Gangnam Nationalism: Why Psy’s Anti-American Rap Shouldn’t Surprise You


Max Fisher in the Washington Post's WorldViews blog [h/t: Linta Varghese]:

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.