[VIEWPOINT]The need to stand aloneThe United States is now getting ready to leave us. Whether it might be the result of candlelight vigils or a part of Washington’s renewed global strategy, the United States is packing. We are not sure where they are headed. Yongsan residents might be quietly celebrating the bright prospect of real estate prices, but those living around the new U.S. base don’t welcome the relocation for precisely the opposite reason. Since when has the United States been such an object of disgust?
Until very recently, Koreans always had the feeling that Korea-U.S. relations had been and would be tight and close. But in retrospect, the sincere alliance with the United States for the last half century seems more like an exception in the two countries’ relations. If we go back more than five decades, the basic attitude between Korea and the United States was one of indifference.
Even from the days when Western powers became interested in the East, Korea had been out of their attention for a long time. The Korean Peninsula was considered a midpoint between China and Japan at best. So when the American merchant vessel General Sherman was destroyed on the Daedong River, Washington reacted by sending five warships five years later to demand compensation. Of course, the United States was at the height of the Civil War at the time. Yet, Washington did not care that the incident ended in defeat. It must have thought that the Korean Peninsula was not a worthy investment.
Other countries felt the same. In the late years of the Joseon Dynasty, countless Western fleets appeared along the coasts of Korea to measure the depth of the water. They were investigating whether the Korean Peninsula could be useful for naval bases or coal storage facilities. Fortunately, Korean harbors were tucked behind an archipelago and thus were saved from being exploited.
At first, the United States’ interest in Korea was part of the post-war management of imperial Japan. Still, Korea had a negligible presence, and until the Korean War the peninsula was excluded from the “Acheson Line” of defense. So Kim Il Sung calculated in vain that he could take over and communize the Korean Peninsula by force in six days. But the “Copernican Turn” of the United States began here. Once North Korea crossed the border, Congress unanimously decided to protect the South from invasion. Korea and the United States have been blood-pledged brothers ever since.
The Cold War has been long over. In the last half century, the most noteworthy developments in international power dynamics have been Germany and Japan’s rebirths as economic powers. After the defeats in World War II, the two countries were devastated and poor, and communism was spreading. So the United States offered economic boosts. The Japanese economy revived thanks to the Korean War, and the German economy was driven by its involvement in NATO. Only a decade later, Japan and Germany were among the richest nations in the world once again. In the past 50 years, the world had been divided into two blocs. Countries had to choose sides between the United States and the Soviet Union. In international power dynamics, the choice made a world of difference. Fortunately, we made a wise choice of staying on the U.S. side. Five decades later, the per-capita national income has grown from $40 to over $10,000. In general, the countries that sided with the United States are more prosperous and stable than those that championed the Soviet Union.
Today, many Koreans condemn the United States as if the superpower had made a big mistake and failed us. But historically, Korea suffered the dominance of China and imperial aggression of Japan. The critics of the United States might be taking age-old grudges against China and Japan out on the United States.
In the absence of the incubator that nurtured Korea for a half century, we have to learn to stand on our own. We shouldn’t rely on emotion-based diplomacy and make foreign policy a scapegoat in the fight over political hegemony.
* The writer is a professor of American history at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Hyeong-in