PSY Anti-American Controversy: What the PSY Scandal Tells Us about U.S. South Korean Relations

Due to the recent archaeology of Korean artist PSY’s “anti-American” past, there was a bit of controversy surrounding his performing at Sunday night’s “Christmas in Washington” concert. Following PSY’s apology for his performance eight years ago of the song “Dear America” with the group N.E.X.T., and despite protests, the show went on. PSY, resplendent in a glittery red getup, seems to have done his best to spread the Christmas cheer, and was able to shake the hand of our commander-in-chief.

Anti-American sentiment in South Korea is a complicated phenomenon, and the fact that PSY was able to perform for the first family only days after it was discovered that he sang about killing American soldiers during the Iraq War says a lot about U.S.-ROK relations. The inextricable relationship between our two countries is much more visible in South Korea, (where there is an American military base in the center of Seoul), than it is in America. While serving as a very practical deterrent to North Korean aggression, America’s strong military presence has had real negative effects, such as in 2002 when an American military vehicle struck and killed two 13-year-old girls, not to mention the multiple rape charges against American soldiers stationed in Seoul. Just last year, there were allegations that U.S. soldiers had buried hundreds of gallons of toxic chemicals near the former U.S. base in Bucheon. The effects are also psychological. ROK/U.S. Combined Forced Command is led by an American general, contributing to a sense of incomplete autonomy and dependence on a foreign power’s military. Much “Anti-American” protesting in South Korea, then, is the expression of entirely legitimate concerns about safety and national autonomy, and has called for things like changes to the Status of Forces Agreement (though it has also manifested itself in more puzzling ways, like the protests of American beef in 2008).

The now-notorious lyrics from “Dear America” are anomalous in that they transcend American policy to involve American individuals. While the lyrics in question (about killing Americans slowly and painfully) are indefensible, PSY’s apology acknowledges this, saying that “the song I was featured in — from eight years ago — was part of a deeply emotional reaction to the war in Iraq and the killing of two innocent Korean civilians that was part of the overall antiwar sentiment shared by others around the world at that time. While I'm grateful for the freedom to express one’s self I’ve learned there are limits to what language is appropriate and I’m deeply sorry for how these lyrics could be interpreted. I will forever be sorry for any pain I have caused anyone by those words.”

Meanwhile, some of the reactions to PSY’s presence in America prior to the uncovering of his “anti-American” past have been disgustingly xenophobic, ignorant, and racist. Take a look at some of the twitter response to his performance at the American Music Awards and a truly abhorrent segment on The O’Reilly Factor, for examples. One Fox News guest suggested that PSY should be put on a terrorist-watch list. Shame on everyone.

The relationship between the United States and South Korea is mostly amicable, but it is also complicated. So far, PSY’s “Christmas in Washington” performance hasn’t been cut from the program, which is scheduled to air on TNT on December 21, and if we can take away anything from his presence at the event, it might be a sense of just how resilient, in spite of ambivalence and cultural ignorance, the relationship is between the U.S. and the ROK. South Korea has remained hospitable to the United States throughout a lot of controversy surrounding America’s military presence. PSY has brought a little bit of that controversy back to America. Yet, the United States will remain a vigilant presence in South Korea, and PSY, at least for now, will go on capering about the American stage.