As leaders of the 21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) countries converged on the South Korean city of Busan in late 2005 to discuss the failing Doha Round, avian flu and Apec’s future, a meeting of a different kind was taking place, ironically in a McDonald’s restaurant in Busan city centre. College student Park Kyonghee and her friends were planning their participation in a street protest against the US. “I want the media to know that America is not welcome here,” she says.

Anti-Americanism is unarguably on the rise across the globe. A 2005 report by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that anti-American sentiment was “deeper and broader than at any time in modern history”. Nowhere has its growth been as strong as in South Korea. In a matter of years, the 50-year ally and once staunch supporter of US policy in north-east Asia has emerged as a veritable hot spot of anti-US activity.

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The flame of anti-Americanism in South Korea was lit in 2002. An accident involving US military personnel took the lives of two teenage girls. While walking to a friend’s birthday party, Shin Hyo-soon and Shim Mi-sun were struck by a 45-ton armoured vehicle. “The girls would still be here if we didn’t have the US military,” says Park Kyonghee. The subsequent acquittal of the soldiers by a military tribunal inevitably added fuel to the flame. Widespread anti-US street protests engulfed the country.

Street protests

Anyone who watches CNN or BBC news knows that street protests in South Korea are nothing new. Rows of shielded and masked policemen line up against mobs of head-banded men, who occasionally hold Molotov cocktails but more often than not sport only colourful placards and wave their fists. In the 1980s, student street protests forged the foundations of South Korean democracy and, in the 1990s, trade union protests delivered international standards to the country’s workers.

Since 2002, anti-US sentiment has taken a different direction. It crosses social, economic and political boundaries. Students, trade unionists, the young, the old, and the political left and right all participate in protests.

Anti-Americanism is also on the rise in China and Japan. However, in South Korea it is distinct. In China, the sentiment tends to be driven by nationalism, limited in its extent and arguably controlled by government sanction. Anti-US protests erupted after the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the collision of a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea in 2001. They dissipated after pressure on the US no longer served Beijing’s interests.

In Japan, anti-Americanism remains cloistered on the political fringe. On the far left, die-hard communists protest against the might of the US. On the far right, activists dwell on the alleged US role in forcing Japan to act in the Second World War and condemn Japan’s continued military dependency on the US. Both left and right remain on the radical fringe. The vast majority view a close relationship with the US as essential to Japan’s national economic and security interests.

Strong sentiment

Unlike in China and Japan, the anti-US movement in South Korea is distinguished by both its numbers and its growth potential. The strongest level of anti-US sentiment in the population comes from the demographically dominant age groups: the Korean equivalent of the West’s baby boom generation. They are known locally as the 3-8-6 generation, referring to the fact that they are in their 30s (or at least they were when the term was coined), went to college in the 1980s and implicitly took part in the democratic movement to end South Korea’s military dictatorship, and were born in the 1960s. Significantly, they have matured into leadership positions at a time when fear of North Korea, as the primary rationale for an unquestioning US alliance, is at an all-time low.

It may have been South Korean president Roh Mooh-Hyun’s call for greater equality in the relationship with the US that got him elected in 2002. In comparison, the conservative opposition Grand National Party (GNP) candidate, Lee Hoi-Chang, suffered as popular support for the party’s pro-US platform collapsed.

Pro-US sentiment is confined to the rapidly dwindling older generations, particularly those most influenced by the Korean War. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 47% of South Koreans in the 30 to 49-year-old age group hold an unfavourable view of the US compared with only 30% of those aged 50 or older.

Attitudes towards the US are even more negative among younger citizens. More than 71% in the 18 to 29-year-old age group hold an unfavourable view of the US. And in a poll published in the Chosun Daily newspaper 65.9% of younger South Koreans said that if war were to break out between the US and North Korea, they would side with their neighbour.

US business

In 2004, more than 3000 US companies were operating in South Korea, investing more than $4.7bn. Similarly, trade continues to grow: the US accounted for 16.9% of South Korea’s merchandise exports in 2004. Businesses on both sides would like to see the relationship grow.

“I believe there is a strong interest among business in Korea with respect to negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) between the US and Korea, especially after the establishment of the Chile-Korea FTA,” says Kyoo Kim, president of the Korean-American Economic Association. But anti-Americanism may hamper this growth potential, he says: “Anti-Americanism will make FTA negotiations between the US and Korea less of an official policy in either country.”

