Tracing the foreign policy of the United States and South Korean since 1950 reveals a portentous and definite pattern that eventually included many other countries in the area in a slowly gathering culmination of events. Because certain events influenced each country’s foreign policy so much before they were intertwined, these will be recounted briefly to give perspective to the problem.
During the 20th century, Korea remained a country to be fought over and annexed, while the United States gradually became a major world power. America had relaxed her isolationist policy to be included in events overseas after the turn of the century, to be increasingly interactive with other major powers. After World War II, for example, Korea became one of the major sources of irritation in what was termed the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union opposed the Western and American “warmongers.”
The United States had been, in fact, arming Greece and Turkey with American carriers that were able to sail the length of the Mediterranean or lie off the coast of Murmansk. American air bases had been established and were easy to establish in the Near and Middle East. Americans were also occupying South Korea in addition to Japan, as a result of the World War II pacts. Not only had America virtually annexed Okinawa, but it also had various sites spread across the Soviet Union. Foreign policy for America had also dictated long-range bombardment centers across the same area to make the Soviet Union feel encircled.
From 1946 on, the relations between these two superpowers worsened until the Cold War turned into actual fighting in Asia. By June 1950, the Soviet-sponsored regime of North Korea crossed the 38th border parallel and launched an attack on the republic in the south, established under the aegis of the United Nations. Because of the fact that during the Second World War it had been agreed that Korea had been an imperialist source of rivalry between Japan and Russia, for purely temporary occupation purposes Soviet troops were to occupy the area south of that parallel. Months after the end of the Pacific war, the U.S.S.R. created a puppet government on the order of the European “people’s republic,” and they proceeded to Sovietize its occupation zone. They trained a large forceful native army for this purpose.
The Soviets also put blocks in the way of an American proposal to hold elections for all Korea under U.N. supervision. Elections were held, but only in South Korea. However, the position of U.S. foreign policy by 1949 was that America should withdraw its occupation troops from its zone. This was partially true because Russia sided with this policy, also. The Korean conflict that followed almost immediately after these moves “took three years and 150,000 U.S. casualties,” according to the congressional summary of the war.
U.S. policy definitely changed as a result of this conflict; in fact, the change continued throughout the next two decades. The conflict confirmed the notion that the United States, through its foreign policy, became firmly and irrevocably convinced that larger communist powers, the U.S.S.R. and the newly formed Chinese People’s Republic, possibly the latter alone, incited the war. The U.S. surmised that the attackers calculated a quick victory because of their superior forces and also gambled that the rest of the world would not press more than a complaint through official channels. However, U.S. President Harry S. Truman set the precedent,
”initiating the firmest action ever
taken under international auspices
against overt aggression in the
twentieth century and called upon the
United Nations to take prompt military
measures against the aggressor and
committed American combat units to the
fighting. For many weeks this was the
strongest action taken.
Another factor in deciding future U.S. policy occurred when the U.N. forces were compelled to retreat and faced the danger of expulsion from the peninsula in summer 1950. Only a successful amphibious landing changed this situation. A second driving force southward occurred when the Chinese Communists entered the war shortly after; however, the U.N. forces drove back the combination of the North Koreans and Communist China. They even drove them to slightly above the 38th parallel.
According to most sources, President Truman was “determined to punish the North Korean act of aggression but they were resolved also not to permit the conflict to develop into a third world war.” This might happen if Manchuria or other parts of China were bombed, a course of action being urged at the time by both General MacArthur and the South Korean government, particularly President Syngman Rhee.
The U.S. population appeared stunned by the turnabout in policy, from aggression to moderation. People appeared infuriated by the worst military reverses in their history, although the State Department foresaw the advisability of rstricting the fighting. Gradually, the MacArthur controversy faded away, and the State Department began its long-term position of punishment almost to the brink of major war, without major war occurring.
By July 1951, a cease-fire agreement ended large-scale fighting. However, true negotiations dragged on for two years. This occurred especially over the exchange and repatriation of prisoners of war. In the meantime, sporadic fighting continued. In July 1953, a truce was signed after the extensive, but not world, war. Fifteen nations had participated in the conflict, begun in great part by the United States in answer to the aggressive movements of the north Vietnamese. Politically, things reverted back to what they had been before 1950. Korea was again divided roughly at the same parallel. The North Korean government, the Chinese People’s Republic, and the U.S.S.R. persisted in rejecting international supervision of free elections for the entire country. To advisers of U.S. foreign relations policy, a flagrant act of aggression had been stopped. To the Soviet world, the great captialist power, the United States, had been prevented from reasserting Western imperialist supremacy in the East, and, to the Koreans, the two major powers fought over their resources. Few Koreans were enthusiastic about the regional security pacts in the East.
