A conflict is simmering here in South Korea over who will pay how much of the costs for the construction of a brand new $10 billion base for the United States Forces Korea (USFK). The new base is, ironically, part of a modest downsizing of the American contingent in Korea, now entering its sixty-third year on a peninsula, which, in the words of General Douglas MacArthur, “hangs like a lumpy phallus between the sprawling thighs of Manchuria and the Sea of Japan.” The empire and its protectorate are in behind-closed-doors discussions over payment for the controversial base.
Asia Times Online analyst Donald Kirk has said “how ‘welcome and wanted’ US forces remain in South Korea will depend to some extent on whether Seoul is prepared to pick up the tab” for the base (from Pyongyang cashes in on US row). As the title of Mr. Kirk’s piece suggests, the North Koreans have weighed in on the issue, with a statement that “cooperation with foreign forces for aggression ‘would…’ lay a stumbling block in the way of the cause of national reunification.” For once, the North Koreans are right, as we will later see.
Koreans, North and South alike, are masters of brinkmanship. Thus, it is the American taxpayer who will likely pick up the lion’s share of the base’s $10 billion price tag. The row will not result in the orgy of anti-Americanism unleashed in 2002 after a fatal traffic accident involving US forces claimed the lives of two middleschool girls. At the time, there were massive demonstrations in Seoul, American citizens ─ citizens, not soldiers ─ were denied services by restaurants, and Caucasian foreigners of all nationalities were accosted on the streets. (It didn’t seem to matter to one unruly mob that the two foreigners they had detained were Swiss, not Americans.)
In that presidential election year, both “conservatives” and “liberals” were quick to exploit the “gusts of popular feeling which pass for public opinion” that Victorian travel writer Isabella Bird described in her 1898 account of Korea. It was the “conservative” presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang, ironically, who felt himself compelled to make his presence seen at the anti-American rallies. He lost to the “liberal” Roh Moo-hyun, and many analysts have cited the anti-American sentiment as the deciding factor in that election.
But one thing that the South Korean “conservatives” and “liberals” agree on, as do many if not most of the anti-American protesters, is that the US forces should remain here. “Yankee go home” is not the rallying cry here, but rather, “Yankee stay on your bases but keep us safe.” Heck, even the “Dear Leader” himself lent support to the idea as far back as 2000: “Kim Jong Il told South Korean President Kim Dae Jung at their June 13—15 summit that U.S. forces stationed in South Korea should remain on the Korean Peninsula after its reunification” (from North’s Kim said U.S. troops should stay in Korea: paper). The reasons for the near-universal support of the American presence here are obvious, but we will examine them at the end of this article. First, let’s examine the American rationale for maintaining a presence here.
Two reasons are generally given for a continued American presence in South Korea. Interventionists, both neoconservative and humanitarian liberal, will tell you that the “indispensable nation” (to use Madeleine Albright‘s nauseatingly hubristic phrase) is needed to here to defend poor South Korea from its ideologically berserk compatriots to the north. So-called “realists” will more honestly say that the American presence here serves as a counter to China. In my essay entitled America’s Entangling East Asian Alliances, I outlined why both of these reasons are wrong, and will summarize myself here.
The idea that we are defending helpless South Korea against its belligerent “brother nation” to the north is as absurd as it is offensive. The south has a population two-and-a-half times that of the north, and an economy forty times larger. There is no reason why the world’s twelfth largest economy cannot take care of its own defenses. And even if our involvement in Korea were a purely noble effort on behalf of a weak ally, the question Pat Buchanan asked years ago comes to mind: “If the 60 million Koreans, North and South, were raptured up to heaven, how would America be imperiled?” (from More Troops — or Less Empire).
As for the second argument, China is already contained. Clockwise, the Middle Kingdom is surrounded by Russia, the Koreas, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, India, Pakistan and several other central Asian Islamic states, all regional powers in their own right. She is also contained by a demographic timebomb resulting from a rapidly rising standard of living coupled with the lingering effects of the one-child policy (see China may grow old before it gets rich, new study warns).
While Americans offer two reasons for maintaining troops in South Korea, Koreans have but one, but they leave it unmentioned: money. Having its defense taken care of by the United States allows Seoul to invest public moneys in subsidies that fuel its export-driven economy. South Korean army bases look like American Boy Scout camps. An American withdrawal would force the economic powerhouse that is South Korea to invest, and invest heavily, in its own defense.
Importantly, the American presence here helps to delay Korean reunification, which is, as Koreanologist Andrei Lankov has pointed out, despite the “lip service… still paid by virtually all political forces in both Koreas,” something that “both sides try to avoid” at all costs (see Working through Korean unification blues). The thriving South Korean economy would reel for decades from having to absorb its basketcase counterpart to the north. In the North, it is the presence of “American imperialists” which serves as a rallying point for the brainwashed citizenry and as the rationale behind the Songun, or “Military First,” Policy, which serves to protect the quivering “Dear Leader” from meeting the fate of Nicolae Ceauşescu.
In centuries past, Korea pursued a policy of Sadaejuui, “serving the great-ism,” with its giant neighbor to the west. Korea acknowledged that the Chinese emperor, the “Son of Heaven,” alone could offer sacrifices to Heaven and paid a yearly tribute to the Middle Kingdom. Yet, rather than being a servile state philosophy it was a highly calculated one that carried with it great benefits. The material gifts the Koreans received in return for their yearly tribute far exceeded what they gave, and the Koreans were protected and allowed to develop their country without molestation from abroad.
In recent times, the South Koreans have provided the third largest contingent in Mr. Bush’s War on Iraq. But you may be forgiven if you were not aware of them. In an occupation described as “one of the most absurd in human history…, South Korea is the official occupier of ‘Northern Iraq’ [where] the Kurdish military, the Peshmerga (‘those who face death’), surround the South Koreans to make sure they’re safe” (from A New Power Rises in Iraq). The Peshmerga have done good job, and the occupiers they protect have suffered not a single combat casualty in the nearly four years they have been in the country. This trivial tribute given to the American Empire for six decades of protectorate-hood allowed the “Son of Heaven” in Washington to briefly speak of a Coalition of the Willing, while at the same time it allowed South Korea to join the very lucrative Coalition of the Drilling.
The two Koreas are, after nearly six decades, still in a state of war. An armistice, not a peace treaty, ended the major fighting in 1953, but there are still skirmishes today. Truman and the National Security State he inaugurated made the Korean War, or rather, “police action,” the first of America’s many undeclared wars in the second half of the Twentieth Century. It’s high time that America stopped expending her treasure over here, left this peninsula, and let history take her course.
But it may not be that easy to leave. The South Koreans own huge dollar reserves and a large share of the debt accumulated by the Bush regime during its seven years of misrule. If the South Koreans want us to stay, we might not have much say in the matter.
What was it the Founding Fathers said about “foreign entanglements” and “entangling alliances?”
An American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder [send him mail] lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian.