US-South Korean Relations: A New Era of Cooperation

Category: Era
Last Updated: 13 Jan 2021
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President Carter stated in a secret memorandum at the beginning of his administration that "U. S. - Korean relations as determined by Congress and American people are at an all time low. " This statement, coupled with his iron determination to withdraw forces from South Korea, reflected the end of what is often known as the "Golden Age" of Korean-American relations. During Park Chung Hee"s 18-year authoritarian reign over South Korea, the late 1970s portray a complex web of alliance relations and tumultuous security commitment that threatened the overall strength of the two allies.

Constant U. S. intervention and attempts to influence Korea"s political process were met with massive resistance and did not deter then president Park from steadfastly continuing his Yushin system of authoritarian rule until his sudden assassination in 1979 (Gleysteen 4). However, the decades following the 1970s portray yet another shift in Korean-American relations. Once opposed to Western style democracy, the government of the 1990s (namely, Kim Dae Jung) has shed its authoritarian foundation and now supports a policy that reflects the ideals of Western democracy.

South Korea has effectively put into place a system of democracy that will now be difficult to overturn, if anyone should ever again try. Although unsuccessful in the 1970s, the U. S. has finally realized its primary goal of political liberalization in South Korea. In this paper, I will discuss the relations between Korea and the U. S. in the late 1970s and the factors that led to tensions in alliance; mainly, differing political ideologies.

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Then, I will elaborate on the great strides Korea has made in achieving democracy, therefore lessening the political gap between Korea and the Western nations. I will do so by presenting Kim Dae Jung"s strongly democratic vision of Korea among opposing viewpoints. By analyzing his response to Lew Kwan Yew"s generally anti-Western democracy stance, one is able to discern the similarities in political thought that bridged the seemingly irreparable gap rendered during the Park Chung Hee rule.

The differences in these two political leaders effectively portray the opposite ends of the political spectrum and show the changes in government Korea has made during the governments of Park and Kim. Upon Park Chung Hee"s rise to power following the military coup of 1961, it was inevitable that Korea would not follow a trend towards democracy. Given Park"s military background, Confucian heritage and Japanese education, there was nothing in his history to suggest that he would embrace democracy American-style.

In fact, he considered this practice to be "inconvenient and unproductive" (Oberdorfer 32). A U. S. military assessment noted: From the time he led the 1961 coup, it has been evident that President Park had little admiration for or interest in the craft of politics. His approach to his stewardship as ROK head of state has remained that of a general who desires that his orders be carried out without being subjected to the process of political debate (Oberdorfer 33).

Although heavy U. S. ressure influenced Park to return to nominal civilian rule following his coup, one can see that from the beginning there were prominent factors that foreshadowed the clash of ideologies to come. Park began his most anti-democratic line of rule in 1972 with the advent of his "Yushin" system that disbanded the National Assembly, declared martial law, discarded the existing Constitution and prepared for indirect election of the president. To silence opposition, Park arrested many of the senior political leaders of the country.

He justified this radical line of rule by declaring that they were "revitalizing reforms" that were necessary to strengthen and unify the nation to prepare for possible Northern invasion and maintain national independence (Oberdorfer 38). All pretense of a civilian government was thus ended by this blatant grab for complete authoritarian power. Following a policy that encouraged gradually lower levels of U. S. engagement with Korea, the U. S. responded to this maneuver by stating that they had not been consulted or involved in Park"s actions and would seek to avoid involvement in Korea"s internal affairs (Oberdorfer 41).

In effect, the U. S. was attempting to not endorse the Yushin plan as a whole by following a policy of disassociation that diminished the role of the U. S. in Korea"s political system. U. S. involvement, while always present, became significantly more intrusive with President Carter"s rise to office in 1976. At this time, America"s reaction against military commitments abroad were seen for the first time since the Vietnam disaster when President Carter advocated the withdrawal of U. S. troops from Korea almost immediately following his inception into office.

Korea was, of course, adamantly against this maneuver and Carter"s own government displayed opposition to such a drastic move. However, for undetermined reasons, Carter remained steadfast in this course of action for almost the entire duration of his office. Although the administration and Congress opposed the immediate withdrawal of U. S. forces, they were not against the idea of using the issue to induce a process of liberalization. However, they had to be careful in their suggestions so as to not provoke a nationalist and regressive reaction.

The U. S. ought to do this by attempting to recover strained relations with Park, hoping it would lead to gradual democratization by a friendly and understated counsel. Park too hoped to end the awkward relations with the U. S. but sought to maintain U. S. support without changing his ruling style. He proposed a summit with Carter in January 1979 but rejected Western style democracy as unsuitable to Korea. Although both sides wanted to return to the friendly relations of the past, misperceptions regarding the other"s government led to escalating tensions (Gleysteen 6).