The Koreans, in fact, were never enthusiastic about the regional pacts advised by the United States. Much of the nation’s population disliked communism but also refused to be involved in the war. Most also distrusted the West, and in all the years of Asian revolution in countries such as India, Indonesia, and Burna, the United States was held in many Asian quarters to be a symbol of Western oppression and exploitation. This was true even thouogh it was the least involved of all the major powers in 19th-century Asia and because of the leadership role it had taken in the Western world.
However, it should also be noted that, until 1945, Korea was a country comprised of a “remarkably homogenous [group] . . . despite a stormy history.” However, this terminated with the outcome of World War II, after which many of the sociopolitical elite were forced to align themselves with some major foreign power or powers for self-protection. This had happened before in the history of Korea, although the affinity between the Korean elite and the United States was aided by certain personal ties. These were overwhelmingly religious. For the modern Korean, Christianity became a method of expressing political as well as religious sentiments and became a source of nationalist identification against Chinese and Japanese threats.
South Korea thus represents “a society in which the political elite has established close relations with the West.” This was particularly true regarding the United States and influences U.S. policy, also. Gradually, the political relations, which were political and which involved primarily the elite, became cultural ties. However, also influencing foreign policy slightly was the same love/hate relationship with the United States among the intellectuals. The skills of technological and industrial nature kept this relationship on an even keel, however, since many younger Koreans possess a technical competence in the social sciences more advanced than their Japanese counterparts. This situation held true until the 1960s. At this later time, despite the reasonably close relations that have existed between a certain portion of the Korean elite and Americans, the political transition of significance that took place after 1961 changed the circumstances. An older generation of political leaders dominated by strongly Westernized types was succeeded by a younger, more Asian set of leaders. In the case of the Korean leaders, these were military.
The new leadership from the first was less acculturated to the West and less close to Westerners in personal terms. However, this does not mean that they are necessarily anti-Western. This major transition that eventually influenced foreign policy was experienced throughout ex-colonial Asia, unsurprisingly. It had potentially far-reaching repercussions in the decades that immediately followed the change.
The first generation elite tended to hold cosmopolitanism as a faith while harboring deep prejudices of a cultural and racial character as a result of their own experiences, real and imagined. The younger generation that emerged, however, was more attuned to its own people, less cosmopolitan and more indigenous. Because of this, their foreign policy is less ideological, more pragmatic, problem-oriented and administrative in nature. Alliances with Japan are even feasible if they are for practical reasons; racial, cultural, and religious differences come second to the practical side of the foreign policy situation.
It should be noted, too, that influence by China was becoming greater and greater. In fact, in China, “the Korean War provided a useful sanction for heightened anti-Americanism, extirpation of irreconcilables, and popular mobilization. Two major campaigns were mounted, to resist America, aid Korea and to suppress revolutionaries.” On the American side, “the Korean War also confirmed the general opinion that the communist government which had recently come to power in Peking was merely a branch office of the Kremlin. ALthough there was considerable evidence to the contrary even then, we knew that the Chinese revolution was a conspiracy organized by Moscow . . . How could it be otherwise?”
Thus, the domino theory came into stronger existence than it had been, as it was only intimated prior to the event. Korea was only one pawn of the Chinese government, which in turn was a tool of the Russian government. As one author wrote, “Half of Asia lay in Moscow’s grip.” The enemy, according to American foreign service agents, may have worn different disguises, but whether masquerading as a commissar or a coolie, it was part of the international communist conspiracy. In fact, one of the highest diplomatic authorities told the public that it was true. Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk said in 1951, “China is a colonial Russian government–a slavic Manchukuo on a large scale
–it is not the government of China. It does not pass the first test. It is not Chinese.”
And, in terms of Korean foreign policy, such new leaders as Premier Kim II Sung, during the period 1955 to 1970, wrote scathing reports to the Congress of the Koean Workers. Writing during the period when Korea was transformed from a backward agrarian country into the modern industrial socialist state it became by 1970, Kim represented the faction that believed the following:
A fierce struggle is going on in the
international arena today between
socialism and imperialism, between the
forces of revolution and counter-revolution
. . . Our party and people will carry on
an unflinching struggle against the
forces of aggression led by the U.S.
imperialism and strrive to unite with
all forces opposing it.