US companies have become wary of the global trend in anti-American sentiment with some toning down of their overtly American branding. For some businesses, this is not an option: no matter how much Korean kimchi a company puts into a hamburger, it is still a hamburger.

Boycotts tend to be big on publicity but limited in scope and scale. They tend to have an impact on only those products and services marketed directly to consumers, relying on the emotional element in consumer purchasing. Products and services marketed directly to businesses suffer little. It is not a rational business decision to choose a domestic product or service rather than a cheaper or more reliable foreign good.

Anti-Americanism also has a less tangible but potentially more powerful impact. It affects individuals in the business community with widely differing results. Tami Overby, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in the capital, Seoul, says she felt the 2002 protests did little harm to the US business community in South Korea. “There was little or no impact from the anti-American protests. A few people tried to organise a boycott of American products, but because the feelings were not so pervasive, there was no impact,” she says.

She contends that the expatriate business community understood the demonstrations to be a natural consequence of South Korea’s coming of age as the world’s 11th largest economy. “Anti-Americanism in Korea is over-estimated. It might be easier to understand when one looks at Korean history and realises that Korea has been invaded over 900 times in its 5000-year history,” she says.

The ugly side

However, there are also minority voices – those of people who are embittered by continual exposure to the uglier side of anti-Americanism. “Issac Roberts”, who does not want his real name revealed because he fears the more radical anti-US elements, experienced weekly taunts on public transport at the height of the anti-American protests. He now runs a website, www.usinkorea.org, dedicated to revealing what he sees as the hypocrisy of the current political administration. “They came to power by playing up anti-American credentials – credentials earned through years of opposing American-style globalisation… but found they were not ready to burn all the bridges that helped make their nation great,” he says.

Diplomacy revamp

The US is keenly aware of its image problem abroad and efforts are under way to repair it. But fissures over Iraq and the war on terror have moulded perceptions that will take decades to change. A US State Department Advisory Committee report in September 2005 noted the problem: “America is viewed in much of the world less as a beacon of hope than as a dangerous force to be countered… The erosion of our trust and credibility within the international community must be reversed if we hope to use more than our military and economic might in shaping world opinion.”

Central to resetting the US’s tarnished image is public diplomacy. During the Cold War, public diplomacy campaigns, such as scientific and cultural exchanges, speakers’ tours, research scholarships and sponsored business traineeships, sowed seeds of goodwill in targeted countries that grew stronger year by year. However, such efforts have been rudderless since the end of the Cold War. Without an archenemy such as the Soviet Union to be compared with, the US appeared to lose its way. In 1999, the United States Information Agency (USIA), a prime resource for those interested in the US, shut down.

Heightened security since 9/11 has increased hurdles for students and business professionals visiting the US, and curtailed scientific and cultural exchanges. In 2004, for the first time, more South Korean students commenced study in China than in the US. Visa security regulations for entry to the US may be partly to blame, closing the door on one of America’s most powerful tools: its way of life.

Proposals to revamp US public diplomacy are still at the planning stage. They include re-establishing the USIA within the State Department, creating a US Agency for Public Diplomacy to co-ordinate all of the government’s diplomacy efforts, and involving the private sector in a Corporation for Public Diplomacy.

Private sector action

The private sector has already taken to the problem. The coalition Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA) seeks to apply private sector expertise to US public diplomacy. Keith Reinhard, president of BDA and chairman of DDB Worldwide, believes that corporate America can rise to the challenge. “Given the vast reach, the creativity and the world-renowned operating efficiency of US corporations, they are uniquely qualified to take on a public diplomacy mission,” he says.

BDA works to a five-stage plan: it seeks to sensitise US constituents to anti-Americanism, transform American attitudes that exacerbate the problem, accentuate the US’s positive qualities, reach audiences in strategic world markets and serve as a private sector connection for US public diplomacy efforts. Mr Reinhard says: “We need to move the discussion from whether or not rising anti-Americanism is affecting bottom lines, to what business can do to improve America’s standing in the world.”

Park Kyonghee and her friends were just a few of the many protestorsš who were at Apec. Whether or not the media heard her anti-US message, the South Korean media may soon hear an even louder message: American business is ready to listen.