Neither angel nor devil
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The late Korean-born comedian Johnny Yune got his biggest break in the late 1970s when he was invited by Johnny Carson onto the NBC talk show “The Tonight Show.” He ended up getting a lengthy slot on the show because the main guest did not arrive on time. He rambled about the 1950-53 Korean War during his extra time as most Americans had heard of the war even if they did not know about Korea. “Our family was so poor during the war that we could not eat any food one day. While we were trying to sleep at night, a robber sneaked in. Luckily, we could swipe at him and robbed him of what he had.” Americans broke into a roar of laughter, while ethnic Koreans wept at the sad memory.
Although the three-year war that killed 5.6 million ended in 1953, South Korea was among the poorest nations in the world afterward, largely relying on aid from America until the early 1970s. There was hardly any industry. President Park Chung Hee, who seized power in a military coup in 1961, recalled in his memoir that 52 percent of the national budget and 72.4 percent of the defense budget came from the United States. The U.S. Operation Mission (USOM), staffed with hundreds of Americans, oversaw the aid and spending in South Korea.
A president of a country that used to depend on U.S. handouts received red-carpet treatment during his recent visits to the U.S. and Europe. The Joe Biden administration needed South Korean tech supremacy in chips, automobiles and battery production to contain China’s ascension in high tech. Korean tycoons Lee Jae-yong of Samsung, Chung Euisun of Hyundai Motor Group, Chey Tae-won of SK and Koo Kwang-mo of LG were brought along to help the U.S. Even when Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix joined the U.S.-led offensive and sanctions on China, Beijing did not retaliate. “If South Korea stops chip exports, the IT assembly lines in China would have to stop,” observed Park Jae-keun, a professor of convergence electronics engineering at Hanyang University.
Jeffrey Jones — former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, who’s called a “blue-eyed Korean” for his lengthy residence and knowledge of Korea — summed up Korea’s staggering rags-to-riches transition this way. “There are only six countries who produce motor vehicles entirely on their own. Three — Germany, Japan and Italy — are liable for invoking World War II. Two others — the U.S. and UK — triumphed in the war. One is neither. That is South Korea.” South Korea is the only country on the globe that achieved both industrialization and democratic advances since the Second World War. The feat is a miracle. And yet Koreans are almost too modest about these achievements.
South Korea owes the U.S. a lot, of course. American soldiers arrived in a remote country and disarmed 230,000 Japanese soldiers after World War II. But the U.S. put South Korea in greater danger by pulling out 57,000 troops in June 1949, finding little “strategic value” in the small bisected nation and sent the forces to Japan for contingency planning against the Soviets during the Cold War.
The U.S. more or less invited the invasion by North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, who was backed by Soviet and Chinese leaders Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong. Capt. James Schanbel — who was on the intelligence G-2 unit of the General Headquarters (GHQ) led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur in November 1949 — attended a seminar on the Far East where a lieutenant briefed on the signs of North Korea readying an invasion of South Korea the following summer. The U.S. Army, however, maintained that America would not get involved in military engagement even if North Korea invaded South Korea.
When the North did invade on June 25, 1950, the Truman administration ordered a dispatch of troops. The U.S. had sent 1,789,000 soldiers, of which 36,574 died, 103,284 were injured, 7,578 went missing and 7,245 were taken as POWs. Harry Truman was asked why the U.S. had so quickly gotten involved in a war involving a country it had found of no strategic importance. The contradictory move still puzzles many.
On Dec. 22, 1949, an executive meeting of the State and Defense Departments at the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed to pull out the American servicemen as fast as possible if China’s aim was to push out U.N. troops from South Korea. MacArthur’s Army had suffered a crushing defeat in a massive Christmas offensive against the 300,000-strong Chinese Army, which already crossed the Yalu River in November 1950. Although the idea of a pullout did not go through due to opposition by Truman, the U.S. had thought of giving up on South Korea. (There had been rumors in Seoul that the U.S. was selling out the country to China.) The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff also rejected MacArthur’s request for reinforcements as the move could jeopardize Japan’s safety.
The U.S. has no territorial ambitions on Korea. It is different from China, Japan and Russia. America guided the country in the values of freedom, democracy and market economics as well as defending the country from aggressors. But the U.S. is neither angel nor devil. It can abandon Korea if it does not meet its interests. We can hardly blame it.
The founders and builders of Korea Inc. like Chung Ju-yung of Hyundai and Lee Kun-hee of Samsung took risks on the country’s future. They demonstrated Keynesian “animal spirts” to build the world’s top corporate names from the ruins of war. We owe the blessings we enjoy today to a public passion for democracy and commitment by entrepreneurs. To keep up global respect, we must make more united efforts to raise our dignity.