The Hermit Kingdom
Korea at the Crossroads: Implications for American Policy. Report of the Korea Study Group.
Council on Foreign Relations/Asia Society. 62 pp. $4.95.
Late in the 19th century, Korea was known in the West as the “hermit kingdom.” Remote, impoverished, and unwelcoming to foreign visitors, it was a nation neither greatly affected by world affairs nor particularly desirous of participating in them. Intervening events have pushed Korea from the wings of the international stage toward its center. Over the past generation, for example, South Korea has undergone a dramatic economic transformation, largely on the strength of a newly developed acumen in international markets for goods, services, and capital.
Korea’s new-found prominence also stems from a less happy set of external contacts. Quite unexpectedly, the peninsula emerged as a central front in the cold war. Unwillingly partitioned after World War II, the nation watched helplessly as a Stalin-style regime was emplaced and consolidated within the Soviet zone of military occupation in its north. Soon thereafter, the peninsula was the site of a Communist surprise attack; the subsequent clash between Communist armies and United Nations forces cost perhaps two million—mainly Korean—lives. Even thirty-five years after a negotiated ceasefire, the enduring state of war between the South and the Communist North requires 40,000 American troops and a U.S. nuclear deterrent (nominally under a continuing United Nations command) to maintain a precarious peace.
In December, considerable international attention was focused on South Korea’s presidential elections—the first open and genuinely competitive ones in the Republic’s forty years (indeed, in Korea’s entire history). Still more international attention may be expected as the Republic of Korea inaugurates its new President—marking the first peaceful transfer of internal power in the peninsula since the days of the Yi emperors—and as the 1988 Olympics open in Seoul in August.
Though Korea’s economic, political, and strategic significance has increased vastly since 1945, the same cannot be said of foreign understanding of the area. Indeed, there is a striking disproportion today between Korea’s international importance and the capacity of overseas “experts” to fathom the region. The difficulty of the Korean language, the hermetic nature of the North, the jealous interest that a succession of South Korean governments has taken in managing the “truth,” and, until quite recently, the informal but automatic denial of official access in Seoul to writers and scholars who let the chips fall where they might, are among the reasons for the current paucity of useful and informative literature about Korea. As a result, readers searching for reliable guidance in this consequential and potentially volatile peninsula will find it generally lacking.
A slim volume, recently released, will be of assistance in this respect. Korea at the Crossroads: Implications for American Policy presents the conclusions and recommendations of a sixteen-member Korea Study Group co-sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society, and chaired by Kenneth W. Dam, formerly Deputy Secretary of State in the Reagan administration.
Many members of this seven-month project had no prior expertise in Korean affairs. Several held key diplomatic posts during the Carter years—when U.S.-South Korean relations underwent a sudden, sharp, and fortunately temporary deterioration. Such seemingly inauspicious portents notwithstanding, the report demonstrates considerable knowledge of Korea’s current situation, reflects some insight into Korean affairs, and contains a number of sensible recommendations. No less important, Korea at the Crossroads commits to paper many of the commonplace observations about Korea frequently mouthed by diplomats but almost never publicly uttered.
The report examines South Korean politics, the Korean economy, and the peninsula’s security questions. Its economic section is the strongest of the three. Unlike some discussions of the Korean economy, which have mistaken it for a “free-market” miracle, Korea at the Crossroads recognizes the pivotal role of the state in managing and directing Korea’s development. “Saving foreign exchange and controlling economic decisions,” in the words of the report, “are habits ingrained in the . . . bureaucracy.” Thanks in part to these habits, South Korea is one of the few Third World countries whose external indebtedness has declined during the 1980’s (from $47 billion in 1985 to $35 billion in mid-1987, according to the numbers in the report).
But foreign debt, evoking as it does emotive visions of “dependence” in the Korean imagination, is an issue of extreme political sensitivity in the South. (The issue is made all the more salient by the fact that South Korea’s external debt is overwhelmingly “public”—contracted for and borrowed by the government itself.) Unlike in many parts of the contemporary Third World, where indebted governments can play upon the rhetoric of repudiation, there seems in Korea to be a genuine groundswell of opinion favoring the retiring of foreign financial obligations. Yet the urge to retire this debt comes into conflict with American calls for trade liberalization in Korea (since trade liberalization would probably lower the Republic’s current-account surpluses, and thus reduce its capacity to amortize borrowed funds).
South Korea’s ongoing “democratization” is not likely to lessen these tensions. As the report notes, “Several Koreans told us that whatever the outcome of the [December 1987 presidential] elections, . . . populist issues . . . will be more important [and] one result of this trend would be to make trade liberalization more difficult. . . .” According to “some Korean policymakers and scholars,” only U.S. pressure has “brought about change in Korean [trade] policies.” To the extent that this is true, domestic relaxation in Seoul might raise the prospects of economic confrontations abroad—particularly with the Republic’s most important ally.
The chapter on security recommends that both American and Korean ground forces be placed “under the operational control of a Korean in peacetime,” after South Korea’s newly elected President comes into office. That proposal is offered not in order to improve the operational effectiveness of the combined defense forces but instead with an eye toward quelling what the report correctly takes to be stirrings of anti-Americanism in the South.
Unfortunately, Korea at the Crossroads seems to pay less careful attention to the political climate in the North—the source of the threat that has occasioned the American military presence in Korea these past four decades. The report acknowledges, for example, the improvement in Soviet-North Korean relations that has taken place since late 1983, yet it seems to ascribe no particular significance to this warming trend. Much of the language of the security chapter, moreover, seems to suggest that South Korea, and America, seek something like “détente” with Pyongyang. But relaxation of tensions on the peninsula, if it occurs, will derive not from Western attempts to influence atmospherics but through real changes in the North, and corresponding emendations in its external behavior.
A similarly simple but basic point eludes the report’s generally perceptive discussions of what it terms South Korea’s “turn toward a more democratic future.” Plebiscites may have been held, constitutions drafted, and legal codes enacted, but South Korea is a country that has to date been ruled not by laws but by men. The gap between the Republic’s written laws and their general enforcement is still profound. (In Korean traffic accidents, for example, the driver of the smaller car is typically the one booked and arraigned, no matter what the facts of the matter.) Ironically, this circumstance is only once mentioned in Korea at the Crossroads—and then in connection with the problems that U.S. corporations have encountered in exercising their local rights under Korean law.
One might have expected that a report so evidently interested in encouraging Korea to proceed along a democratic course might have ascribed greater import to the salutary properties of the rule of law. It is striking (but perhaps not surprising) that neither local opponents of the Seoul government nor “human-rights” activists overseas have made this an issue in their many criticisms of South Korea. The rule of law evidently does not excite the utopian imagination, nor does it square with ambitious visions of capturing and overturning the state. Quite the contrary: to the extent that it can guarantee the protection of property and person and secure inviolable liberties for the individual, the rule of law is antithetical to the ambitions of would-be masters of the people.
Without the rule of law, however, South Korea’s contentious factions cannot hope to coalesce into a single political community. As long as South Korea lacks the political cohesion that such a community would provide, North Korea’s dictators can continue to entertain plans of marching south at some future date to pick up the pieces when a Seoul regime collapses into chaos. Unless and until American observers and officials appreciate the consequence of the rule of law for Korea, the American approach to this heavily armed peninsula will be dangerously uninformed.