More on foreign affairs from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"America's Maginot Line" (December 1998)
Our bases in Asia are becoming more vulnerable to attack by ballistic missiles. Defending them will be very expensive and might provoke even larger missile deployments. At stake is the United States' reputation as the world's lone superpower. By Paul Bracken
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Korean Quagmire" (February 13, 2003)
Articles from the 1950s to the present offer perspective on America's role in the long history of tension between North and South Korea.
The Atlantic Monthly | December 1983
hat with traffic jams and checkpoints, the twenty-five-mile bus ride north from Seoul to the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas takes almost two hours, and so the suspense builds along the way. As the villages grow farther apart and the rice fields start to sprout concrete tank traps, you know you're getting close to the DMZ; when you cross Freedom Bridge and see Camp Liberty Bell, you know you're there. It is like a journey in a time machine, back to an era and a place where the Cold War was once hot. It threatened to heat up again, in the aftermath of the October bomb blast in Rangoon, Burma, that killed seventeen South Korean high officials and which the South Koreans believe was perpetrated by North Korean agents.
Old Ally, New Competitor
Now, when South Korea's economic success is costing the jobs of Americans, South Koreans wonder if we would fight for them again
by Sanford J. Ungar
A visit to the DMZ has two stages, one Korean and one American. Off in a remote, barren corner of the zone, it is the South Koreans' job to dramatize the continuing threat from the North. Korean soldiers take away all cameras and umbrellas and pass out dark-brown military helmets. Then they lead your group on a long underground journey. The first tunnel, built by the South Koreans, slopes sharply down; it comes complete with floor mats, handrails, and even alcoves for those who need to rest along the way. It leads, eventually, to a deep subterranean passage constructed by the North Koreans, rough-hewn but wide enough (say the South Koreans) to send a 10,000-strong mechanized division of northern soldiers through in a day. Blasting through solid rock, the North Koreans penetrated far under the southern half of the DMZ before this particular tunnel was detected, in the mid-1970s. Several similar tunnels have since been discovered, and, according to one North Korean defector, there are perhaps dozens more. No one in the South knows exactly where the others are.
Bizarre as a surprise attack by blasting cap and bulldozer might seem, the South Koreans are taking no chances. In the midst of the tunnel, a few hundred meters from the underground frontier, a lone soldier keeps guard behind barbed wire, sandbags, and a mounted machine gun. Anchored in the rock above his shoulder is a cage containing a white songbird; if it stops singing, that could mean that nerve gas is on its way through the tunnel.
A few miles away, over the hills, lie the Joint Security Area and the "truce village" of Panmunjom, where the combatants in the Korean War go through a charade of routine negotiations that consists mainly of exchanging insults. (A typical issue in dispute is whether one side's flag can be higher than the other's on the conference table.) In the bustling area just south of the actual military demarcation line, the United Nations Command—the official rubric for the American forces at the DMZ—conducts a well-rehearsed show for visitors. The strapping American GIs assigned to this precarious forward camp are specially selected, and some serve as full-time tour guides. They give a quick history of the war, run through a slide show, and point out some of the landmarks—for example, the Bridge of No Return, used on such occasions as the release, in December, 1968, of the crew of the spy ship USS Pueblo, which had been captured by the North Koreans eleven months earlier. Another locus of DMZ lore is the poplar stump at the site of the 1976 "tree-cutting incident," in which North Korean troops, wielding axes, attacked and killed two American officers and wounded nine American and South Korean soldiers who were trying to prune a tree.
Just last year a member of the elite American unit assigned to the Joint Security Area, twenty-year-old Pfc. Joseph T. White, of South St. Louis, Missouri, lured by North Korean propaganda, crossed to the other side of the 38th parallel. His defection, the first such incident since 1965, was a great embarrassment, and now White's voice can be heard occasionally on the North Korean broadcasts that fill the air in the DMZ. Most of the time those broadcasts consist of a haunting, high-pitched wail, a woman's voice that alternately sings and harangues in praise of the Communist paradise.
The DMZ is a symbol of how little genuine progress has been made in cooling tensions between the two Koreas during the past thirty years. It is a place where it is easy to imagine war breaking out at any moment. That is why in South Korea speculations about American will and military strategy are a matter of everyday conversation and why they take on much greater urgency than they do in the United States, where they can be comfortably abstract. In Korea the questions are concrete and alarmingly immediate: "Will the United States save us next time?" and "Is Washington willing to push the nuclear button, if that is what it takes?"
