Korean Whining: The Price of Dependence on America

Korea has joined the first rank of nations. You wouldn’t know it, however, listening to the Korean public’s reaction to the kidnapping and murder of Korean aid workers in Afghanistan. It is America’s fault.

Christian missionaries long have been active in Korea. The first president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, was a product of American missionary activism on behalf of what was then a Japanese colony.

In the intervening years Christianity has exploded in the traditionally Buddhist nation. Long a recipient of missionaries, South Korea has begun sending forth missionaries. A number have gone to Iraq, with several kidnappings and one beheading as a result.

Missionaries have been even more active in Afghanistan, though the Saemmul Presbyterian Church emphasizes that its 23 members went to work in hospitals and schools rather than proselytize. Many Koreans view Christians who travel to a war-torn Muslim land as more foolish than courageous, though other South Koreans involved in Afghan aid missions have encountered no problems.

Unfortunately, these 23 people were captured last month when they ventured outside of Kabul. So far the Taliban has killed two of the hostages, while demanding a prisoner swap with the Afghan government. Kabul has said no.

Many Koreans blame the captives, and some of them have begun criticizing Washington. In their view, it is America’s fault that the Republic of Korea sent troops to Afghanistan. And it is America’s fault that Kabul has not conceded the Taliban’s demands.

Family members have met with U.S. diplomatic personnel to request American aid. Protestors have been holding candlelight vigils outside of the U.S. embassy. Signs included such messages as “Bush: Don’t kill, negotiate” and “Americans = human beings; Koreans = flies.” A parliamentary delegation raced to Washington to lobby for U.S. action.

Moreover, the issue has become part of the upcoming presidential election. Chung Dong-young, a candidate of what is left of the ruling party, wrote President George W. Bush requesting that the president “save the hostages.” Chung explained: “Koreans believe that, since this crisis is a part of the war on terror, the U.S. is the main party and not a third party.”

Five years ago a U.S. military vehicle hit and killed two school girls, sparking nation-wide protests which helped elect Roh Moo-hyun president. His positive ratings now trail those of President Bush and the opposition is expected to win the December election; rising anti-Americanism offers Chung and others running for his party’s nomination a sliver of hope for an electoral miracle.

Obviously, the capture and threatened killing of so many South Koreans is a tragedy. But swapping military captives for civilian hostages increases the incentive for the Taliban to grab foreigners. For this reason the U.S. and its allies criticized Kabul for releasing Taliban prisoners earlier this year in exchange for an Italian journalist. Indeed, the latest hostage-taking may have been encouraged by the Taliban’s “reward” in the Italian case.

Nevertheless, the South Korean legislators released a statement: “We politely appeal to the U.S. government to change its stance on the hostage issue and help prevent additional killings of Korean hostages.” Koreans are understandably, if myopically, focused on the fate of Korean captives today rather than potentially more foreign hostages tomorrow.

If the captives don’t come home alive, some South Koreans predict substantial damage to the U.S.-ROK relationship.

Relations have been rocky for some time, especially given differences over policy towards Pyongyang, as well as public opinion that increasingly favors China and North Korea over the U.S. Recent North Korean intransigence on the nuclear and other issues seemed to sap some enthusiasm for the North, but President Roh is now set to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-il later this month in a second intra-Korean summit. The Afghan kidnappings could push Seoul’s relations with America into another downward spiral.

The fact that the first inclination of some South Koreans is to blame Washington for the Afghan hostage-taking provides another reason to end the current alliance, which locks the South into a dependent position. As long as the ROK plays junior partner to the U.S., South Korea is going to be pressed to reluctantly follow America’s lead and South Koreans are going to blame America when policies go wrong.

The U.S.-ROK alliance grew out of World War II. The U.S. and Soviet Union divided the peninsula, but their plan for a unified Korea collapsed, leading to two hostile client states. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea invaded the South in 1950. After three years of war, including Chinese intervention on behalf of the DPRK, came an armistice, but no peace treaty.

American troops remained to guarantee South Korea’s survival. But in the intervening years the ROK has raced past the North; the former now possesses twice the population and about 40 times the economic strength of Pyongyang. With the end of the Cold War China and Russia have forged friendly relations with Seoul. North Korea possesses a quantitative military lead, but its decrepit forces likely would fare poorly in battle.

Nor is the South locked into a position of numerical inferiority. With a modest increase in effort, Seoul could spend the equivalent of the North’s entire GDP on the military. The ROK does not do more because it sees no need to do more.

The majority of South Koreans no longer feel threatened by the North. Moreover, they feel secure living in America’s military shadow.

Indeed, so secure do they feel that they get angry with the U.S. about almost everything – including South Korean aid workers kidnapped by Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan.

It’s time for Washington to end the blame game. That means ending Seoul’s dependence on America.

This doesn’t mean terminating the wide-ranging contacts between the two nations. South Korea and America have strong economic ties – which would be strengthened by approval of the Free Trade Agreement now pending before the legislatures of both nations.

Cultural contacts are many, with large Korean communities living in the U.S. and many of the South’s academic, business, and political elite having attended American universities. Multiple friendships also have been forged in the blood of war and through decades of U.S. soldiers serving in the ROK.

But there’s no need for Washington to defend the South any longer. Seoul has joined the front rank of nations – its economy is among the dozen largest in the world, its companies range the globe doing business, and its people, as illustrated by the ill-starred aid workers, are taking Korea to the world. Serious nations have an obligation to defend themselves.

Ending America’s security guarantee and troop deployment would leave the ROK’s future in its hands. The South could decide whether to intervene in a nation like Afghanistan without worrying lest a negative decision trigger Washington’s displeasure.

Seoul also wouldn’t expect any particular consideration when it came to policy in other lands. American officials who didn’t back an Afghan prisoner exchange for an Italian journalist wouldn’t be expected to change their position for South Korean church workers.

And South Koreans would be forced to confront the fact that their relative impotence in this or similar situations has nothing to do with America. It is frustrating for any people to stand by and see their fellow citizens kidnapped and murdered.

But the Korean government made a sovereign decision to send troops to Afghanistan and Iraq; the 23 Korean Christians made personal decisions to travel to Afghanistan. The Korean public should hold its politicians and fellow citizens, not the U.S. government, responsible for their actions.

But there’s something more important at stake. By ending its dependence on the U.S., the ROK could take over the lead in fashioning policy towards the North and other neighboring states. No longer would Washington be in a position to plan a war without bothering to consult with South Korean leaders, as did President Bill Clinton during the first nuclear crisis with Pyongyang more than a decade ago. Instead, the ROK would set the Korean agenda.

The U.S. would benefit by ridding itself of responsibility for the emotional and complicated problems of other nations. The advantages for South Koreans of running their own affairs would be even greater – “priceless,” as the credit card ad goes.

Americans and South Koreans alike should hope and pray for the safe return of the Taliban’s latest hostages. But the tragic problem belongs to South Koreans, not Americans.

Before the next such incident arises, with the U.S. being blamed by South Koreans for the actions of the ROK government and people, Washington should announce that it is turning responsibility for the South’s defense back to Seoul. The South has become a leader among nations. It is time South Korea acted accordingly.