What had led up to these political expressions which ultimately influenced foreign policy? Following the Korean War, the United States undertook a policy to maintain the armistice line of 1953: to continue to supply and help train ROK armed forces; to furnish continued technical, economic, and military aid to the ROK to help that nation along the road to self-support, both in its economy and its defenses. The United States also pledged to support President Rhee’s policy for the unification of Korea through the U.N.-supervised elections. This was supported further by the United States-Korean Mutual Defense Treaty. This agreement was signed on October 1, 1953, and entered into force as of November 17, 1954.
It was at this point, of course, following the Korean Armistice (July 1953) that the Far Eastern crisis center shifted to Southeast Asia, particularly to Indochina, where French colonial forces had been waging a costly struggle against communism since 1916. The U.S. foreign policy included several points: stopping the spread of communism, i.e., the policy of containment; the fulfillment of Indochina’s national aspirations providing this would not conflict with the above goal; and avoiding another Korea and trying to come to terms with the Communists. The Big Four foreign ministers, meeting in Berlin in January and February 1954, agreed that a conference on the Korean question should be held in Geneva in April. The Republic of Korea and 15 of the U.N. countries that had participated in the war confronted North Korea, Communist China and the Soviet Union. Syngman Rhee’s position at that time in terms of foreign policy was still to seek unification of Korea by force if necessary. This certainly appeared to be the case. As mentioned above, the result of this meeting was only a treaty of mutual defense, similar to others being signed by representatives of the United States and the Republic of Korea on October 1, 1953.
In this phase of foreign relationships, Korea consented to the stationing of the U.S. Armed Forces in and about its territory. Two American Army divisions remained in Korea. Nominally a part of the U.N. force, these Army divisions were only one part of the U.N. force. The United States continued to provide the Republic of Korea with economic aid of some $200 million annually and to help arm and sustain the Korean army at a cost that was unspecified. One early deciding factor in the situation was the Geneva Conference, held from April 26 through July 21, 1954. During this meeting, the United States-Korean problems were discussed. These included how the free world could stand together for two fundamental principles. These were the authority of the U.N. in Korean affairs and the necessity of genuinely free Korean elections under U.N. supervision.
On June 15, in view of the deadlock on Korea, the free-world nations broke off the Geneva negotiations on the Korean issue. The 16 free-world nations pledged their support to the United States and the U.N. by reaffirming their continued support for U.N. objectives in Korea. The Korean phase of this particular conference was brought to an end by the United States after it was unable to reach agreement on the two key issues: the authority of the United Nations and provisions for genuinely free elections. Fifteen countries participated on its side. These countries issued a “Declaration of the Sixteen,” which noted the proposals they had made to “bring about the unification, independence and freedom of Korea.” Those signing the Declaration of the Sixteen also submitted a report on the Geneva Conference to the United Nations in which they expressed their deep regret that the Communist delegations at Geneva had persisted “in the same refusal to accept elections impartially supervised which has frustrated the efforts of the UN since 1947 to bring about the unification of Korea.”
On November 17, representatives of the United States and the Republic of Korea initiated an agreement in Seoul. This set forth the broad areas of agreement which existed between the two governments on political as well as economic and military matters. The U.S. government agreed to carry out an extensive program of economic aid and direct military assistance to Korea during the current year. It also reaffirmed its intentions in the event of an unprovoked attack on the Republic of Korea, to employ its military power against the aggressors. It stated its intentions, to press forward with the economic program for the rehabilitation of Korea. The Korean Republic agreed to cooperate with the United States in its efforts to unify Korea. It accepted the proposed levels and principles for strengthening its military establishment and agreed to keep its forces under operational control of the U.N. command.
The following year, Secretary of State John Dulles commented on South Korean demonstrations against the presence of Communist members of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. He said that the demonstrations were caused by the feeling of the Koreans that the Communists were opertaing as spies, and the corresponding teams in North Korea had not been able to prevent violations of the Armistice. Although the U.S. was sympathetic to these views, it did not approve of the violence in expressing them, which stated much about U.S. foreign policy at this time. The U.N. Command, obliged to protect members of the inspection teams, did so at the request of Dulles, who said that it was intended to be so.