Such questions are enough to shock Americans, still recovering from Vietnam and lately worried over deepening military involvements in Central America and Lebanon. Not many Americans would be willing to fight another war over Korea—especially given the reputation of the current South Korean regime. The South Koreans realize this, and though the shooting down of a Korean civilian jet liner by the Soviet Union in September has no doubt temporarily strengthened Korean-American ties, South Koreans will continue to be haunted by uncertainty over America's post-Vietnam resolve. This anxiety is only one of many problems now straining an alliance that has been at the center of U.S. foreign policy, if sometimes quietly so, for more than three decades.
ost Americans probably know very little about Korea. Those above a certain age may remember it as the scene of an ugly postscript to World War II in which an uncle or cousin was called up, or recalled, to fight. Younger people, if they learned anything at all about the Korean peninsula, rushed past it toward the end of a high school history course; still younger ones may wind up confusing it with Vietnam, 1,500 miles and many cultures to the southwest.
More than 60 percent of all South Koreans were born after the end of the Korean War, but, in contrast to their American peers, they have had an education in which the Korean-American connection is central; by now, it is deeply imbedded in their consciousness.
Having served as a battleground for the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, the Confucian monarchy of Korea became a protectorate of Japan in 1905, and five years later was completely absorbed as a Japanese colony. The brutal Japanese occupation ended only in 1945, with Japan's defeat in the Pacific War. The Allies had agreed at wartime conferences that Korea should be free of the Japanese, but the transition to independence proved complicated. As elsewhere, the United States and the Soviet Union shared the postwar occupation duties (the country being divided, in this case, along an arbitrary line on the map suggested by two young American lieutenant colonels, one of them Dean Rusk, later secretary of state), and totally different regimes emerged under the influence of the two great powers. Kim Il Sung, a young man who had served in the Soviet Army, was installed by the Kremlin at the head of a government in the North, where Korea shares a short stretch of border with the USSR. In the South an elderly Princeton graduate named Syngman Rhee emerged as the leader. Both men talked of unifying the country, but their frames of reference were so different as to be irreconcilable. By 1948, Korea had become two separate countries, implacably hostile to each other.
There is still dispute in some circles over just how the Korean War began, but the version generally accepted in the West (and the one regarded as gospel in South Korea) is that on June 25, 1950, the People's Army of North Korea launched a surprise attack across the 38th parallel. Despite Rhee's earlier aggressive talk, such as a boast that the southern forces "could take Pyongyang [the northern capital] in three days," it was Seoul that fell within three days.
The United States reacted not only with shock but also with some degree of guilt. Earlier, worried by the chaos of Korean politics and put off by Rhee, Washington had denied the South Koreans tanks and other heavy weapons; and at a crucial moment in 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had given a speech defining vital American interests in a way that seemed to exclude Korea. Within five days of the North Korean invasion, President Harry S. Truman contradicted that definition and committed the war-weary American nation to what would become a symbolic struggle against communism. The troops that came to South Korea's aid fought under the flag of the United Nations (and included soldiers from Europe, Asia, and Africa), but most of them were American. In a risky but brilliant piece of strategy, General Douglas MacArthur turned to sea and air power to make up for disastrous losses on the ground; his landing at Inchon surprised the North Koreans behind their own lines, and within a few months he had liberated Seoul and returned it to Rhee.
Unfortunately, MacArthur soon fell for Rhee's dream of reuniting Korea by force, and his drive north turned into a debacle when, on November 26, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops entered the war on North Korea's side. The rest of the struggle was full of disasters—including MacArthur's unseemly public squabbles with Truman over whether to strike back at Chinese targets with nuclear weapons. There ensued a long, withering war of attrition, ending with an armistice that took two years to negotiate and only confirmed the division of Korea into two enemy states, which had about the same boundaries as when the war began.
hirty years later, South Koreans from all walks of life continue to express their gratitude to visiting Americans. "We're still free and still Korean because of American sacrifices," says one official; "your people came here and died for a principle." South Koreans offer gifts and extend to Americans courtesies that go far beyond what even their Oriental culture would normally require. And they regard the 39,000 U.S. troops stationed in their country—who cost the American taxpayers $1.4 billion a year—as a crucial insurance policy.
