South Korean Army noncombatants shouted slogans Wednesday during a ceremony at a military base in Gwangju. The 569 troops were sent to Iraq the next day to aid U.S. efforts. CLICK FOR LARGE
S. Korea-U.S. relations dicey, but getting back on track
BASED on shared security and economic concerns, South Korea-U.S. relations were especially strong between 1945, when Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule, until the Gwangju Massacre in 1980, when a demonstration against martial law erupted in violence.
The relationship was tested repeatedly: Under the United Nations Command, the United States helped South Korea hold off the North Koreans and the Chinese during the Korean War of 1950-'53, at the cost of more than 33,000 American lives. In 1954, the Korea-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty was signed, committing the United States to defend South Korea. More than 50 years later, the United States still maintains 29,089 troops in South Korea. For its part, South Korea supported the United States in Vietnam by deploying 50,000 troops, and has sent 3,300 troops to Iraq.
BILLIONS IN U.S. AID
Economically, the United States worked with South Korean authorities to carry out the land reform of 1945-'50, which created a more equitable economic base, stabilizing the country for future industrialization. South Korean products enjoy wide access to the U.S. market, and the United States is a key foreign investor in the growing economic power.
According to the Congressional Research Service, U.S. military aid to South Korea from 1945 to 2002 totaled $8.8 million, and economic assistance weighed in at $6 billion.
As president from 1961-'79, Park Chung Hee launched a vigorous export-led economic development plan and the Saemaul (New Community) Movement to aid the socio-economic development of rural communities.
Despite Park's success at economic development, his policies became increasingly authoritarian and despotic. However, in the prevailing Cold War environment, he produced stability in a crucial part of Asia while the United States was focusing its attention on Vietnam. In 1972, Park produced the "Yushin" constitution, which was his tool to extend his stay in office indefinitely.
Student demonstrations against the Park government grew in scale, frequency and violence, causing Park to become ever more authoritarian and repressive. Consequently, on Oct. 26, 1979, Park was assassinated by Kim Jae Kyu, his director of the Korean CIA, who declared he acted out of patriotism and because Park had seriously undermined the development of Korean democracy. Some suspected that the United States had tired of Park's ways and wanted him out of the way.
Prime Minister Choi Kyu Hah assumed the presidency. In April 1980, Major Gen. Chun Doo Hwan coerced the weak Choi into appointing him KCIA director. On May 17, 1980, Chun expanded martial law, abolished the National Assembly, arrested a number of politicians, and sentenced left-wing Kim Dae Jung to death, over the protests of the U.S. government. The situation was far beyond Choi's control; he resigned that August, and Chun became president.
Nationwide protests erupted. The greatest and most violent protest took place in Gwangju, in the southwest corner of Korea, which also was the home base of Kim Dae Jung. Protesting crowds were estimated to exceed 300,000; in the melee a few policemen were killed and a broadcasting station burned down. Soldiers of the Korean Special Warfare Command were taken off of the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea and deployed to Gwangju. Moving the troops required the approval of the U.N. commander, a U.S. general, who was loath to make such a decision without approval from Washington. Fearing that North Korea would capitalize on the confusion by launching an attack, key Carter administration officials, including then-Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Richard C. Holbrooke, approved the deployment and initial use of force.
A second use of force, on May 22, was authorized after securing assurances that the Chun administration would work for long-term political reform. According to official South Korean statistics, 207 protesters were killed; however, the BBC reported the number was somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000. In large part because of what became known as the Gwangju Massacre, from May 18 to May 27, 1980, America's image in South Korea has greatly suffered, especially with those born after the Korean War.
CONTROL OF U.S. TROOPS
A growing number of Koreans question whether U.S. troops still should be stationed in the country. And there has long been a feeling that the commander of all troops in Korea -- Korean and foreign -- should be a Korean. Many have demanded that U.S. 8th Army Headquarters move out of Yongsan. Not only is the base occupying prime real estate in central Seoul, but it also served as Japanese military headquarters during the colonial era, something that Koreans are always sensitive about.
On Feb. 23, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Korean Minister of Defense Kim Jang Soo agreed on the transfer of operational control of U.S. troops to a Korean commander in July of this year and wartime control in 2012. The U.S. military will move out of Yongsan and, according to the Korea Herald, return 59 other facilities between now and 2011.
There is growing optimism that the Six-Party Talks will achieve denuclearization of North Korea. However, reaching this point has been particularly difficult. China and South Korea both want a denuclearized North, but they emphatically do not want a regime change in the North for fear of economic dislocation and waves of refugees that would flow into South Korea and China. While the stated U.S. position favors denuclearization, South Korea and China came to believe that the United States' real goal was regime change.
Moreover, starting with the administration of Kim Dae Jung, South Korea has based its approach to North Korea on Kim's "Sunshine Policy" that seeks to engage the North in dialogue and constructive interaction. Against the wishes of South Korea, the United States refused to talk one-on-one with North Korea until just recently.
Negotiations started in 2006 to work out a U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, whose scale is that of the North American Free Trade Agreement and would greatly liberalize trade between the two countries. It also could be a great step forward in improving the overall South Korea-U.S. alliance. Writing in the Pacific Forum's Pac Net Newsletter, Troy Stagarone, director of Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute of America, says, "the FTA can help to move the alliance beyond its historical roots in the conflict with North Korea and begin to develop a more permanent and sustainable dimension to the alliance."
Talking with Yonhap News, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Karen Bhatia said, "If an FTA is signed between South Korea and the U.S., their alliance will be strengthened." Passage of the FTA depends on the Korean National Assembly and U.S. Congress supporting it in the face of growing organized labor chagrin in both countries. The new influence of the Democratic Party in the U.S. Congress also is of growing concern.
Recent leaders of both countries have held divergent views. Former President Kim Dae Jung and President Bush disagreed about Kim's Sunshine Policy. Both lame ducks, Presidents Roh Moo Hyun, a liberal, and Bush, a conservative, do not maintain a close relationship. Both suffer low domestic approval ratings, and both presidents' parties have lost legislative majorities. On Dec. 19, there will be a presidential election in South Korea. A leading favorite is Park Geun Hye, daughter of the late president and former head of the Grand National Party, a conservative party that has traditionally held pro-American views. On Feb. 12, she addressed Harvard University students promoting better South Korea-American relations.
Fortunately, there are encouraging signs that the relationship is strengthening.
Bill Sharp is adjunct professor of East Asian International Relations at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary about events in Asia for the Star-Bulletin.