In 1955, a joint communique issued at the conclusion of economic and military discussions held in Washington between the U.S. and Korean representatives dealt with exchange rate problems and the steps which the two governments would take to speed up the reconstruction and rehabilitation programs to enable Korea to become self-supporting as soon as possible. The announcement also said that military aid and supply matters had been discussed. The next day, Dulles observed at a news conference that, in a number of respects, provisions of the 1953 Armistice Agreement had become obsolete and were being frustrated. Modifications were desired at the time.
The following year, foreign policy adhered to a protective policy. Assistant Secretary of State Walter S. Robertson appeared before the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives in support of the Mutual Security Program for the 1957 year. He also revealed that the Communists had not decreased the building of combat capability in North Korea. Robertson said that the U.S. aid program in Korea was one of the major factors in the support of the Korean Army, the fourth largest in the world and the largest among the free nations of Asia. This was characterized as obviously an effective deterrent against further aggression by the Chinese Communist and North Korean armies.
In 1957, Secretary of State Dulles said at a news conference that the Korean Armistice Agreement, made almost half a decade previous to the conference, had been drafted to cover only a short period of time and therefore called for replacement of weapons only on a piece-by-piece basis of comparable quality. He accused the Chinese Communists of not keeping their part of the Conference bargain because they were introducing weapons of a new and voluminous nature into the area. During the same year, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that the U.N. Command had advised the Military Armistice Commission in Korea that it considered itself entitled to be relieved of obligations which limited the replacements of weapons. When the Armistice was signed, the announcement stated, there had not been many North Korean airfields in operation, and all Communist planes had been at bases north of the Yalu River.
The significance of the situation was a rapidly rearming of South Korea by North Korean forces. Therefore, when asked about reunification the same year, Dulles answered that the prospects were not good because there had been “no indication at all yet that the puppet regime there or the Chinese Communists” would accept terms which had been previously laid down by the United Nations and endorsed at the Geneva Conference in 1954. These stated that there would be elections in 1954, a policy that was supported by the South Koreans. Dulles said that Korea could be reunified if those in control in North Korea would admit that the reunification basis was free elections.
By 1958 the situation was little changed except that the North Korean authorities made the proposal that all foreign troops be withdrawn from both the north and south and that all elections be held under the observation of the neutral nations organization. The United States admitted at this point that its troop strength was down 20 percent of the number when the armistice was signed in 1953. Dulles also said that no further reduction of forces was planned, although the number exceeded the need.
Negotiations between the United States and the Chinese Communists occurred during the rest of the year. The United States and the U.N. committee wanted to know how the elections would be held and how the weapons would be reduced. The Chinese Communists wanted to know the same thing, as did the South Koreans. Most of the requests were denied, such as the withdrawal of troops by the North Koreans. In fact, relations between the Republic of South Korea and the United States-United Nations military command and the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea remained on the unsatisfactory armistice basis of 1953 for many years. Both parties guarded their respective sides of the demilitarized zone that was between the cease-fire lines. South Korea aso expelled the communist members of the neutral team.
Still, representatives from the two military commands, constituting the Military Armistice Commission, met from time to time (278 meetings) while the buildup and modernization of equipment, contrary to armistice terms, continued on both sides. The representatives on foreign policy in terms of the intervening major powers showed that each Korean government aspired to unite the country on its own terms. South Korea’s endeavors were many times limited by U.N. resolutions and by its dependence on the United States. When the United States became deeply involved in the Vietnam War, Kim II Sung stepped up the guerilla attacks, and the extreme of this movement occurred in 1968 when a suicide squad of 31 terrorists penetrated the DMZ and reached Seoul with the acknowledged mission of assassinating President Park. Other crises occurred through the decade of the ’60s in which South Korea’s foreign policy was entirely centered on obtaining the aid of major powers to survive. There were, however, no more incidents during 1969 and 1970; there were also indications that Kim was taking a new and more peaceful stance.
Unification, however, as proposed by the major powers would come through force and not compromise, something the South Koreans would not do. Unification through elections was proposed during the beginning of the ’70s, although most experts are sceptical about this proposition. Meanwhile, the pentagon had denied unofficial South Korean claims that a secret agreement linked the presence of the U.S. troops to the war of Vietnam. Contingency plans to reduce Korean forces and proposals by foreign policy officials in South Korea for elections and reduction of forces have still not been made, although North and South meetings have. This has been described as a “tightrope act” and rightly so.