There is a fundamental asymmetry in the relationship, of course, the United States being far more important to South Korea than South Korea can ever be to the United States. But the American interest is still strong and clear. Korea is a strategically significant peninsula, located in a part of the world where great-power rivalry is acute. If the Soviet Union or North Korea controlled the entire peninsula, then Japan, at its closest point only thirty-five miles away, would also be threatened. The presence of American forces in South Korea makes it easier for the United States to defend Japan in the event of a sea embargo or an air attack, and to influence the outcome of, or perhaps even prevent, any other conflict in East Asia.
But South Korea has also become important to the United States in its own right. The annual trade between the two countries now totals about $12 billion, with a roughly equal balance in the flow, and U.S. investment is growing. South Korea is an established market for American goods, and although U.S. labor unions lament the loss of American jobs, American consumers benefit from the availability of generally high-quality Korean products at relatively low prices. The friendship of the South Korean government is increasingly a mixed blessing, but Washington has gained over time from Seoul's political affinity with the United States. Certainly it has been an advantage for American policy-makers in recent years to know that Japan, South Korea, and even, at times, China, whatever differences they may have among themselves, regard the United States as a common friend.
Ironically, South Korea matters more to the United States today than it did at the time of the Korean War—all the more reason to sustain a commitment that has cost the U.S. billions of dollars in aid and more than 33,000 lives.
orea was in ruins after the war, one of the most destructive conflicts in modern history. Both North and South had suffered enormous numbers of casualties—at least a million dead on each side—and their economic and social systems had collapsed. Having changed hands several times in the course of the fighting, Seoul was devastated; many of its buildings were empty and much of its population had to beg food from American forces in order to avoid starvation. Overall, more than half of South Korea's industry had been destroyed, and the per capita annual income south of the DMZ was a mere $134.
The U.S. Congress, which included Korean War veterans and veterans' relatives and friends, took a generous view of the need to rebuild a country that owed its survival to the United States and that did not mind saying so. As a result, South Korea received vast amounts of American aid (as well as some supplements from, other countries), for economic reconstruction and for the creation of a strong, enduring military machine. The hope was that South Korea would become a new model for the Third World, refuting Marxist rhetoric by demonstrating that development could occur successfully along free-enterprise lines. The American business community became enthusiastic about Korea too, convinced that there would be benefits for all concerned,
South Korea has succeeded economically beyond its sponsors' most ambitious dreams, to the point where its success has complicated its standing with its friends. American veterans of the Korean War would scarcely recognize the place. Development began to take off in the early 1960s, and several five-year plans later the nation has outgrown the "developing" category and (along with Brazil, Taiwan, and Singapore) is a prototype of the "newly industrialized countries." Indeed, South Korea has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with an annual per capita income approaching $1,700. The latest projection from the Korea Development Institute is that the country's gross national product will have increased by a remarkable 8.1 percent in 1983.
The boom has been fueled by the South Korean government's encouragement and funding of heavy industry, which has helped the country compete, often on cutthroat terms, in international trade. In sectors like textiles, South Korea has been a runaway success, taking its toll not only in such obvious places as the United States and Great Britain but also in Japan, where perhaps a third of the jobs in textiles have been lost to "cheap imports" from Korea and Taiwan. But the most daunting challenge to other economies comes from the gigantic new South Korean conglomerates, monolithic enterprises that do business around the world virtually free of domestic regulation and restriction.
The biggest is the Hyundai Group (hyundai is Korean for "modern"). It makes cars, locomotives, and offshore oil-drilling platforms; it manufactures paints, cement, and wooden building materials; it designs highways, railroads, and bridges; and it claims to run the largest shipyard in the world. Hyundai is the creation of Chung Ju Yung, a modern-day Korean folk hero who walked 150 miles to Seoul from his native village at the age of sixteen to take his first job as a day laborer. Now sixty-seven, Chung has 135,000 employees and a privately held business empire that extends to forty-two overseas offices, located everywhere from Seattle to Sydney, from Bogota to Baghdad.
