The Burden of Impotence

Dependence on the United States has led the South Koreans to magnify our power over their domestic affairs  

The riots in South Korea this summer were more anti-Korean-government than anti-anything-else, but the United States was clearly villain number two. For what seemed like hours on end, students would chant the main anti-government slogan, a strong four-beat "Tok che tah do." This means, approximately, "Throw the bums out"—or, in the more elaborate translation one student gave me, "Oppose President Chun Doo Hwan's dictatorship and his decision of April 13 to postpone constitutional reform until after the Olympic Games in Seoul next year." The next most common chant, which foreigners could understand without translation, was another four-beater: "Yan kee go home." Apart from riot police and a few other officials, foreign reporters seemed to be the only people in Seoul allowed to buy gas masks, for protection against the tear gas that enveloped the downtown and immobilized mere civilians through much of the month of June. As they mingled among the protesters, reporters from Britain, Australia, and Europe went out of their way to explain that they were not Americans, so that the students would stop yelling "Yankee go home" at them.

Several Koreans told me I should not make too much of the country's nascent anti-Americanism. For one thing, it was noticeable largely because of its man bites-dog novelty value. Korea has depended so heavily on the United States for so many years that everyone notices it when Koreans say anything bad about America. After only a month in the country I was surprised whenever a Korean said anything good about the Soviet Union, North Korea, or, above all, the former colonial oppressor, Japan.

Moreover, some degree of anti-Americanism in Korea seems understandable, natural, and arguably even healthy for both sides. The United States is still an enormous presence in Koreans' daily lives, as it was thirty-five years ago, when Korea was a devastated country with all the trees blasted off the hillsides and families desperately scrounging for food in the GIs' garbage bins. Korea is not yet rich but it is far from desperate, and one inevitable step in its development is figuring out just what its new relationship with America should be.

American soldiers are more visible and unignorable in downtown Seoul than in any other Asian capital. Koreas' own (government-controlled) TV stations are off the air between ten in the morning and five-thirty or six at night. The only all-day and very-late-night TV programs are on the Armed Forces Korea Network, which broadcasts American sitcoms, game shows, movies, sports, and network news. The Korean government did its best to control domestic news coverage of the protests, with strict guidelines about what developments the press should play up or ignore. But its control was heavily, even fatally, compromised by AFKN, which carried news reports from the Today show, Nightline, and the network newscasts twelve hours after they were shown in the United States.

The United States concentrates many of its troops in spartan, no-nonsense quarters near the demilitarized zone, but there are enough left over to fill an enormous, comfortable rearguard camp in Seoul. The Yongsan military installation, once the home of the Japanese Imperial Forces, now occupies about as much space as Seoul's entire downtown business district. In a city where land is almost as scarce and expensive as it is in Tokyo, the grandeur of the Yongsan golf course, swimming pools, commissaries, schools, and 1950s-style suburban housing tracts must create at least a flicker of resentment in Koreans (as well as a surge of nostalgia in the breasts of visiting Americans—it's like The Donna Reed Show). Not many Koreans seem to endorse "Yankee go home" in a literal sense—removing the 40,000 American soldiers who beef up Korea's defense. "We still think we need the troops for our protection," one student from Seoul National University told me, between choruses of "Yan kee go home!" But it's not hard to understand why Koreans wish they didn't need the help, or why some may resent the United States precisely because of their dependence.

In other, non-military ways the United States still exerts a kind of influence in Korea that it has not had in Japan for at least thirty years, and maybe never did. From President Chun Doo Hwan and his heir apparent, Roh Tae Woo, who in their military days went to American command schools, to the newest cadre of engineers joining Daewoo or Hyundai, a very high proportion of Korea's business, government, and academic leaders have been trained in the United States. For instance, the country's most prestigious and powerful economic think tank, the Korea Development Institute, has thirty-two fellows, all of whom hold doctorates from Stanford, MIT, Chicago, or other American universities. (Many fewer powerful Koreans have gone overseas for their undergraduate degrees; one reason more haven't is that it would mean sacrificing the crucial network of classmate friendships that can be forged at Yonsei or Seoul National or Korea University. But after four years of connection-building, the right step for an ambitious Korean is to head for the United States.) This broad exposure to American education seems likely to send Korea down a different economic path from the one Japan has chosen. But it, too, naturally makes for resentment. "They don't object to my American degree," one professor, with a doctorate from Columbia, said of his students who had joined the protests. "But they ask why they never hear from people trained in Europe or Japan."

Beyond these probably unavoidable reactions to America's influence, Korea's anti-Americanism has another dimension, which illustrates some of the difficulties the United States has made for itself in becoming a world power. The main reason why Koreans are angry at America is that, like many other people around the world, they have a wildly exaggerated view of America's ability to control events. To put the point more carefully: at the moment in history when Americans are speculating about the decline of the United States as a world power, many Koreans seem to think that the United States has more influence over Korea's destiny than most Americans think it can, does, or should have.

It is difficult to say precisely what lies behind the Koreans' attitude. In large part it probably reflects the Confucian tendency to size up the participants in any encounter as Elder Brother and Younger Brother, and to look to Elder Brother to take the lead. It may be a leftover effect from the decade or so after the Second World War, when the United States really could make Koreans and others behave the way it wanted. To some extent it is normal human narcissism. Many people believe that God pays enough attention to their daily behavior, in a world of five billion human beings, to single them out for reward or punishment. It is at least as logical for Koreans to assume that the U.S. government spends half its time calibrating the signals it sends Korea.

Whatever the precise origins of this attitude, many Koreans seem reluctant to believe that anything happens by accident in U.S. foreign policy. For instance, during the same week in which Roh Tae Woo, the government's nominee for President, announced that he would accept many of the opposition's demands for reform, the command of U.S. forces in Korea changed hands. General William Livsey, who had been in charge for three years, passed his swagger stick to General Louis Menetrey, and retired. Three of the Koreans I interviewed—a salaryman at a major corporation, a professor, and a radical student—pointed out what was to them an eerily portentous fact. For the past thirty years the Korean command has traditionally been the next-to-last rung on the ladder to American military eminence; indeed, two of General Livsey's predecessors, Generals John Wickham and John Vessey, had been called home from Korea to appointments on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Could it be an accident that Livsey was being pensioned off to Georgia? Wasn't this an unmistakable indication of Washington's displeasure with Livsey, for seeming to get too close to the little-loved President Chun—and a warning signal to Chun himself?

To Koreans such implications seemed obvious, but to me they seemed obviously wrong. I doubt that any American who had seen AFKN's saturation coverage of Livsey's farewell speeches and interviews would have seen his retirement as a mystery requiring explanation or even hard thought. Although Livsey's professional reputation is said to be high, his public bearing has none of the soldier-statesman sobriety usually required for promotion to the Joint Chiefs. (I had a hard time placing what Livsey's squeaky-voiced, hillbilly speaking style reminded me of until AFKN ran an old episode of the 1950s sitcom The Real McCoys during Livsey's valedictory week. Eureka! He had modeled himself on Walter Brennan as Grandpappy Amos. Could this broadcast have been an accident?) Yet when I offered this explanation for Livsey's retirement to my Korean friends, they looked at me in pity for my innocent mind.

The overestimation of American power and overinterpretation of American behavior have implicated us in a far more serious episode: the "Kwangju incident" of 1980, which still hangs over Korean politics and, I was told, remains the single greatest source of bitter anti-American feelings.

The history of Korea's Fifth Republic, headed by President Chun, began in the fall of 1979, when President Park Chung Hee, who had himself taken power in a military coup, was assassinated by the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. Over the next six months the military solidified its control of Korean society, and Chun Doo Hwan, then a two-star general, solidified his control of the military. By the fall of 1980 he had been formally sworn in as President, with a new constitution. But before that, in mid-May, the military authorities imposed martial law, Protests ensued, and in the city of Kwangju, in southwestern Korea, demonstrators took control of much of the city, including its police armory. The military government sent in a "special forces" combat unit to put down the uprising, and in the carnage that followed somewhere between 200 (the government's claim) and 2,000 people (the protesters') were killed. The continuing uncertainty about the number is one illustration of how chaotic Kwangju was.

