No more shame
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in boasted about the red-carpet treatment he received from U.S. President Joe Biden during his visit to the United States. The two governments expanded their traditional alliance in security and defense to include their economies and technology. It is good that the world’s superpower regards our country that highly. But that mostly is credited to billions of dollars in pledge of U.S. investment by Korean enterprises. The red carpet could be immediately rolled up if Korea does not serve U.S. interests. History is the witness.
Korea established diplomatic relations with the U.S. first through the Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce and Navigation in 1882. The Joseon Dynasty formed ties with the western state in the belief that it would come to its defense against foreign aggression. King Gojong referred to America as “a magnanimous country.” Article One of the treaty stated, “If other powers deal unjustly or oppressively with either government, the other will exert their good offices on being informed of the case to bring about an amicable arrangement, thus showing their friendly feelings.” But the United States condoned Japan’s move of making Korea a protectorate through the 1905 Eulsa Treaty in exchange for Japan’s endorsement of U.S. occupation of the Philippines. The discreet arrangement was made through U.S. Secretary of War William Howard Taft and Japanese Prime Minister Katsura Taro in 1905 following Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War.
Despite a strong protest and pleas from South Korea, the U.S. completely withdrew 70,000 U.S. troops from Korea in 1949. A year later, North Korea invaded. The Truman administration left out South Korea in U.S. defense alliance nations that included Japan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand in Asia-Pacific region, according to the policy decisions of the National Security Council meeting of May 1951 (NSC 48/5) and another meeting in December 1951 (NSC 118/2). The U.S. decided to give up on South Korea even after fighting against North Korea and Chinese aggression. It was an antinomic decision by a strong power on a weak nation.
South Korea’s first President Syngman Rhee signed a mutual defense treaty with the U.S. to keep the country from abandoning Korea. Washington had hoped to replace Rhee with a more kowtowing president, according to the book “Presidents We Cannot Hate” by Lee Young-il. Another book by Nam Si-wook claimed that the State Department, Defense Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff, White House, and Central Intelligence Agency held a joint meeting on the plan to overturn the Rhee administration.
Rhee challenged the U.S. president’s “honorable armistice” with his “March North” campaign to unify the Korean Peninsula with or without U.S. help. Rhee arbitrarily liberated more than 27,000 of the 33,206 North Korean POWs being held in the South on June 18 and 19, 1953, without first resolving the non-repatriation of South Korean POWs. That irked President Dwight Eisenhower, who declared him “our enemy.” His Secretary of State John Foster Dulles claimed Rhee had stabbed the U.S. in the back. Chinese leader Mao Zedong said that unpredictable Rhee posed a greater risk to China than the U.S. To visiting U.S. presidential envoy Walter Robertson, Rhee accused the U.S. of selling South Korea out once again by forcing a truce after thrashing the mutual defense treaty with the Joseon Dynasty and then bisecting Korea into two after its liberation from Japan.
The 1882 treaty was signed after negotiations between the U.S. and the Qing Dynasty representative on Joseon’s behalf. China wanted to label Joseon a subject of the Qing Dynasty in Article One of the treaty, which U.S. representative Robert Shufeldt opposed. Both sides reached a compromise by stipulating that Joseon be described as a part of China in documents the Joseon court sent to the U.S., but not to other countries. The U.S. betrayed Joseon while China disregarded it. It could not have been coincidental that President Xi Jinping told former U.S. President Donald Trump that Korea used to be part of China.
The U.S. regards itself as a benevolent global leader dating back to its self-professed mission to spread the Christian faith to the world. But it can abandon any state that has no service to its interest. New York Times journalist Bob Woodward wrote that Trump had ordered to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea. Withdrawal of U.S. troops remains a probability.
China has bombarded South Korea with economic retaliations for installing the U.S. Thaad antimissile system for self-defense against North Korean attack. Washington did not interfere when Beijing took this vengeful action on South Korea for hosting the Thaad missile defense system at its request. Washington cannot be relied on to come to Seoul’s aid when Beijing takes a hostile action for cozier relations between South Korea and the United States. The alliance may just exist on paper.
We can only rely on ourselves. We must become stronger and richer. Our leaders must have the guts that Rhee showed by standing up for the nation. The policy to indulge the U.S. and avoid disappointing China should not be our main diplomatic goals.
We have become an economic power. We must rebuild our value, identity, and strategy. We must become a tiger, not a stray cat. It is up to us to avoid making the same shameful mistakes. We must never forget that no global power can be our permanent protector.