Hyundai's base of operations is in Ulsan, on Korea's southeastern coast. Ulsan might be described more accurately as a company province than as a company town. The shipbuilding division has already turned out 260 ships, including many supertankers. Hyundai has also built thousands of apartments and hundreds of houses (which are rented or sold to employees at below-market rates), not to mention primary and secondary schools, a technical college, and an arena for the practice of the martial art of Tae Kwon Do. With little reason to go anywhere else, Hyundai employees act out the Korean work ethic, putting in six-day weeks and taking annual vacations restricted to three days and four nights.
South Korea's new prosperity has been accompanied by a phenomenal growth in its population. Some 40 million people now live in a country the size of Indiana. That works out to about 1,000 people per square mile, the highest population density on earth. (If the United States were as densely, populated, it would have 3.8 billion people.) Government officials, finally alarmed over the problem, are scrambling to find ways to persuade couples to have only one or two children.
Nowhere is the crowding more apparent than in Seoul, which has become one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of 9 million and a density of 36,000 people per square mile (in comparison, New York City has 23,000 people per square mile). A workshop of chaotic, virtually unregulated growth, Seoul is a sprawling metropolis. There is new construction on almost every block, the din of traffic is never out of earshot, the air is astonishingly polluted, and the business climate is so overheated that Koreans and their would-be partners from all over the Western world can be seen and heard cutting deals everywhere—on street corners, in hotel corridors and elevators, in taxicabs—at any hour of the day or night.
American influence is ubiquitous. South Korean disc jockeys play rock music and American movie themes on their radio programs. In the commercial portrait galleries in Seoul's underground arcades, the subjects include Douglas MacArthur, Lyndon Johnson, Bing Crosby, and Brooke Shields, but not Harry Truman (who, after all, stopped MacArthur from seeking a real victory in the war) or Jimmy Carter (who tried to withdraw some American troops from South Korea in the late 1970s). Ronald Reagan, who as a candidate and as President has said all the right things about Korea, and who is locally a favorite movie star to boot, is, of course, a best seller.
South Korean intellectuals and technocrats still regard the United States as the place to go for higher education. There are 300 U.S.-trained Ph.D.s in the army alone, and every other area of government and business has been thoroughly penetrated by people who have studied or worked, or both, in America. One result has been to create South Korean institutions and bureaucracies that are almost clones of their American counterparts. Indeed, South Korea today is in many respects a caricature of the United States.
he Americans who have helped shape the new South Korea are gratified, even flattered, by the country's emergence as a full-fledged actor on the world scene and by its growing economic prowess. But when the student becomes smarter and more adept than the teacher, there is bound to be some trouble.
The temptation for South Korea to flaunt its economic success is understandable, if sometimes unwise from a public relations standpoint. The Daewoo Corporation, one of Hyundai's major competitors, bought five pages of advertising in a recent issue of Fortune, to boast of its ability to build a seawater treatment plant in the Arctic, mobile cranes in Europe, and a tire factory in Sudan. On the last page, three Daewoo executives were shown wearing sweatshirts from the places where they obtained their know-how—the University of Wisconsin, Columbia University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
An American visitor to the Hyundai shipyard is readily told of the efficient, inexpensive work done there to repair ships from the U.S. Seventh Fleet, but he comes away wondering how the displaced workers from the shut-down U.S. Navy yards in Boston and San Francisco, not to mention their congressional representatives, would feel if they knew. It is hard to be sure whether the Koreans have gained any technological advantage from repairing American ships, but it is an open secret that they have reaped military and economic benefits from their familiarity with other American materiel. With the permission of the U.S. government, the South Korean military has copied the American M-16 rifle and done a substantial business selling the copies to the governments of the Philippines and Thailand. Some American officials believe that the Koreans have gone beyond the authorized sales to those countries and, to keep their assembly lines going, are now selling American-designed weapons elsewhere. Since there is nothing to be done about it anyway, the Americans who suspect the violations just ignore them.
American industries are unhappy over the benefits South Korea has reaped from its participation in the U.S. "generalized system of preferences" (GSP) program, aid through trade that provides tariff relief to help developing countries expand their industrial bases, diversify their exports, and earn more foreign exchange. A total of 140 countries get help from the GSP program for some 3,000 categories of imports, but South Korea has been near the top of the list of beneficiaries since the GSP's inception, in the mid-1970s. In 1982, it was second only to Taiwan; more than a billion dollars' worth of otherwise dutiable South Korean products were admitted duty-free, costing the U.S. Treasury at least $55 million.
