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
The Korean Quagmire
February 13, 2003
ith international focus pointed almost exclusively toward Iraq, many feel that recent alarming developments in the Koreas should be getting equal attention. In the last month North Korea has resumed the production of nuclear-weapons material, and the international community is scrambling to respond. Meanwhile, countries in North Asia have expressed fear of North Korean missile attacks, and—as has been the case for decades—South Korea has mixed feelings of appreciation and resentment toward the 40,000 American troops who are stationed there. After half a century, conditions may again be ripe for trouble on the Korean peninsula. A sampling of Atlantic articles from the 1950s to the present offers perspective on the long history of tension between North and South Korea, and on the United States's sometimes inflammatory presence in the region.
After World War II the United States and Russia agreed to a program of postwar leadership whereby several of the countries broken by war would be divided in half and occupied in one section by Russia and in the other by the United States. Thus, in 1948, the Korean peninsula was split into two hostile bodies.
The separate Koreas clashed, and in 1950 North Korean troops stormed into South Korea and took control of Seoul, South Korea's capitol. A quick American response pushed the Communist troops—a strong force made especially imposing with extensive Chinese backing—back into the North. After several years of fighting, a grim truce was finally declared.
In September 1953, months after the fighting had ended, Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall critiqued America's role in the war in an Atlantic essay called "Our Mistakes in Korea."
According to Marshall, the decision to intervene in Korea had been made by an overly ambitious Administration influenced by the aura of prosperity and promise of the early 1950s. The country entered into the conflict, he wrote, "with an air of excessive expectation based upon estimates which were inspired by wishful optimism." We could do anything, American leaders thought, and we could do it easily.
Despite the confidence of the military and the White House the nation at large was still smarting from the last great military battle. World War II had shattered countless American families, and many felt that a disagreement in North Asia was not an appropriate justification for risking the lives of more American soldiers. At issue, after all, was a small border skirmish. More war, Marshall wrote, was a "tender subject in the United States—this one of how many men should be sent to a rifle line where death ever presses close." The idea of sending troops to protect Seoul, according to Marshall, caused "too many Americans to grow emotional about it."
Marshall suggested that it was Americans' pervasive reluctance to participate that had doomed the effort. Without strong domestic support for the war, the U.S. Army had sent only a conservative number of troops into conflict. And a novel strategy of "rotation," whereby military personnel were cycled in and out of combat at quick intervals, resulted in an inexperienced and ill-prepared force.
As a result of the uneasy stalemate that ended the war, America now remained committed to protecting the South against the simmering threat of Communist North Korea and its backer, Red China. The U.S., Marshall explained, would need to act as "backer, banker, and supplier" to South Korea. And unfortunately the U.S. would gain little in return: "Korea is a strategically profitless area for the United States, of no use as a defensive base, a springboard to nowhere, a sinkhole for our military power." But if America were to falter in its stewardship of the armistice, South Korea would be left a "hopeless derelict," a nation "savaged" by its "Communist neighbors."
Thirty years later, in "Old Ally, New Competitor" (December 1983), The Atlantic's Washington editor Sanford J. Ungar visited South Korea and offered an update on the status of the relationship between the U.S. and the country it had pledged to protect.
"What with traffic jams and check points," he wrote, "the twenty-five-mile bus ride north from Seoul to the demilitarized zone ... takes almost two hours, and the suspense builds along the way." He continued his article by describing the long-irritated nerve of the dispute between the countries: the border between North and South known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
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 a 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?"
Ungar, like Marshall, was writing at a time when the U.S. was still feeling shaken up by its traumatic experiences in a recent conflict. Discussion about America's commitment to the peninsula, he explained, was "enough to shock Americans still recovering from Vietnam and lately worried over deepening military involvement in Central America and Lebanon."
"Not many Americans," Ungar therefore concluded, "would be willing to fight another war over Korea—especially given the reputation of the current South Korean regime." Indeed, the South at that time had gained notoriety for corruption and human rights abuses. Officials were said to have paid for influence in Washington. And it was galling to Americans that at a time when U.S. factories were closing doors and the domestic economy was stagnating, more and more goods in American stores were labeled "Made in Korea."
Meanwhile, many South Koreans were beginning to resent the constant presence of American soldiers, the growing Americanization of their own society, and their pervasive feeling of dependence on a superpower that they felt might simply be using them to some extent as a base for military operations.
