happening in Korea today be revisited in Thailand tomorrow? Write me:

There is a time tested strategy that nearly all nations use to deflect criticism about their poor economies and failing domestic policies. Put simply, the technique goes like this: blame it on the foreigners and the minorities. In the United States economic hardships have triggered the lynching of Blacks and Hispanics. In the United Kingdom migrants from Pakistan and Africa have been the targets of animosity. Therefore, it is not surprising to witness this strategy placed into action within Asia. Western expatriates often find themselves the focus of cultural distrust and national blame. An example of this process was recently observed in Korea. Having one of the most homogenous country’s in the world (Korea has virtually zero minority groups), its usual targets of blame are western outsiders – American troops, foreign business persons, religious missionaries, and English teachers. Each of these groups have been earmarked for removal at one time or another – especially when the economy slumps or at times of chaotic social change.

Koreans resent the popular stereotype that it remains a “Hermit Kingdom” – an isolated and xenophobic country. But, Korean history is full of events that reflect the fear of westerners – who often possessed the dark motive of colonization. In 1866, the Taewongun (Prince of the Great Court) ordered the arrest of all foreign priests; 9-12 French priests were eventually executed and thousands of Korean Catholics perished. In the same year an American merchant ship, the General Sherman, was burned to the ground and its entire crew killed. Japan, Russia, England, France, and the U.S. all attempted to force Korea into trading relationships and religious reform. Koreans just wanted to be left alone to practice their traditional Confucian lifestyle. However, Korea’s age of innocence was coming to an end. Internal disorder had been mounting for decades due to misgovernment and official corruption. Peasant uprisings and riots had started to occur in various provinces. Impoverished Yangban scholars and disgruntled government officials added their voice to the crisis. When Korea’s king died, in 1863, without a male heir, the nation was thrown into even more disorder. A 12 year old boy was made monarch, the Queen assumed regency, and the Taewongun became a de facto leader with absolute authority. The Taewongun struggled to preserve the old ways, but too many citizens felt that intrusion by foreigners could bring new opportunities. Reform was truly needed, but in the meantime this intrusion by foreigners proved an useful smokescreen to underlying domestic problems.

Fast forward to modern times. Korea has rapidly industrialized from an agrarian nation to a modern economy. It now has one of the most advanced broadband connections in the world. Nearly all Korean youths have access to a home computer and the skills to communicate on the Internet. Korean netizens are widely known as some of the best computer gamers in the world. Internet cafes are loaded with children playing Starcraft and other computer games. This Internet usage combined with Korea’s global trade are given as proof that it has abandoned its self-sequestering past. Despite these recent developments, and at times even because of them, the stereotype of the distrustful Hermit Kingdom seems to persist. Every now and then an incident takes place to confirm this misperception. An event that occurred a few weeks will help to elaborate. But, first I need to backtrack a bit, to the 1990s, when Korea’s teaching boom first stuck and a flood of westerners poured beyond its borders.

English teaching in Korea exploded in the late 1990s, bringing westerners into the country at a rate never seen before. This growth of expatriate teachers roughly coincided with Asia’s financial crisis (1997-1998). Korean companies went belly up and the value of Korea’s currency plummeted. Naturally, foreign corporations, global politics, and western currency speculators received a share of blame (along with family-operated Chaebols and Korean bank policies). Television campaigns were launched with the “Buy Korean” slogan, which featured the turtle boats used to repel Japan during its Hideyoshi invasion of Korea in 1592. The symbolic importance of the commercial was not lost on Korea viewers. Newspapers often printed article about corruption in western business practices and implied that western influence would damage its economy. At the same time, many Korean believed that globalization would bring new opportunities. The English language could provide workers with job promotion and make students eligible for better schools. Despite the falling economy the demand for English teachers remained strong.
The internet was the most crucial tool for obtaining English teachers. Many new websites were developed as the population of native English speakers increased. One of the first websites to capitalize on this movement was (starting in 1995). So many teachers visited this site that it had to split Korea into its own forum. This is where I found my first Korean teaching job in 1999 (my previous opportunities were found by word-of-mouth without a computer). Initially, these sites introduced potential teachers to employers that wanted to hire them. As the population of teachers increased, and technology improved, these websites started to incorporate chat rooms. English teachers craved tips and advice. Disgruntled workers posted warnings about bad schools and kindred spirits arranged meetings. Chat room posters eventually designed avatars and created alternative identities for themselves. The population of teachers in Korea has expanded to such a large degree that there are now dozens of websites, blogs, and chat rooms available (,,, and A few of these websites even started to profit from advertisements. The ugly duckling was maturing into a beautiful swan.