But potentially the most dramatic evidence of South Korean competitiveness with American industry is coming soon, when the Hyundai Motor Company begins to export its high-performance, low-cost cars to the United States. Its subcompact Pony, a comfortable, practical, and inexpensive car, already accounts for 70 percent of South Korea's domestic automobile market. When the slightly larger Stellar has been modified to meet U.S. emission-control standards, it will be a formidable rival not only to American cars but also to the Japanese imports that are so controversial.
issatisfaction of a different sort is growing on the Korean side of the relationship. One reason that South Korean products compete so effectively on the world market is that wages in South Korea are generally low and working conditions often bad. The impressive per capita income figures conceal a grossly uneven distribution of wealth. Social-welfare programs are not very advanced. Not surprisingly for the ultimate free-enterprise society, South Korea is the home of a few hundred multimillionaires and millions of extremely poor people—not poor by comparison with the populations of the least-developed nations, but abject by comparison with the new elite in their own society. The sweatshops that turn out cheap Korean textiles are written off as part of the price of national development. Their American investors look the other way and pocket substantial profits.
Labor unions that have protested these conditions are accused of stirring up social unrest; as a rule, the government charges them with subversion and brutally represses them. Most unions have now been disbanded. Some companies, like the Hyundai conglomerate, have sought to deal with grievances through worker-management councils, but others, including the Korean subsidiaries of American corporations (Control Data, for example), have resorted to physical intimidation. In one notorious instance, women employees of an electronics firm who participated in a sit-down strike were attacked by thugs brought in by the employer; later, the workers, rather than their attackers, were charged with crimes.
In conversation, union activists, university faculty members and students, and Christian militants often blame the United States for these appalling circumstances. They contend that despite occasional American pressure in high-profile cases—such as that of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, who was finally released from prison in December of 1982 to obtain medical treatment in the United States—Washington has usually reacted with indifference while one South Korean military regime after another has engaged in serious human-rights abuses. As one elderly clergyman told me, "We've become convinced that the United States doesn't care about us as a people but only as a military base."
There are many U.S. bases in Korea. American troops are stationed in the heart of Seoul and along the DMZ and are scattered elsewhere around the country. The South Koreans give them complete latitude, and, under arrangements that date back to the Korean War, many of the local forces still report to American commanders. Perhaps the consideration most significant to the Pentagon is that unlike the Japanese, who are understandably skittish about the presence of nuclear weapons on their soil or in their waters; the South Korean government welcomes the weapons as part of its security guarantee.
The role of the American forces has occasionally been inflammatory. For example, they are widely believed by dissidents to have provided moral, if not physical, support to the South Korean troops that ruthlessly put down a tenday civil uprising in Kwangju in May of 1980. Kwangju is at the heart of the Cholla district, an area that has been at odds with Korean central governments for centuries. (Kim Dae Jung is only the latest of many dissidents to emerge from Cholla.) The government claims that fewer than 200 people died during the Kwangju insurrection, but unofficial sources say the toll may have been four or five times higher, and they insist that the United States is partly responsible. There is still dispute over whether the American commander in Korea at the time, General John A. Wickham, Jr. (now the U.S. Army Chief of Staff), actually released Korean regiments under his command for "security work" in Kwangju. What is clear is that Wickham raised no known objection to the way the South Koreans handled the uprising, and that a few months later he suggested publicly that the Koreans were not ready for democracy.
The Kwangju incident—so controversial that more than three years later South Korean government officials still try to dissuade visitors from traveling to Cholla—played a key role in the consolidation of power by South Korea's latest military strong man, Chun Doo Hwan. There is an aura of mystery about Chun, a political general who emerged on top during the jockeying for power following the assassination of President Park Chung Hee, by the chief of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, in 1979. He is regarded less as a ruler with his own clear vision of South Korea's future than as the front man for a particular military clique, all of whose members were in the eleventh class of the Korean Military Academy (which is styled after West Point). One of the most controversial aspects of Chun's regime is the role in national affairs played by his wife, a socially prominent woman with excellent business connections. Several of her relatives have been implicated in financial scandals.
