[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Ronald Reagan and KoreaAs news of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s death spread over the weekend, the memory machine cranked into high gear, heaping praise on a man who was once so divisive. Mr. Reagan, we are told, was a great communicator with boundless optimism. A closer look reveals that Mr. Reagan was a skilled politician who created majorities to support the ideas, however controversial, that he believed in most passionately.
Ronald Reagan’s most fervently held passion was his belief that the United States was a divinely-inspired “shining city upon a hill” that was destined to lead humanity in an inexorable march toward freedom. To do so, the United States must have a strong economy and military, and must be ready to fight and sacrifice for its beliefs.
At each step in his political career, Ronald Reagan faced opponents who portrayed him as foolish and dangerous. He became known as a right-wing nut for supporting the doomed candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964. After he became governor of California in 1967, the left reviled him as a fascist for his hard-line approach to the student movement. In 1976, President Ford and mainstream Republicans portrayed him as dangerous in the race for the Republican nomination. Mr. Ford’s most famous commercial noted that “Governor Reagan can’t start a war; President Reagan could.” In the 1980 election, his leading opponent for the Republican nomination, George H. W. Bush, called his economic plan “voodoo economics.” In the general election, the public remained fearful of Reagan until a week before the election, which he ended up winning handily. As president, his aggressive agenda of tax cuts and defense spending increases was considered reckless, and his aggressive stance toward the Soviet Union dangerous. His plan to put cruise missiles in Europe caused massive anti-American demonstrations across the continent.
Through it all, Mr. Reagan remained steadfast in his faith in the course he had chosen. He believed that the economy would recover and that pressure on the Soviet Union would weaken it, giving the United States the advantage in the Cold War. By 1984, Reagan’s course was beginning to show results, and the naysayers were in retreat. The economy took off at the end of 1983, and the Soviet Union was facing a leadership crisis that would bring reformer Mikhail Gorbachev to power in 1985. By the end of 1984, Reagan had gained the upper hand and went on to win re-election in a 49-state landslide. In his second term, he focused more on foreign affairs, laying the groundwork for the end of the Cold War.
Ronald Reagan’s message changed little from the 1960s, when he was a right-wing ideologue, to the 1980s, when he was a popular leader pushing the Cold War to its conclusion. Mr. Reagan’s message gained greater appeal as the United States became weary of weak leadership after the upheavals of Vietnam and Watergate in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As Reagan moved in from the fringe, he built formidable political coalitions of voters in elections and of nations in diplomacy. He knew how to get things done; he had electoral and psychological hegemony over his opponents.
For Korea, Ronald Reagan’s legacy is twofold: anti-Americanism and democratization. After four years of tension under Jimmy Carter, Reagan moved quickly to improve relations between the two countries. Most Koreans greeted this change with relief, but among the activist underground on campus, it was taken as a proof of U.S. support for the dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan. Anti-Americanism spread quietly but steadily during the Reagan years.
At two critical moments in the history of democracy in Korea, Mr. Reagan’s influence was critical. During the transition to power in the winter of 1980-81, Mr. Reagan was instrumental in pressuring Chun Doo Hwan to spare the life of Kim Dae-jung. In exchange for Mr. Kim’s life, Reagan agreed to accept Mr. Chun as his first foreign guest after he took office in January 1981. Mr. Reagan chose to spare the life of someone who could contribute to the democratization of Korea rather than worry about the U.S. image.
In 1987, amid escalating demonstrations in favor of a direct presidential election, Mr. Reagan made it clear that the United States was against martial law. The combination of domestic and American pressure forced Mr. Chun to back down, putting the nation on the course of democratization. Mr. Reagan knew that there was no going back to the days of dictatorships, but he respected Korea enough to keep the pressure quiet.
At a time of renewed tension in Korea-U.S. relations, Ronald Reagan’s faith in the power of freedom and respect for the art of persuasion are his legacy to today’s leaders.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser