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Once a savior, America's souring ties with South Korea demonstrate its complex task on the peninsula.
SEOUL — This city has felt different since Nov. 4.
The angry masses who periodically flood the streets of Seoul protesting the presence of U.S. troops, or those who rallied against America's economic policies, are gone. The winds of change President-elect Barack Obama promised the American people seem to have also blown through the streets of Washington’s close ally for the past 50 years.
But beyond the calm, many remain wary on the Korean peninsula — a divided land that has seen civil war, tumultuous social change and economic development since that close relationship with the United States began.
As a result of that complex history, America offers many faces to the average South Korean.
It's considered a blood ally to the generation that experienced the Korean War in the 1950s. Others here see it as an economic giant that forces disease-ridden beef and unfair trading practices onto other countries. Even more see it as a cultural hub that generates TV shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Prison Break" that keep people up all night.
But whether it's a war veteran waving the Stars and Stripes or a teenage wielding an "Oust the U.S. troops," one thing people here understand is that America still projects power.
“I did hear (Obama) is the new president. I think things will get better. Since America is such a big and strong country, if they do good over there, I think things will get better for us too,” Kim Byung-yoon, a street vendor, said as she stirred sugar in a pan over a tiny gas stove to make sweets. The 60-year-old said she does not know much about politics between the two countries, and all she cares about is the economy.
America is considered a savior to people in their 50s or 60s like Kim who experienced the Korean War and its aftermath in the mid-20th century. At the time, the U.S. sided with South Korea and fought against Soviet-backed North Korea. It saved the south from the evil grasps of communism, said Won Heeryong, a three-time lawmaker of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP).
However, the expectations people have about the Obama administration also have some realistic twists.
“We are a bit worried that the U.S. might improve its relationship with Pyongyang, while we are not able to move things forward with the North. This could leave us in a position in which we’re left behind, always trying to catch up with the two,” Won said.
The relationship between the two Koreas has soured after the less lenient Lee Myung-bak came to power in 2008, though many believe Obama will be able to create a breakthrough in the current deadlock surrounding the talks to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons activities.
However, President Obama may not be the great hope that many Koreans long for.
“Some believe that once Obama comes in things are going to sail smoothly with North Korea, but that’s not true,” Park Young-ho, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) said. “It’s just that he will probably be a bit more active in sitting down at the negotiating table with the North,” he added.
Koreans tend to have mixed feelings about the role the U.S. plays on the peninsula in terms of security. It's seen by many as a necessary evil, especially among people who were born after the Korean War.
Hyun Sung-woon, a 34-year-old toy shop owner, believes Washington tends to do as it pleases when it comes to dealing with Seoul. But when asked if the American troops should leave, Hyun said, “Um … no, I don’t think that’s a good idea for security in the country.”
The same complexity is reflected in the U.S.-South Korean economic relationship. Korea churns out a GDP of $1 trillion and is America's seventh-largest trading partner. After months of painful negotiations, in June 2007 the two countries signed a wide-ranging free trade agreement. But the deal was not well received in Korea and caused massive protests that paralyzed some of the main districts of the capital for days.
Many believe that at the end of the day, America is simply a country that pressures others for its own good. Kim Eun-jung, a 31-year-old optician, said she has never thought of America as an ally and shows a hint of distaste at the notion. Even so, she has her own hopes for Obama.
“I heard Obama promised a lot of good things for reviving the economy in the U.S.,” Kim said. “Whoever is president I just want that person to do a good job, and since Obama won, I hope that he does a good job so it can have a good impact on other countries."