Chun says he would like to be the first postwar leader of Korea to leave office peacefully, and he has promised to step down in 1988 after arranging elections to choose his successor. But in the meantime he has, if anything, tightened up the political system, which had begun to loosen a bit during the last years of the Park regime. Political forces aspiring to genuine democracy are banned from the National Assembly, where the officially tolerated "opposition" now consists of small parties that quarrel over details but go along with most of what Chun wants.
The press, once the last redoubt of democratic opposition in South Korea, has virtually given up under government pressure. Earlier this year, during the long hunger strike of dissident leader Kim Young Sam, which was widely reported overseas, not a word about his actions appeared in Seoul's mass-circulation daily newspapers. When Kim gave up his protest and held a news conference, even that went largely unreported.
In another echo of America, journalism has become a popular field of study among young Koreans. Most of their professors teach a theory of pluralism that they learned in the United States but that few of the students will ever have an opportunity to practice at home. Those who try, whether working for newspapers, magazines, or state-supported or commercial broadcasting, are invariably fired on government orders. Editors who resist such orders find their own careers endangered.
Many young Koreans resent the Americanization of their society. Seoul, after all, was established as a center of culture and government in 1392, a hundred years before Christopher Columbus discovered North America, and it is humiliating to see so much of the old and the traditional replaced by the new and the cost-efficient from across the Pacific. Some Korean intellectuals espouse "dependency theory," a neo-Marxist strain in political science that holds that the noncommunist nations of the developing world, for all their pretenses of independence, are dependent on an international economic system dominated by the powerful capitalist nations. The theory also argues that the new elites in nations like South Korea, in league with that system, suppress the majority of their own people.
Perhaps the greatest blasphemy, in South Korean terms, is the growing, if surreptitious, popularity of a revisionist explanation for the origins of the Korean War. Outlined long ago by the maverick American journalist I. F. Stone, it holds that the southern regime of Syngman Rhee, with the connivance of U. S. officials, may have provoked the North Korean attack of 1950, and that the Americans, in any event, welcomed the attack as an opportunity to take an anticommunist stand at the start of the Cold War, whatever the cost in Korean lives. Needless to say, South Koreans who take that view have long since given up feeling grateful to the United States. The arson attack on the American cultural center in the port city of Pusan in March, 1982, was a demonstration of their attitude—and an especially symbolic one at that, since Pusan was the headquarters of the American-supported wartime regime after it was driven out of Seoul.
efenders of the Chun government invariably justify its excesses by pointing to the continuing threat from north of the DMZ. It is not difficult to be convinced that such a threat exists.
Hardly a month passes that the South Koreans do not announce the killing or capture of North Korean infiltrators. They have been discovered floating in boats on the Imjin River in the DMZ, swimming in frogman suits off the Japan Sea coast, and, in one notorious case, hiding in the hills outside Seoul, just a few miles from the Blue House, where the president lives. South Korean paranoia focuses on the possibility that some raiders have slipped through the net and are posing as law-abiding South Koreans, until the hour comes round to strike.
That fear guarantees a continual state of alert in the South. Air-raid drills remain a routine feature of life in Seoul, and on several recent occasions, when Chinese and North Korean military planes penetrated South Korean airspace, the capital was thrown into panic—until it became clear that the planes were being flown by pilots who wanted to defect.
Still in power in North Korea after more than thirty-five years, Kim Il Sung is one of the world's most unpredictable despots, and his unsavory regime has few defenders anywhere. It, too, has managed a certain amount of reconstruction since the Korean War, but, according to Western estimates, North Koreans today have an annual per capita income of less than $800. The disparity is probably one reason Kim has refused to participate in any program for the reunification of families divided by the armistice line, or for the re-establishment of any sort of communication across that line. Indeed, North Korean radios and television sets are said to be manufactured in such a way that they will not receive broadcasts from South Korea and the outside world.
By all accounts, both the Soviets and the Chinese have long since given up any pretense of influence over Kim, and they are supposedly now concentrating on trying to exert some control over the selection of his successor. Kim's official choice for that spot is said to be his son, Kim Jong Il, but Kim Jr.'s dominance over several rival stepbrothers is apparently far from assured.
The widespread perception of aggressive irrationality in the North serves the short-term purposes of the South Korean government. It informs the national spirit, and it helps explain why South Korea spends nearly $4 billion a year on defense to keep up with the North Koreans, who are generally believed to have the largest standing army, relative to total population, in the world.
The political orthodoxy in South Korea is that the nation must work toward peaceful reunification. There is even a ministry in the Seoul government whose formal mission is to achieve that elusive goal. But each time North-South negotiations have gotten under way, sponsored by the Red Cross, they have broken up almost immediately, and Kim's intransigence seems to be to blame. His most recent gambit, several years ago, was to say that he would resume discussions with the South only on condition that he be allowed to select all the members of the southern negotiating team.
South Korea has persistently sought to make mischief for North Korea by trying to persuade its two staunchest supporters, the Soviet Union and China, to expand their links with the South. The Seoul government has sent people to various international meetings in the Soviet Union in recent years, and now the Soviets have begun to respond: last year representatives of Tass attended a convention of Asian journalists in South Korea, and a Soviet museum director went there for an archaeological conference. There has been similar progress with China: a South Korean agricultural official was admitted to China this year, the first such visit since 1949. Even after the Soviet attack on the Korean jetliner, and even as the Seoul government was orchestrating large-scale anti-Russian demonstrations in response, officials said they had decided not to abandon their "nordpolitik" of working for better relations with the Chinese and the Soviets.
s long as there are two Koreas, in different international camps and hostile to each other South Korea will face a constant need to establish and prove its legitimacy as a country. A number of symbolic tests loom during the next few years. The North Koreans did their best to hold down attendance at an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in Seoul in October of this year. (Indeed, a diplomat from Pyongyang was caught trying to bribe a Finnish parliamentary leader to abstain from voting to hold the meeting in Seoul.) More important are the Asian Games scheduled for Seoul in 1986 and the Olympics in 1988, prospects that have added to the South Korean construction boom. South Korea also looks forward to a visit from Pope John Paul II, set for next spring; in exchange for the prestige, the government is prepared to run the risk that the pontiff will side with the outspoken political dissidents within the large South Korean Catholic Church.
South Korean officials realize that to achieve greater legitimacy the country must improve its image overseas, especially in the United States. They are distressed that so much of the American press coverage of their country focuses on human-rights violations. Yet the South Korean government seems to be unaware that it invites more such coverage by restricting the foreign press—expelling reporters whose work it does not like and barring the entry of others, often on specious grounds. This in turn comes to be portrayed as a violation of freedom of the press.
The South Korean image in the United States seems to be getting steadily worse. The efforts in the mid-1970s by Korean businessman and socialite Tongsun Park to buy influence with Congress on behalf of the Seoul government made an ugly scandal. Today many Americans associate Korea with the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, whose Unification Church is widely regarded as a scam and who has himself been convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to prison. Moon's church and other, more obscure Korean religious groups have provided many South Koreans with a route around American immigration laws, permitting them to seek admission to the United States as ministers, a category on which there is no quota.
The number of Koreans and Korean-Americans living in the United States is now estimated at 700,000; about a third of them are in the Los Angeles area. Some of the Korean immigrants to this country came originally from North Korea, and so it is not surprising that in recent years the Pyongyang government has sought to make contact with them, dangling the prospect of information about family members who have not been permitted to leave the North. The South Korean government is deeply suspicious of such contact. Apparently with U.S. government permission, it has put police officers and intelligence officials into its consulates in Los Angeles and New York to monitor what it considers to be the subversion of the Korean-American community. According to some Korean-Americans, the actions of these Seoul government agents on American soil, if widely known, would be fuel for another scandal.
hatever the cause, the American sense of loyalty toward South Korea has slipped sharply over the years. William Watts, of Potomac Associates, in Washington, who studies the attitudes of Americans and Asians toward each other, has estimated that only a third of the U.S. public would be willing to defend South Korea today if that country were attacked. A recent study by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations showed that on a "thermometer" measuring American warmth toward other countries, South Korea scored well below the middle, just behind South Africa and barely ahead of Syria. (Still, most Americans seem to oppose the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, and congressional discontent forced Jimmy Carter to cancel his plan to bring many of them home.)