Despite their mutual misgivings, however, Ungar emphasized that Korea and the United States are "locked in an embrace that neither side can break." Ungar quoted one Korean, "This is the one country that cannot possibly say, 'Yankee, Go home.'"
Four years later, in the summer of 1987, South Koreans rioted and protested not only against their own government but also against their American protectors. James Fallows went to South Korea to investigate the roots of the anti-American sentiment. His article on the subject, "The Burden of Omnipotence," appeared in October of that year. More than in any other Asian country, Fallows pointed out, the American military had an extremely visible presence in South Korea. In a country with a population density greater than that of any other country in the world, American troops stationed in Seoul enjoyed a sprawling compound with a golf course, lakes, and housing of 1950s-America-style proportion and comfort.
Moreover, Fallows explained, South Koreans regularly saw their top business and professional leaders spend years in America earning Ph.D.s from universities such as Stanford, MIT, and the University of Chicago. They returned not only more powerful, but more American as well.
But, Fallows argued, South Korean animosity toward the United States was perhaps less significant than the heavy media coverage of it led us to believe. South Korea, he wrote, has "depended so heavily on the United States for so many years that everyone notices it when Koreans say anything bad about America."
He suggested that the reasons for South Korea's resentment might even diminish over time of their own accord:
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.
Ten years later Bruce Cumings's "Time To End the Korean War" (February 1997) examined the post-Gulf War status of U.S.-Korean relations. With the Cold War over and the Soviet Union no longer a major threat, the U.S. had begun to become more concerned about small states that it perceived as dangerously armed and unpredictable.
The Gulf War came along and gave to the post-Cold War world a new category of international miscreant: the rogue state. From the American perspective North Korea had always been a renegade, outside the boundaries of any international regime of control as defined by the West, but the collapse of the USSR turned it loose. As the only superpower, the United States found it necessary to monitor a much more unruly Third World than had existed in the bipolar era, and North Korea was newly prominent among problem countries.
Our perception that North Korea is a highly dangerous nation run by bellicose and unpredictable madmen, Cumings argued, has for the most part been fostered by overblown media reports. "The media's attention span for Korea," he wrote, "is next to nil unless reporters have a crisis to discuss." Thus, America tends only to hear about Korea when things have gone wrong. And journalists looking for a dramatic story frequently overstate the level of danger.
By way of example, Cumings pointed to the fact that we are led to believe that North Korea's effort to arm itself with nuclear weapons reflects the irrationality and ego of a power-hungry state. In fact, Cumings argued, such a move is not irrational at all when one considers that the U.S. has threatened North Korea with nuclear weapons since the 1950s (when nuclear-tipped missiles were first stationed in South Korea). And in the early 1990s, when North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and began building nuclear weapons, North Korea's government very rationally used the international concern generated by its move toward nuclear armament to negotiate the removal of nuclear weapons from South Korea. North Korea had also used that leverage to develop a new and favorable diplomatic relationship with the U.S.
In recent years, Cumings continued, North Korea has shown signs of willingness to cooperate and become part of the larger community of nations. It joined the U.N., allowed nuclear inspections, made efforts to become somewhat more integrated into the global economy, and even helped track down the remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean War.
To some extent, it is U.S. Pentagon officials, Cumings suggested, who want the U.S. to remain committed to the Korea problem, because our involvement there helps to establish grounds for a much larger defense budget. Military officials, he argued, therefore feel obliged to paint North Korea as a dangerous foe. But in fact, he argued, American troops in the demilitarized zone today function as much to protect the North from the South as vice versa. This role, he emphasized, is no longer appropriate for the U.S.:
Washington needs to find a way to bring the Korean War to a close, to replace the 1953 ceasefire with a permanent peace arrangement, and to extricate itself from the Korean civil conflict.
The quagmire of our involvement in Korea, he posited, might have been altogether avoided had the U.S. been more circumspect in its foreign-policy decisions following World War II:
If we do not thoroughly reevaluate our Korea policy, American troops may still be restraining the two Koreas another fifty years from now.
The Korean problem has particularly been our business ever since a thoughtless decision at the end of the Second World War divided a nation and a people with ancient integrity. Fifty years later Korea is the best example in the world of how easy it is to get into a war and how difficult it is to get out.
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