The most recent controversy ignited in Korea due to posts on the English Spectrum website. An individual poster named Lucky Guy started a male bravado thread entitled, “How to Mollest Female Students” [sic], in which he bragged about how easy it was to have sex with Korean women. Fellow posters responded with crude lists of conquests and infantile remarks of what posters found disgusting about Korean females. Other trolls remarked that Korean men are selfish and unskilled lovers. Some suggested tips to get laid like speaking English while pretending to need help with directions. A poster named Playboy added a party advertisement that hinted of sex. The English Spectrum website went as far as hosting the party, which was held at an expatriate club known as Mary Jane’s. Photographs from the event’s wet T-shirt contest appeared on the Internet – featuring both Korean and western women in see-through shirts. By western standards these pix were rather tame, the party wasn’t anything more shocking than the standard Friday night at a frat house, and the style of demeaning commentaries are commonplace on the Internet. On-line anonymity allows behavior such as flaming and trolling that might not take place otherwise. Most distinguished website simply employ volunteer moderators to edit out offending material. Moderators have the power to delete a thread or to move it into a different location (the ice box). However, the English Spectrum encouraged degrading narratives with its “Ask Playboy Forum”. The intention might have been humorous satire, but for Koreans the website struck a bitter nerve.

It should come at no surprise that many Asians also view these websites. Local students practice English skills, school directors scope them out to spot trends, and the host country’s intelligence service gathers information from them (for what its worth). When Korean netizens stumbled across this thread a flurry of anti-western political activism exploded on-line. An on-line petition was circulated to have “unqualified” teachers expelled from the country. A Korean portal site called Daum gathered several thousand signatures towards this goal. The exact criteria for a “qualified” teacher was never an issue (and it was uncertain if the offending posters were even teachers), but the sentiment to have undesirable teachers removed was strong. Korean netitizens also created an anti-English spectrum website to vent complaints. Before long a few Koreans advocated the assault of male teachers at popular nightspots. English teachers were warned in Sinchon, Hong-dae, and Hongik University. The Korean women in the photographs at the expatriate club were named and shamed. The nightclub owners were ridiculed. The websites frequented by English teachers were bombarded by angry locals. Hackers promised to stage attacks and Koreans threatened to have advertisements pulled. In reflexive response, (which heavily moderates its threads anyway) promptly announced that it would delete all postings about the English Spectrum controversy. Moderators at other websites pulled threads. The posted a warning on its home page, and steered dialogue away from the topic. In the end, English Spectrum was shut down.

Korean netizens hailed this overblown political activism as a victory. They successfully put the offending website out of commission. But, was this action really a victory to be proud of? Korea is full of struggles for free speech and democracy. In an earlier time of domestic crisis, 1980, the Korean military dictator, Chun-Doo Hwan, made drastic alterations to the nation’s constitution after coming to power by violent coup. Angry university students organized a rebellion in Kwangju, and as many as 2,000 Koreans were massacred for advocating democratic reform. Chun Doo-hwan declared private schools illegal between 1981-1988. Many hagwon’s were forced into closing. Some teachers had been arrested and a number of foreign expatriates were expelled. Japan, in contrast, leapt at the opportunity to hire English teachers during the 1980s; while Korea was banning its private schools. Perhaps this is one reason why Japan’s economy is more successful today. Obviously, the Kwangju massacre doesn’t register on the same scale as the present day attempt to shut down Internet sites. However, it is ironic that in only one generation Korean university students stepped away from fighting for free-speech, to advocate the position of censorship instead.