In an effort to shore up American support, the South Korean government is increasingly turning to the right, which will not credit complaints about South Korea's human-rights record. That puts the political defense of the Seoul regime in the hands of people like Republican Senator Jesse Helms, of North Carolina, and the late Democratic Congressman Larry McDonald, of Georgia, who had just been elected president of the John Birch Society when he died in the Korean jetliner shot down by the Soviet Union. Indeed, Helms was an organizer of a conference (to which McDonald was en route) marking the thirtieth anniversary of the U.S.-South Korean Mutual Defense Treaty—a circumstance that caused moderate American politicians with a genuine interest in Korean security to stay away. In other words, the South Koreans have narrowed their political base in the United States, and they seem unaware of the potential consequences.
Yet South Korea and the United States are locked in an embrace that neither side can break. As a Korean Christian activist put it recently, "This is the one country in the world that cannot possibly say, 'Yankee, Go Home.'" Without the United States, South Korea cannot survive as an independent nation; indeed, some strategists maintain, it is only the presence of American forces on the peninsula that deters the North Koreans from attacking again. But as long as the United States is in South Korea, a dissident argued, it should befriend other elements besides Pentagon-trained generals and the business elite; and it should promote democracy.
American diplomats in South Korea say they do just that, up to the point where their suggestions might be regarded as meddling rather than as friendly advice. But when they sit in meetings trying to figure out how to persuade the South Koreans to liberalize their system, they complain about the myth of American influence over decisions in Seoul. Their impression is that the people who rule South Korea know how to get just what they want from the United States without having to sacrifice much in return. And the United States—afraid that it will appear to be abandoning or weakening a loyal friend—is trapped into giving it.
Certainly much of the rest of the world operates on the assumption that South Korea is an American satellite. The Soviet Union, in explaining its destruction of the Korean Airlines plane, insisted that the aircraft was on an espionage mission not for its own country but for the United States. To many in the Third World, it was a plausible allegation. And the Reagan Administration, while denying that it would ever use an unarmed civilian airliner for intelligence purposes, did react as if the plane had been an American one, not a Korean plane carrying sixty-two Americans among its 269 passengers. The United States seemed to feel obligated to speak on behalf of South Korea.
The Korean-American alliance is facing new tests all the time. One of the most profound has to do with the growing role of Japan in Pacific defense arrangements. Koreans bitterly remember the Japanese occupation of their country; many of them were prevented from using their own language and their own names in the Japanese effort to eradicate Korean culture. Even today, Koreans living in Japan are the object of discrimination and harassment; some families who have been there for three generations (having originally been brought over as forced laborers) are still unable to obtain Japanese citizenship. The Japanese still admit to very negative feelings about Koreans. In the public-opinion "thermometer" readings in Japan, South Korea ranks just below the Soviet Union and just above North Korea, which is at the bottom. By pressing Japan to spend more on defense and trying to bring Japan and South Korea closer together under an American security umbrella, the United States may inadvertently inflame an old animosity.
As a new generation enters Congress, the institutional American memory of the Korean War will fade. As Korean products make inroads on the U.S. marketplace, American workers will become angrier. And as the South Korean government continues to insist that political repression and economic exploitation are somehow prerequisites of domestic stability, a growing number of Americans may grow uneasy with supporting a regime that is precariously unpopular with its own citizens.
The central question is whether the current rulers of South Korea can be persuaded to reform the country's political system in order to attract wider domestic and international support. Virtually all the genuine opposition leaders—whether in exile, in prison, or under surveillance—are anti-communist advocates of democracy and a free-market economy, albeit one with a more human face.
For the Korean leadership, the challenge is to learn to work with its current critics before they are pushed aside by an angrier, more militant generation. If South Korea can move gradually toward a more open society, as Spain and Greece and other authoritarian states have done in recent years, it may be able to avoid the kind of crisis that has engulfed other American dependents. For the United States government and the American people, the challenge is how to encourage a democratic evolution in Korea and display friendship toward the South Korean people, as well as due concern over their legitimate security needs, without becoming irrevocably identified with the regime in power.
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Copyright © 1983 by Sanford J. Ungar. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1983; Old Ally, New Competitor; Volume 252, No. 6; pp. 14-28.