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.