It is a double-edge sword that they weld. Korean netizens craved the ability to block offensive websites. But, this desire is also possessed by tyrannical governments. The same censorship that Korean netizens employ against westerners might one day be revisited on them. Check the bookmarks in any Korean Internet cafe, click on the history links, and you will likely find many sites that could be deemed subversive. Explicit pornography, pirate sites for downloads, left-wing political websites; more than a few Korean netizens could be caught in that net. When Korean netizens had the English Spectrum disabled, and other websites self-censored in reaction, it also put an end to useful dialogue. Offensive posters merely switched to a different homepage or changed their username. A significant number of posters switched from eslcafe to expatinkorea in anger of deleted threads. The stereotype of the hermit kingdom was confirmed in many western eyes, and the image of the salivating western pervert was reinforced for Koreans. The teaching moment was lost. The truth between these extremes was buried instead. It is the flow of free dialogue, even in crude and offensive forms, where the seeds of understanding are sewn. In the words of Voltaire, “ I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write”.

The violent threats made to western teachers and the attack on expatriate websites did not exist in a vacuum. The timing was appropriate. Foreigners are easy targets to blame, but overriding internal factors lurked within. The National Statistical Office announced that, in 2004, the private academic sector, known as the hagwon industry, declined for the first time since this data was compiled. The growth rate fell by an astonishing 8.3%. The sluggish Korean economy and soaring price of tuition are the main causes. Program fees have risen quicker than the rate of overall living costs. Parents simply can’t afford to send their children to school like they used to. The Korean economic slump, like the recession in the United States, hit hard between the years 2001-2002. There were massive layoffs at factories and a high unemployment rate. A shocking number of personal and corporate bankruptcies took place. The previous financial boom lulled companies into bad loans and individuals into the faith of credit cards – and it all crashed down on them later. The rate of divorce and suicide were so high in 2004 that Koreans are naturally frightened. The family structure and social order is falling apart.

Many Koreans started new hagwons or restaurants to survive. The Korean government did not place strict regulations on a hagwon owner’s qualifications, so it was an industry where the newly unemployed could turn. Before long a glut of private schools saturated even smaller cities. With all the new competition many of the old schools couldn’t make ends meet. Students transferred to newly emerging hagwons or parent’s pulled them out due to lacking tuition funds. Many former customers now prefer to learn English for free on popular radio programs and educational television shows. The trustworthy private academic sector was thrown into chaos. President Roh Moo-hyun promoted education reform to the Korean Congress, but the size of the hagwon industry is so large that it is difficult to alter policy. There is big money involved, and some of the corporate franchise schools have become so powerful that change is resisted. These private schools are firmly rooted in Korean society, therefore attention was placed on expatriate English teachers instead. The role of outsiders and the visa regulations that governed them could at least be changed. Foreigners were already in the spotlight due to a surge in crime, and to a degree this information provided a proper scapegoat.