The Kwangju incident has tremendous staying power in Korean politics. For instance, as soon as Roh Tae Woo announced that he was willing to compete in an open election, speculation shifted to how and when the Chun-Roh party would "atone" for Kwangju. When I asked Koreans why it remained so important, they said that it combined several of the most powerful symbols in Korean life. It involved regional conflict, in a country made up of what were once three separate kingdoms. (The southwestern Cholla region, including Kwangju, was once the kingdom of Paekche and often feels shortchanged by the national government. The best known opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung, is from Cholla.) It juxtaposed a traditionally admired activity, student protest, with one that Koreans vehemently denounce as "illegitimate": seizing power through military force. (The nation's history is coup-ridden, but Koreans seem to resent this more than some Latin Americans do.) The martyrs of Kwangju also seem to carry more emotional weight here than, say, the vastly more numerous victims of political protest in the Philippines carry there. Tens of thousands of Koreans turned out for the funeral of the one student killed in the June protests.

As the man who was in charge of the military when soldiers killed hundreds of civilians, President Chun carries the strongest taint from Kwangju. But the episode also scars the United States, because of the near-universal perception among Koreans that the United States condoned the slaughter, or could have prevented it if it really cared.

This accusation probably sounds as far-fetched to most Americans as speculation about the Livsey "case" does. However, it rests on a partly accurate public impression: that the commanding American general in Korea controls Korean as well as U.S. troops. Under the agreement establishing a Combined Forces Command, or CFC, the United States does control some Korean troops—but only some of them, and only in limited circumstances, mainly connected with repelling an invasion from the north. The special-forces unit that did most of the killing in Kwangju was not, and never has been, under CFC—that is, American—control. Chun and his fellow generals ordered troops into Kwangju, and they did not need America's blessing. "We did not even know they had gone into the city of Kwangju for thirty-six hours," Thomas H. Dunlop, who now heads the Korea office at the U.S. State Department, said in an interview with a Korean paper this summer. Several days after the initial slaughter, when the Korean government sent the 20th Infantry Division into Kwangju, where it made a more successful and far less bloody attempt to control the city, the government did notify the American commander that it was removing the division from CFC control. The United States posed no objection, and William Glesteen, who was the ambassador at the time, has since argued that the move was necessary to restore order and keep more lives from being lost. But even if the United States had objected, the decision was the Koreans' to make. "Whatever a command authority of the sovereign state wants to do [with] its own military forces, it can do," Dunlop said. "There was never any operational control over any forces that operated in the Kwangju incident by an American."

The Kwangju incident remains engrossing in many ways—though not as a legal question, since Korea's authority over the troops, and America's lack of control, seem so cut and dried. But when I mentioned such technicalities to Koreans who complained about the U.S. role in Kwangju, they brushed them aside, as mere debating points. Surely the United States could have kept such a thing from happening if it truly valued democracy and human rights.

I wasn't in Korea in 1980, and I can't prove that these suspicions are untrue. But the assumption of American omnipotence behind the questions intrigues me. The Koreans are angry at the United States because it "let" the killings happen. (If God is kind, how can he let the world live in pain?) The Americans who were on the scene viewed their power, and the Koreans', in a different light. Korea is, after all, an independent country, they said. Surely we could not have kept the generals from taking steps that they considered essential to their survival.

A similar split perspective developed during this summer's riots. After Roh and Chun offered compromises that calmed the protest for a while, State Department officials in Washington were quoted as congratulating themselves on their skillful "management" of the crisis. This fed the general Korean perception that America had finally decided to make its pet dictator behave. But the American diplomats on the scene struck a different tone. In their background briefings they emphasized the principles for which America stood: for non-military solutions, against martial law, hoping for compromise. But the United States couldn't run Korean politics for the Koreans, they said. When the compromise was struck, they said it was the Koreans' own work. Chun and Roh were aware of America's position, but they had finally agreed to reforms for their own reasons. (The other alternative, martial law, would have prolonged the protests and jeopardized the Olympic Games, to the lasting embarrassment of Korea and Chun.) Maybe these more modest-sounding Americans were fooling themselves (and me), but their view struck me as consistent with what most of their countrymen would think.

The burden of seeming too powerful, in Korea and elsewhere, will presumably lighten by itself. In Japan it's long since ceased to be America's biggest image problem, and Korea, too, will soon come to realize the breadth of its own power and the restrictions on ours. Yet as long as America remains both a world power and a democracy—as long as we have interests around the world but are squeamish about running pure puppet regimes—we will have to answer to the secular version of the "just God-unjust world" paradox. One way to resolve it is to renounce our interests, as in Vietnam after 1975. Another is to renounce our squeamishness, as in Nicaragua after 1980. Perhaps the best is to speak up for what we believe in without pretending that the outcome is within our control, as in Korea this year.