America’s Korea Policy Needs an Overhaul

Despite decades of American economic and military support for South Korea, in recent years younger South Koreans have begun to express virulently anti-US views. It is no longer only in meetings with North Korea's communist government that American visitors to the Korean peninsula confront charges of US economic imperialism, war-mongering, and colonial intentions. In fact, says Korea expert Stephen W. Linton, there are three strong political currents in both the North and South that work against US policy in Korea. First, many Koreans believe that US sanctions against trade with North Korea are holding all Koreans back by depriving the South of access to cheaper labor in the North. Together, it is thought, the two Koreas could develop a mutually beneficial economic relationship and make Korea a formidable economic power. Secondly, many believe that US military policy is making the peninsula less secure. The War on Terror is seen as a globally destabilizing military campaign that is actually exposing Korea to a greater terrorist risk. Finally, Linton argues, there is the strongly-held belief that Washington's policies serve to contain Korean ethnic and national aspirations. Many young South Koreans see the presence of US troops as a barrier to Korean reunification, not a guarantee of their country's peace and security. Although these are formidable trends that Washington will be hard-pressed to counter, Linton concludes, a new, well-conceived policy that respects national concerns could help put the US back in favor with a majority of South Koreans. – YaleGlobal

America's Korea Policy Needs an Overhaul

Anti-US sentiment in North and South stems from Washington's misguided economic and security positions
Stephen W. Linton
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
Anti-US protesters in Seoul: Deep currents of disagreement with Washington on several key issues.

WASHINGTON: Like the seas that surround it, the Korean Peninsula has a well-deserved reputation for being dangerously unpredictable. Under the storm-tossed surface, however, run strong currents that give both direction and intent to these oft-troubled waters.

Public opinion in South Korea, like the seas around the peninsula, sometimes swells into strong and dangerous currents. Once formed, these long-term trends in public sentiment are slow to change and almost impossible to reverse. And as the last South Korean election proved beyond question, even the US-ROK (Republic of Korea) Security Alliance is not a large enough anchor against this tide. Indeed, there are three strong ‘consensus currents’ in South Korea which run counter to American policy. All three are particularly characteristic of South Korea’s younger generation and are dangerous to continued American influence in the region.

The first consensus current holds that US policy is bad for Korea’s economy. In the 1950’s, American aid comprised more than fifty percent of the ROK economy. For the next three decades, access to American markets fueled South Korea’s dramatic economic advance from one of the world’s poorest to one of the wealthiest nations on earth. Nevertheless, many Koreans now think that American policy is a threat to Korea’s economic future. How did this come about?

According to this current of thinking, access to cheap North Korean labor would rejuvenate South Korea’s stumbling economy. In fact, North Korea is South Korea’s last chance to regain international competitiveness, particularly in the low-tech sectors that once fueled South Korea’s economic miracle. Unfortunately, America’s economic restrictions on goods produced in North Korea keep the two Koreas from what could be an advantageous marriage of South Korean technology and North Korean labor.

Young Korean entrepreneurs are particularly bitter about the losses they believe they are sustaining due to American policy toward North Korea. As a result, no matter how well South Korea’s economy prospers, the perception remains that Koreans could do much better if not for American restrictions on business with North Korea.

The belief that American policy is bad for the South Korean economy has a counterpart in North Korea as well. Instead of blaming their socialist system for chronic economic hardship, most North Koreans believe that their nation would be as wealthy (or wealthier) than the ROK if only North Korea had equal access to US and other western markets. Consequently, no matter how much humanitarian aid they receive from Washington, North Koreans still think that “the US embargo designed to strangle our economy” is denying them a level economic playing field and holding them back from gaining what is rightfully theirs.

The second consensus current holds that American policy is bad for Korea’s security. The US-ROK Security Alliance has been the backbone of South Korea’s defense for a half-century. Nevertheless, recent polls show that a majority of South Korean citizens, particularly the young, now see America as their biggest national security threat.

What is driving this dramatic change of opinion? Many young Koreans believe that Washington’s aggressive pursuit of the 'War on Terror', particularly its pre-emptive policy and pressure on ‘rogue nations,’ poses even graver risks to peace in East Asia than North Korea’s WMD programs. Many fear that America’s War on Terror is not only a war between ‘haves and have-nots,’ but also a conflict that is creating more enemies than it destroys, and as a consequence is putting Korea and other US allies at greater rather than lesser risk of terrorist attack.

The third consensus current holds that American policy is a threat to Korea’s ethnic and national aspirations. Unquestionably, the Republic of Korea would not have survived the Korean War were it not for the sacrifices by the American military. But for many Koreans today, particularly those too young to remember the horrors of the war, the future of Korea as a reunited ethnic nation transcends even the importance of state survival. Unless North and South reunite, they believe, the future of Koreans as an independent people is in doubt.

According to this line of thinking, the presence of US troops in South Korea under the Alliance is the major obstacle to reunification and thus, to Korean ethnic and national aspirations. To add insult to injury, foreign troops on Korean soil are also an affront to Korean pride. An ROK dependent on the US for its security is a liability to its bid to join the ranks of advanced nations.

Koreans who interpret their history to be a litany of victimization by rapacious foreign powers maintain that self-defense, even with nuclear weapons, is a national and ethnic right. Doubtful that North Korea would use WMD against fellow Koreans, they insist that a reunited Korean Peninsula should keep nuclear and all other defense options open to discourage future invaders.

A majority of younger Koreans strongly believe that the US, China, and Japan want to hold Koreans back from achieving all they can. Some even speculate that the catalogue of US concerns about North Korea – a list that includes not only North Korea’s WMD but also missile sales, human rights abuses, counterfeit money, and drugs – is part of an elaborate plan to further isolate North Korea and thus retard reconciliation and reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

On the surface, it would appear that these three public consensus currents leave little room for the US-ROK Security Alliance. Nevertheless, it may still be possible to turn the tide of public opinion away from anti-Americanism by undertaking a judicious re-articulation of America’s core concerns for Korea and the region. The goal of a policy overhaul by Washington should be to develop policies that complement, rather than frustrate the sentiment of South Korea’s youthful 'New Majority'.

An effective US policy toward North Korea would comprise three elements to achieve an immediate, comprehensive solution to the stand-off with North Korea. First, it would focus primarily on WMD and secondarily on everything else. The US would encourage South Korea and other allies in the region to take leadership in resolving North Korea’s non-WMD related negatives, such as human rights abuses, drugs, counterfeit money, etc.

Second, Washington must express a willingness to extend the kind of iron-clad security guarantees to North Korea that the US has given South Korea under the Alliance, contingent on only two conditions: a) that Pyongyang irreversibly abandon all of its WMD-related programs; and b) that Pyongyang implement simultaneously a robust and verifiable non-aggression pact with South Korea. Violation of this pact would automatically nullify the proposed security agreement between the US and the DPRK. Third, the US should lift all economic restrictions on trade with North Korea indefinitely, contingent on a comprehensive annual review.

There are, of course, no guarantees that Pyongyang would accept these terms. Nonetheless, this policy overhaul would make US policy a ‘friend’ rather than an ‘enemy’ of Korea’s economic, security, and national/ethnic aspirations and thus put the Alliance back in public favor in South Korea. Additionally, it would demonstrate that the US whole-heartedly supports Korean reunification and that Koreans themselves must accept full responsibility for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.

Stephen W. Linton is Chairman of the Eugene Bell Foundation, a humanitarian aid organization that works in North Korea.

© 2004 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization