Missionaries, GIs, English teachers, and other Folk Devils: Sovereignty and Anti-Westernism in South Korea

Matt VanVolkenburg
Tuesday, January 29, 2019 -
7:30pm to 9:00pm
Second floor Residents’ Lounge, Somerset Palace
W10,000 for members; W5,000 won for student non-members; free for members

Venue:          Second floor Residents’ Lounge, Somerset Palace, Gwanghwamun (near Anguk Station, Exit 6, across street from the Japanese Embassy)

After a series of incursions by imperialist powers between 1866 and 1871, Koreans began to perceive the West - and Westerners - in a negative light, so much so that by 1884 American naval attache George Foulk could be told that foreigners were “half-barbarians who only thought of doing harm to [t]his country.” The most representative incident reflecting this mindset at that time was the 1888 “Baby Riots” in Seoul which broke out after rumours spread that foreigners were eating Korean babies. Once under Japanese rule, Koreans were subject to anti-missionary propaganda that reflected both Japan’s nearly 400-year-long ban on Christianity and its desire to discredit Western missionaries who, sometimes inadvertently, encouraged Koreans’ desire for independence. These attitudes peaked during WWII when Japan promoted a number of discourses critical of the West, and these ideas continued to exert influence after liberation in both North and South Korea.

In South Korea under Park Chung-hee’s rule, the state attempted to “purify” the nation of Western cultural influences that hampered the ROK’s developmental drive, but in the 1980s this project was taken over by leftist students and media opposed to the military dictatorships. Since then, nationalist activists in the streets, in the media, and online have sought to oppose American economic, cultural, and linguistic imperialism, but in doing so they have often utilized anti-Western stereotypes and portrayed their campaigns as attempts to stop foreigners from deliberately harming Korea. If Anti-Westernism, or “Occidentalism” as it has been termed by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, is a “hateful caricature” of Western modernity, Korean activists have extended this to Westerners as people, demonizing them as lascivious agents of decadence, drug-abuse, and disease bent on abusing Korean women and children. These caricatures have been put to use in the online and media campaigns that led to drug and HIV testing of foreign English teachers and helped fuel large-scale candlelight protests against the US military and American beef imports in 2002 and 2008. Because US soldiers and English teachers are perceived as privileged groups in South Korea, these negative and often racialized depictions of them have received little criticism, allowing the promotion of these stereotypes to continue unchecked and to be turned against less-privileged groups of foreigners such as non-Western refugees.

This lecture will make extensive use of photos, newspaper cartoons, film stills and text reaching back to the 1880s. After providing a historical background by examining pertinent events from the 1880s, 1920s and 1940s, the lecture will focus on Korea’s postwar history, particularly from 1980 to the present.

Matt VanVolkenburg first arrived in Korea in 2001 and began the blog Gusts of Popular Feeling in 2005. His interest in modern Korean history encompasses film, music, urban redevelopment, reactions to Western culture, and media depictions of foreigners. He contributed research to a case brought before the UN Committee on the Eradication of Racial Discrimination which ultimately ended HIV testing of foreign English teachers. He received an M.A. in Korean Studies from the University of Washington in 2017 and is currently researching 1970s Korean youth culture.


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Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch
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