Saturday, July 24, 2010

US-South Korean Relations, A Dynamic Affair

I’ve only just arrived in Korea about five weeks ago. I don’t want to live obliviously as so many Americans seem to do here. With this in mind I set out to learn some of the history of Korea and some of its culture. I’ve digested a short course of books on the country and also on the city in which I live. Given Hillery Clinton’s visit to Korea in the past days and the George Washington, a US supercarrier, conducting war games off of the coast of South Korea’s port city of Busan one of these books seems more relevant right now. Edited by David Steinberg of Georgetown University, Korean Attitudes Toward the United States: Changing Dynamics, published in 2005 by M. E. Sharp Inc., presents a primer for contemporary South Korean international outlooks. Though many professional academics have contributed to the work I would like to note at the outset that most of them seem to begin their appraisal of these relationships from a strongly biased opinion in favor of the continuation of US military presence in South Korea. As I have learned since arriving here in Kwangju that regularly both pro-American and Anti-American protests rage here, I think this overwhelming bias within the book worth of note.

The book, to its editor’s credit is arranged extremely well. Each of its sections cover peripheral as well as pertinent topics from comparative studies and statistics to structural interpretations and diplomacy. Unfortunately their remains a vast dearth of anything remotely cultural. The cultural components of the book are purely explicative and only considered as secondary to international relations or else political conditions. These caveats aside the book has a lot of interesting data and explication to consider.

William Watt’s essay “Changing Perspectives in U.S-Korean Relations and the Rise of Anti-Americanism" by far out weighs the other chapters in terms of the mass of data available. The chapter consisted of a vast corpus of statistics on Korean attitudes. I particularly found the table on page 268 interesting. It suggests that South Korean public opinion remains balanced between its outlook on China and the US. Given that China’s economy continues to rise and the US continues to decline this table and others indicates that Sino-South Korean relations are becoming significantly stronger. While the presence of the US military in South Korean increases disputes over sovereignty within the peninsula, China continues to play the role only of economic partner. This enables China to continue to improve relations while the US seems to continue aggravate their ally. The US and Korean military alliance centers on a fear of Kim Jong Il’s impotent aristocracy. This alliance does not fuel the aggravation but the perpetuation of US bases inside South Korea does for a portion of the population.

Watt's Statistics also reveal other striking, and for me surprising, statistics. For example a table on page 274 show that of those surveyed 59% think the US is the benefactor of the US-South Korean military alliance, with only 37% thinking that South Korea benefits. A statistic which bears relevance in my own politics jumps off of page 275: of "US led efforts to fight terrorism," 67% oppose and 13% favor. Given the emphasis in American media of the strength of the US-South Korean alliance, I found it quite revealing that Koreans largely oppose the US in its crusade. I found it a breath of fresh air. As several of my new friends here have explained, the invasion of Iraq and other 'counter terrorist' activities of the US in recent years have crossed many important political lines. Living in San Francisco these past years I had begun to think that only my friends therein quoted the Geneva Conventions, but I have had them referenced to me here as well.

Both citizens of the US and citizens the US's allies didn't see the Bush regime's invasion and occupation of Iraq as either justified or legal. Several less numeric data sets found their way into the study showing the reasons so many South Koreans grow cold over continued US military involvement on the Korean Peninsula from American egoism to US policies heightening South-North tensions. Of the last concern, many intoxicated Korean men have noted the desire to see all Korea eventually reunited into a single Korea. The political moves made by the US prevent this eventuality in the eyes of many people here.

William Drennen’s contribution unfortunately spends its pages attempting to find US hands clean of the disastrous and violent suppression of the people’s movement against the military dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan: The Kwangju Massacre. I have had the opportunity to end up living in Kwangju, which has a massive park and memorial to remember the people lost in the military suppression. People I have spoken with who lived through the affair related seeing children beaten bloody and women raped in full view of the public. Furthermore, the military cut the telephone lines out of the city moments before they began their week long blood sport. This prevented neighboring cities and families from hearing of the full extent of the bloodbath. Other books I will review later explain that reporters on the scene later described the army‘s relentless battery of anyone within reach by sprint as "human hunting."

Drennen does a fairly inadequately researched outline of the violence which the people of Kwangju suffered in the days of murder by Hwan’s troops before a section he notably entitles “The Myth of US Responsibility.” Within this section he dismisses both American and Korean commentators as ignorant of the chain of command. This in his assessment leaves only Hwan's regime responsible. The facts, which he attempts to dismiss rhetorically remain that the South Korean military received a go ahead to conduct the operation entitled “Fascinating Vacations” from the US military. The critical point here is that while the US government often claims that it is taking military action to prevent humanitarian crisis to justify its own infractions against sovereign states and peoples, it could have just as easily and simply said that the operation couldn't be conducted to prevent this slaughter and didn't.

Other chapters are generally descriptive. Most indicate a growing movement of ‘anti-baseism’ or a growing desire to see US bases removed and full South Korean sovereignty brought to the now full fledged democracy. While these chapters tend to focus on the growing sentiment toward a desire to see the US military presence removed, the authors readily qualify that many South Koreans in fact remain desirous of a good relationship with the sole global military superpower. Though many here in South Korea rally for the removal of US bases from the Peninsula, others wear shirts bearing the US flag. Even those who have expressed negative opinions about the continuation of US presence in South Korea to me have often bought me a beer and even treated me to whole night out while discussing their political concerns. My own brief experience here has buttressed my appreciation of the expositions of this book.

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