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America Liable for Significant Part of Korean History

Column by Anders W. Hove
Associate Opinion Editor

In the years since the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945, South Koreans have transformed their landlord-based agrarian society into a modern industrial state. South Koreans have paid for their strong political and economic system with their own blood and treasure. The South's prosperity should be attributed not to foreign tutelage, but to the hard labor of Koreans themselves.

That having been said, South Korea shares its own history with the United States. Americans and Koreans shed their blood side by side for three brutal years (1950 to 1953). Since the 1953 Mutual Defense Pact, American soldiers have been pledged to defend the soil of South Korea as if it were their own. South Korea also lies under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. President Truman's declaration to his advisers on the dawn of the 1950 invasion remains accurate to this very day: "We stay in Korea. Period."

America's policy experience in Korea might be termed clumsy pragmatism punctuated by moments of resolve in times of crisis. The two Koreas were themselves created in a pinch by General Douglas MacArthur and the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee on Aug. 10, 1945, just after the Japanese offer of surrender. On that day MacArthur issued General Order No. 1, which stated that Japanese forces north of the 38th Parallel would surrender to Soviet troops, and those south of the parallel would surrender to American troops. With the Red Army poised to occupy the entire peninsula, and with no Americans in sight, partition seemed a good way to insure eventual four-power supervision of Korean independence, which had been promised in the 1943 Cairo Declaration.

After the partition, General MacArthur appointed General John Hodge to head the United States Army Forces in Korea (USAFIK). Hodge was selected not because of any qualifications he might have had to direct a military occupation, but because he was stationed at Okinawa. "Hodge was very possibly the first man in history selected to wield executive powers over a nation of nearly 20 million on the basis of shipping time," quipped one authority.

Both Hodge and his inferiors proved wholly incompetent to the task at hand. They immediately alienated the Korean people by conducting the occupation as if they had taken over an enemy power. Hodge left many Japanese colonial officials in place, and even used Japanese guards to put down peasant uprisings. The Americans also largely bungled diplomatic relations with the North, where Moscow set up its own trusteeship under the iron hand of Kim Il-Sung.

Throughout the four years of the occupation, both the American government and the American public displayed a striking lack of interest in the nation whose creation they had overseen. General Hodge himself often pleaded with Washington and Tokyo (where General MacArthur was directing a very different sort of occupation) for advice and direction. No advice was ever given. In 1947 the United Nations held elections in South Korea. USAFIK was deactivated and sent home in 1949.

After the departure of American forces, the sad state of affairs on the peninsula became evident. The hand-picked R.O.K. President, Syngman Rhee, displayed a threatening belligerence that made both Washington and Pyongyang nervous. The inclination of both Korean governments toward forced unification made civil war seem inevitable. The Korean War marked one of the hottest points of Cold War. The battle was soon joined by U.S. troops operating under U.N. auspices. When these U.N. troops pushed nearly to the Chinese border, Chinese Communist Forces also entered the war. The Korean peninsula was completely ravaged during the course of the conflict. Seoul itself changed hands four times. Casualities included 139,272 Americans, 272,975 South Koreans, 620,264 North Koreans and 909,607 Chinese; 37,904 Americans died or were presumed dead. After three years of gruesome warfare, the two sides made an uneasy peace. The peninsula would remain divided - and armed to the teeth.

That was 40 years ago. In terms of relations between the North and South, the world does not seem to have changed very much since 1946. True, now both Koreas have flirted with nuclear capability, and North Korea seems to be ready to produce several bombs. Yet the basic character of the U.S.-R.O.K. relationship has remained intact. The United States has stood by its pledge to guarantee the South's security. And in spite of talks aimed at the reunification of Korea, the North's continued militarism has kept the South on edge. Frustration with the North's apparent non-compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has today led to a new crisis in U.S.-North Korean relations.

In spite of the danger, U.S. diplomacy in Korea has remained clumsy and tactless. The list of sore points is long. During the eighties, strong American support for a line of brutal and unpopular South Korean leaders damaged U.S. credibility among the populace. American demands for trade concessions - followed by trade retaliation under the Super 301 law - called into question U.S. concern for South Korean interests. South Koreans have also been offended by inept U.S. media coverage of their affairs, especially during the 1988 Summer Olympics, when U.S. networks snubbed Korean pride by its sparse coverage of South Korean athletics. "M.A.S.H." continues to be broadcast over armed services television in Korea, in spite of repeated representations by Korean leaders to have it pulled.

The erosion of U.S.-South Korean relations has not only occurred at the diplomatic level. Everyday South Koreans have become ever more disillusioned about the nature of their partnership with America. While many older Koreans still view America as their greatest ally, the younger generation has come to look upon the U.S. as a bungler, an occupier, or even as a hegemon. Two processes led to this change. First, South Korea's political and economic growth has fueled an intense quest for a new national identity. This quest has been naturally linked by some to the identification of the foreign military presence as a challenge to Korean independence. In the absence of strong reminders of the need for that presence, and with daily reminders of the uneasy relations between the United States and South Korea, America-bashing has become quite popular in some quarters.

Secondly, South Koreans have come to realize that the average American remains almost entirely ignorant of their affairs, in spite of the large impact American actions have upon those affairs. The fact that many Americans could not locate South Korea on a map came as quite a shock to a nation that had considered the United States their strongest ally and closest friend. In light of the souring relations, and the ignorance of Americans in general, can the United States be relied upon in a future crisis with the North? Is the military presence really worth anything to Korea if, when push comes to shove, America just does not care?

I write this column not to embolden any policy maker - for what policy maker will read it? - but to remind the reader that our own ignorance has led to much of South Korea's trouble this century. Our successes have resulted from close attention, firm resolve, and self-sacrifice; our failures from ignorance and arrogance. Will the future of our relationship be marked by more resolve than ignorance, or by more apathy than determination? With or without a new war in Korea, the future of the peninsula rests upon our answer to that question.

There is more at stake here than just diplomatic relations. Our responsibility in Korea is not derived from some tattered treaty, nor from some agreement between politicians. It flows from our common history, and from our own mistakes. We should pay careful attention to what happens in Korea not because of that nation's supreme importance to our everyday lives, but because we have made ourselves responsible first for Korea's existence, and then for its survival. For better or for worse, the United States created South Korea, led the South Korean occupation, fought in and directed its war with the North, and stood with it for the last forty years. Walking away from Korea now would be tantamount to declaring that America will neither remember its friends, nor honor its historic responsibilities. In a sense, our own history is on the line in Korea. What should America stand for in the post-Cold War world? We will answer that question on the very ridges of Korea where so many Americans lost their lives.