[Viewpoint] Fears over history repeating itselfIt is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the Republic of Korea has been swayed by the United States, at least for the last 100 years. However, we have not always fully understood the U.S., despite the significant role it plays in our lives.
That’s why it is worth looking at Akifumi Nakata’s book, “The United States Abandons Korea,” an arresting title that makes readers worry for the future of their country.
“We consider the United States our big brother,” King Gojong is quoted as saying in the book to American medical missionary and diplomat Horace Newton Allen during the final days of the 19th century. Through Allen, Gojong desperately reached out to the United States for help as Korea fell more and more under the influence of the Japanese. He sought refuge in the U.S. legation twice, only to be declined both times.
As Nakata says, the United States had a different plan, and he summons Theodore Roosevelt to explain.
“I should like to see Japan have Korea,” wrote Roosevelt to his friend when he was a vice presidential candidate. Roosevelt’s affection for Japan ran deep. Right before the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), he said the development of Asia was Japan’s calling, and Japanese victory meant happiness for the world. Roosevelt was a white supremacist, but he allowed an exception for the Japanese. Among so-called colored people, he considered only the Japanese to be as civilized as the Anglo-Saxons.
Of course, the foremost standard of U.S. diplomacy is its national interest. In international diplomacy, the independent variables a superpower has to take into account are the other superpowers. By backing Japan, the United States hoped to keep Russia and China in check. In return for giving tacit approval to Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula, the United States wanted a written pledge from Japan to stay out of the Philippines. The outcome was the Taft-Katsura Agreement signed by the United States and Japan in 1905. The secret diplomatic memorandum was a significant step toward Japan’s eventual colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
It’s certainly true that the United States liberated Korea and established a principle to have Japan’s former colonies gain independence. The plan for Korea was to place the nation under a trusteeship, but the United States changed its plan when it decided to divide the country at the 38th Parallel.
When Japan surrendered faster than expected and Soviet forces entered the Korean Peninsula too soon, the United States cut the country in half.
It’s fair to say that the U.S. never considered the people living in the Korean Peninsula as independent variables, and that the interest of the superpower came before Korea’s needs.
We can see this illustrated in the Korean War. North Korea started the conflict on June 25, 59 years ago, but the fate of the peninsula was still in the hands of the United States. The decisive background of Stalin’s approval of the southward invasion was the so-called Acheson Line. When U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson said the Korean Peninsula was beyond the American defense line, Stalin decided the United States would not enter the war on the peninsula.
Of course, it did, and advanced beyond the 38th Parallel, resulting in China joining the conflict. While the Syngman Rhee government demanded northward unification, the United States agreed to cease-fire.
The history of these tragedies still haunts us. Most recently, the North Korean nuclear tension has pushed the United States to the limit.
The situation, though, is different from before for two reasons. First, North Korea now possesses nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. It will soon have a capability to launch a nuclear strike on the United States. Second, Washington has decided that the North Korean nuclear program is not a negotiation card, and Pyongyang will not abandon its nuclear program without some compensation.
Therefore, the Obama administration wants to respond to the situation differently. The military response that assumes the worst has already begun.
The United States recently tested airborne lasers, which are fired from an aircraft to intercept a missile, and since it has a short range, it is not likely to be used on nuclear powers other than North Korea.
It is tragic that we are so concerned this week about history repeating itself.
At the Korea-U.S. summit, the United States asked why Korea seemed so insensitive to the North Korean nuclear threat. We, as a nation, should insist we are not, mindful that the U.S. has, as the Nakata book suggests, abandoned Korea before.
*The writer is a deputy editor-in-chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Oh Byung-sang