[Viewpoint] Korea-U.S. relations: fact vs. fiction

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[Viewpoint] Korea-U.S. relations: fact vs. fiction

Given there has been almost a year without significant anti-American demonstrations, this may be a good time to disclose some surprising realities in U.S.-Korea relations. Otherwise, in the heat of future demonstrations, the following could be misconstrued as some kind of a knee-jerk defense by an American. So, allow me to try to set up and knock down some misconceptions about the Korea-U.S. relationship.

Myth: Anti-Americanism is a significant force within the Korean political and social environment.

Reality: While there is a core of die-hard anti-American Koreans who have adopted this ideology for whatever reason, almost all participants in anti-American demonstrations are not anti-American. Rather they tend to be anti-ruling class. At the same time, Koreans are acutely sensitive to any sign their government is kowtowing to the U.S. on any given issue, but seem to be less so when their government makes a concession to most other countries.

Why so?

Attacking the foreign partner of the elite is infinitely safer while still pressing home the same demands. During the years of the prior authoritarian governments, taking on the Republic of Korea’s government was risky business. Also, during most of the republic’s history, the government has been ruled by the conservatives who are generally perceived to represent the interests of the rich. Given the upper class’s business ties with America, the South Korean government has often been accused of being the Americans’ government. So, demonstrating against America can be a convenient foil, due to America’s extremely close relationship with the Korean establishment.

Myth: America is responsible for the division of Korea.

Reality: In a sense, this myth is true since had the U.S. not rushed to South Korea’s defense during the Korean War, the country would have been unified. But from a broader view this is a myth. For example, the liberation of Korea from the Japanese was an accident.

Even the American Forces’ role was directly insignificant other than forcing the Japanese government and its military to globally surrender. For 35 years, Korea had not politically existed, having been absorbed into Japan as a colony from 1910. During the closing days of the Second World War, American senior commanders are said to have had to look in an atlas to determine Korea’s location. The Soviet Union, belatedly and cynically leveraging the principles of the Cairo Declaration, declared war on Japan, a few days after Hiroshima’s atom bombing, rushing troops into Manchuria and later northern Korea. Hoping for nationwide free elections, the U.S. agreed with the Soviets for a temporary division of the peninsula. After repeated U.S. efforts to reach agreement with the U.S.S.R. on a formula for pan-Korea elections and unification, the elections were held in the South, but were never held in the North. In fact, in all but its formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was up and running prior to Aug. 15, 1948.

Myth: The American government and, by extension, the U.S. Army control the government and military of the Republic of Korea.

Reality: Except for the three-year period of the U.S. military occupation following World War II, the Republic of Korea has maintained independence, often bordering on defiance, from the United States.

During the Korean War, the autonomy of the ROK government with its Army from the UN Command and the U.S. government was obvious when then President Syngman Rhee released POWs rather than forcing their repatriation to the communists as the UN had agreed at Panmunjeom. Earlier, in September 1950, the ROK Army’s chief of staff Lieutenant General Chung Il-kwon told President Rhee that he thought he needed UN Forces’ approval to send his troops north of the 38th Parallel. The ROK general was curtly told by Rhee that, as Korean Army chief of staff, he should obey the Korean president. “I gave General MacArthur authority over the Korean Army temporarily. If I want to take it back, I can take it back today.”

Myth: The American government and its military have had at least a tacit if not a complicit involvement in political coups.

Reality: In all cases, the Americans have been given too much credit for possible involvement in Korean internal affairs.

For example, prior to Park Chung Hee’s May 16, 1961 bloodless takeover, the U.S. military didn’t take reports of an impending coup seriously. The ROK Army chief of staff had assured American generals that the situation could be handled. When the rebellion did occur, the Americans were caught off guard.

To further complicate matters, partially as a lack of confidence on the Korean side, after Park’s coup, some Korean academics felt that Koreans couldn’t have done it alone, so it must have been managed by the Americans. This pattern has been frequently replicated throughout the South’s history.

In the subsequent “creeping coup” by Chun Doo-hwan in 1979-80, the American military was again left feeling their trust with their Korean counterparts had been violated. The Korean military had violated the strict procedures of the Combined Forces Command. U.S. General John Wickham was reportedly irate that Chun Doo-whan and Roh Tae-woo had moved troops from Roh’s vital front line Ninth Division into Seoul on Dec. 12, 1979, outside of proper process, in flagrant violation of CFC procedures.

Trust is strategically important between the two armies, since trust is the glue that holds a consolidated control together in the defense of a nation. In other words, the Americans have felt a crisis of confidence about their ability to defend Korea from external attack whenever ROK military commanders have taken unilateral and unexpected actions for political reasons.

Some Koreans have rationalized these military actions, such as during the coups, to have been “domestic matters.” The Americans have acknowledged that reality, but as one former CFC commander observed, “Either you have operational control or you don’t.”

Nonetheless, the American side has always understood that operational control for the mission of defense against attack from the North does not give the Americans the right to interfere in Korean internal affairs.

(This is part one of a two-part series. The second half of the column will be printed in the April 13 edition.)

The writer is the president of Soft Landing Consulting, a technology sales and marketing firm (www.softlandingkorea.com).

by Tom Coyner
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