The political interplay was such that Park believed that the U. S. policy toward Korea would shift from human rights and democratization to security, whereas the Carter administration gradually adopted a flexible status quo policy linked to a strategy of offensive intervention. These exchanges in misperceived intentions and mutual suspicions spiraled into political turmoil that culminated in the shocking assassination of Park in 1979.

There can be no doubt that although the U. S. pparently had not direct involvement in the assassination, its public statements and support of the opposition helped to fuel and enhance the struggle for Park"s demise. The fall of the Park regime and the "Carter Chill" are interdependent, and the decline of the Triangular Alliance Security System (TASS) is apparent as Korean politics continued to deviate from U. S. interests. There is a fundamental lack of compromise and miscommunication between the Carter and Park administrations that led to the detrimental effect of unsteady alliance.

With this level of tension and uncertainty, relations can only be strained and self-defeating, for they are only encouraging instability in the very region that both are trying to maintain peace in. Judging by the transition of Korean-American relations and the dismal conclusion in 1979, neither side was entirely successful in securing their interests and maintaining a cohesive alliance management. However, the shift to democracy (and consequently, united Korean-American interests) came in 1987 when Korea held its first popular ballot since Park Chung Hee"s narrow victory in 1971.

Since then, Korea has been on a sometimes shaky but determined road to continue democracy that appears to have no end. We see this commitment to democracy in current President Kim Dae Jung, who has had a long and remarkable history in advocating democracy. Throughout his long and volatile political career, Kim has remained staunchly dedicated to his belief in democracy despite constant threat and repression. Kim came very close to winning the popular ballot in 1971 against Park Chung Hee and it was no secret that Park despised and feared him.

He was abducted by Park"s KCIA in Tokyo and brought back to Seoul bound and gagged, after which he was placed under house arrests and later imprisoned. After Park, Chun continued the vengeance by having Kim arrested and sentenced to death. It was only with the influence of the Reagan administration that Chun reluctantly allowed Kim to live. Prior to 1987, there had been only 2 months since his kidnapping fourteen years earlier when he had been free of house arrest, prison, exile, or some other serious official restriction.

In these years of adversity, Kim has had the opportunity to strengthen his convictions and answer major questions facing Korea (Oberdorfer 177). When Kim Dae Jung assumed power as President in 1997, many thought finally. After a political career that has pned more than 4 decades, Kim was finally able to implement his democratic ideals. Kim was also a U. S. favorite for the presidency for it meant that Korea would strengthen its democratic government and Korea would have a president that the U. S. ould relate to – unlike Park Chung Hee in the 1970s.

Overall, Kim"s ascension into the presidency signified increasingly harmonious Korean-American relations into the 21st century. There is perhaps no better assurance of Korean-American political compatibility in the 1990s than Kim Dae Jung"s article that appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine in late 1994. In order to understand Kim Dae Jung"s adamantly pro-democracy article titled, "Is Culture Destiny? " one must first understand the Lee Kwan Yew interview that provoked it.

In his interview with Foreign Affairs in early 1994, Lee Kwan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, stated his belief that the primary reason that Asian countries cannot adopt Western democracy is due to the inherent differences in culture. In response, Korean President Kim Dae Jung argues that Asian culture does not oppose the ideals of democracy, but rather, enhances it. He believes that Asian culture in no way hinders the progress of democracy and the resistance of authoritarian leaders and their supporters only obstructs incorporation of such a culture into democracy.

And above all, Kim supports the ideals of democracy and promotes it fully throughout his article. Kim asserts that though Lee stresses cultural values throughout his interview, that alone does not determine a country"s fate. Furthermore, he believes that Lee"s view is not only unsupportable but also self-serving. Throughout the article, Kim disputes Lee"s arguments of incompatibility and implies that Lee"s "democracy is incompatible with Eastern culture" argument is only used to justify his personal anti-democratic beliefs.

The effects of Kim"s history of political oppression and opposition against authoritarianism can be seen throughout this response. In reply to Lee"s view that an individual exists within the context of the family, Kim points out that industrialization has brought the inevitable consequence of self-centered individualism. Also, Lee"s statement that "the ruler or government does not try to provide for a person what the family best provides," rejects what he perceives as the intrusive nature of Western governments. In it, Lee claims that this intrusiveness is not suited for family-oriented East Asia.

However, Kim argues that this is not true, for East Asian government are much more intrusive than Western governments into the daily affairs of their people. Whereas Western people exercise much more individual liberties than Eastern people, the Eastern governments tend to limit individual behavior. Singapore, for example, strictly regulates activities such as gum chewing, spitting, and littering. Lee even dislikes the "one man, one vote" principle that Kim states is a fundamental part of democracy, saying that he is not "intellectually convinced" that it is best (Kim 190).