Several newspapers printed articles that crimes by foreigners had jumped by 48% in 2004. Last year there were 9,103 cases of crime by outsiders; compared with only 3,438 during my last year in Korea (2000). The majority of these crimes are non-violent: fraud, document forgery, bogus marriage, and illegal residency. The nature of these violations suggests foreign workers who commit illegal acts to supplement living costs. In fact, it is estimated that around 188,000 people work in Korea illegally. It is consensus that many of these illegal workers are teachers. The demand for English teachers is so high that hagwons will often employ foreigners without question. There are seldom background checks made. A few teachers have fled criminal records back home. Canadians are issued a six month tourist visa and a significant number of them teach without a work visa during this time. Likewise, English teachers are sometimes hired from India or the Philippines even though this conflicts with government regulations. Some of these crimes by foreigners include more severe activity such as homicide, pedophilia, and drug-related acts. There were 60 murders by foreigners in 2004, which is an increase of 87%. Drug crimes soared 82% to 218 cases. In reaction to this crime wave police have staged many crackdowns. Over forty foreigners were recently snared by police in Gyeonggi.
Police crackdowns were also staged with publicity in a red light district near an American military base. A few symbolic arrests were made on “Hooker Hill” in Itaewon and many nightclubs temporarily shut down (but, bars hosting blonde Russian women remained curiously open). For a while, Hooker Hill turned into a dusty ghost town. Before tumble weeds could start blowing by, however, the world’s oldest profession began to trickle back into these “juicy bars”. There was simply too much money to be made. The overriding issue was not just prostitution, but the regulation of crimes by westerners. Indeed, there are over a dozen red light districts in Seoul alone and brothel clientele often include married Korean men. But, Hooker Hill had symbolic importance because that is where many westerners go.

Unrelated events added fuel to the fire of anti-Americanism. The “Ugly American” was caught in the limelight once again. North Korea had just announced its production of nuclear weapons and many Koreans felt that President George W. Bush’s arrogant warmongering had something to do with it. Bush was blamed for the failure of President Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy” to materialize. The Iraq War is viewed as part of the U.S. lunge toward global domination. Many Koreans resented U.S. pressure to involve Korean troops. The killing of a Korean hostage by Iraqi insurgents also fanned the flames of anti-Americanism. Perhaps even more troubling was an accident involving the deaths of two teenage girls because an 50+ ton American military vehicle ran over them. The girls were innocently walking together on the edge of a road by a bridge when they were crushed by a tank that extended too wide. The girls were killed instantly. American troops were portrayed as showing careless disregard for locals. The public outcry and protests overshadowed the fact that crime committed by U.S. forces and their family members had actually declined by 35.9% in 2004.

When the English Spectrum issue broke out many Koreans automatically assumed that the offending posters were American. Given the anonymous nature of a username, how could anyone arrive at this conclusion? In fact, the majority of English teachers are not from the United States. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have significantly large expatriate communities in Korea. Therefore, why did the Korean netizen campaign have an anti-American edge? The Ugly American had devoured the beautiful swan of Korea’s private academic institutes. The sexist postings by men on English Spectrum provided useful evidence. Lucky Guy and Playboy were caught picking their teeth with the bones of the leftover carcass. The more colorful feathers were overshadowed. Many Korean youths are intermixing with English teacher in constructive endeavors. The controversial party at the nightclub only distracted attention from the fact that some Koreans have joined the celebration. Expatriate bars can be fun and a rare chance for Koreans to appreciate cultural diversity. Some may fear the Ugly American, but others welcome the opportunity to mingle.

When Korean netizens launched their campaign against English Spectrum all these issues were fully known to them. Insensitive posters, such as Playboy and Lucky Guy, played right into stereotype – immoral perverts and criminal colonists. When they arrogantly bragged about sexual exploits over Korean women, the struck chord resonated with deeper fears: skyrocketing divorce rates, interracial marriage, the adoption of Korean children by westerners, the changing roles of women. It struck right into the heart of the conservative Korean family. The idea that these outsiders were also teachers (a fact never confirmed) also appealed to those who worried about Korea’s suffering private academic sector. Westerners are often viewed as lazy, overpaid, and spoiled. Korean teachers work longer hours for less pay, and are often required to do extra janitorial work. Foreign teachers, especially if they slack in the classroom, are sometimes perceived as a drain on hagwon profits. When parents fork out hard-earned cash for soaring school fees, they want teachers that will treat education with respect – and they deserve it! It might surprise them that many foreign teachers feel the same way. We agree that teachers need better qualifications before they are hired. However, this discourse is precisely what was lost when English Spectrum was shut down and other websites banned threads about it. The English Spectrum controversy brought the venom to the surface. It was a good time to treat the wound.


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