Kim goes on to argue that though he cannot disagree with Lee"s objection to forcing an alien system indiscriminately upon societies in which it will not work, he questions the extent to which democracy is alien to Asian cultures. Contrary to Lee, Kim believes that Asian culture in fact enhances democracy and even contains underlying foundations that are essentially democratic in nature. Similar to the Lockean foundation of modern democracy that gives sovereign right to the people and leaders a mandate to govern through a social contract that the people can withdraw, Asia also has a similar philosophy.

Chinese philosopher Meng-tzu preached that the king is the Son of Heaven and is given a Mandate of Heaven to provide government for the good of the people. If he did not do so, the people had the right to rebel and overthrow the government in the name of heaven. A native religion of Korea further advocated that "man is heaven" and one must serve man as he does heaven (Kim 190). Kim also describes the ancient political systems of China and Korea in which the government practiced the rule of law and saw to it that all citizens were treated fairly.

Powerful boards of censors supported freedom of speech by checking imperial misrule and abuses by government officials. Therefore, he says, the fundamental ideas and traditions necessary for democracy exist in both Europe and Asia. Many Asian countries, including Singapore, became prosperous after they adopted a Western style of free-market economy, which is also an integral part of democracy. In countries where economic prosperity preceded political advancement, it was only a matter of time before democracy followed.

The best proof that democracy can work in East Asia, Kim says, can be seen in the fact that despite the resistance of authoritarian leaders, Asia has achieved the most remarkable record of democratization of any region since 1974. This achievement has only been overshadowed by Asia"s tremendous economic success. Kim uses the finding of experts who claim that the new economic world order requires guaranteed freedom of information and creativity, things that are only possible within a democracy.

Thus, Kim maintains, Asia has no alternative to democracy because it is also a matter of survival in an increasingly competitive world (Kim 192-193). Much to the U. S. "s pleasure, Kim suggests that Asia look towards the models of the democracy in the West and learn from their successes and failures. He advocates a "rebirth of democracy that promotes freedom, prosperity, and justice both within each country and among nations, (193)" and using the traditional strengths of Asian society to better the implementation of democracy.

Kim says, "such a democracy is the only true expression of a people, but it requires the full participation of all elements of society. Only then will it have legitimacy and reflect a country"s vision. " Policies which strive to protect people from the negative effects of economic and social change will never be effective if imposed without consent, but those same policies will have the strength of Asia"s people if decided through public debate. Furthermore, Kim advocates the need to strive towards a new democracy that guarantees the right of personal development for all human beings and the wholesome existence of all living this.

As a whole, Asia should firmly establish democracy and strengthen human rights. The biggest obstacle to democracy, Kim asserts, lies not within culture but within authoritarian governments. Coming at the brink of a political comeback, Kim"s article was in many ways pivotally timed to gain the support of the international community as well as the majority desiring Korean democracy. Through his support of public voice, direct elections, and humanitarian policies, one can clearly see the enormous change in Korean-American political interplay during the course of two decades.

Judging by the strength of Korean-American relations in the 1990s in comparison to the faltering one of the late 1970s, one can reasonably conclude that similar principles (rule of law, popular elections, freedom of press and speech) prove successful in stabilizing alliance management. The more positive image of Korea to Americans as the Koreans democratize versus all the scandals (Koreagate) and human rights violations of the 1970s have also served to improve the image of Korea to Americans.

Parallel trains of political thought and an enhanced Korean image in America have helped to make the Korean-American alliance far more beneficial and reliable than it was before Park"s demise, when it was feared that relations were irreparably deteriorated. More than any other president in Korea"s history, Kim Dae Jung personifies the ideals of Western style democracy. In direct contrast to Park Chung Hee"s rule in the 1970s, Kim Dae Jung supports a political policy that embraces Western ideology. The fundamental points within his argument are in line with primary U.

S. interests of democratization, so it is easy to see why Americans would welcome Kim as Korea"s leader. Twice in his political history the U. S. intervened to save Kim"s life and they further showed their support more recently when they pledged economic aid and support for Kim"s reforms. Thus, the 1990s have seen the vast improvement and strengthening of Korean-American relations while Korea progresses to become independent of the U. S. Democratization is well on its way and unlikely to regress, and Korean-American relations steadily continue to improve.

No longer is their alliance merely one in which Korea is a junior ally unable to exert much influence – Korea has gradually been able to test the limits of their alliance and exercise more power than ever before. An alliance that started as a U. S. security interest has evolved to become a more interdependent one in which both states will reap the benefits. Kim Dae Jung"s parting comment, if followed, will forever bind the U. S. and Korea as allies with the same political vison – "Culture is not necessarily our destiny. Democracy is" (194).

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US-South Korean Relations: A New Era of Cooperation. (2018, Jun 20). Retrieved from

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