The ICAS Lectures

No. 98-511-RLW

 A Perspective on
 U. S. - South Korean Relations 


Richard L. Walker

ICAS Spring Symposium
Asia's Challenges Ahead
University of Pennsylvania
May 11, 1998

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

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Biographic Sketch

Richard L. Walker


 A Perspective on U.S. - South Korean Relations

Richard L. Walker

In 1982, we celebrated a century of Korean-American relations, and a number of American leaders came to Seoul to participate in various programs. I remember especially the visit of Ambassador Marshall Green and of that wonderfully intellectual American General Lyman Lemnitzer. Among the speakers was one of Korea's great public servants, Professor Hahm Pyong-Choon. The occasion provided us with opportunity to explore various aspects of the relations between two countries and cultures and how that relationship has changed over time. Now, more than a decade and a half later, we acknowledge that change continues to be the order of the day. Yet there are some fundamental background factors which have not changed. In 1982, we noted the tragedy of division of the Korean people and the contest between two Systems and two futures for them in a divided world. In 1998, the division is still there, but the Communist system which threatened in a worldwide manner no longer supports the strange and wierd pattern in the Northern part of the Korean Peninsula.

South Korea today embodies some of the values and institutions about which the speakers expressed their fervent hopes at the time of the centennial celebrations: freedom, democracy, legitimate transfer of power, and economic progress. Who could have dreamed 16 years ago that so much progress would come so quickly? Granted that there is at present a serious financial crunch, in Korea, those of us who have been familiar with the remarkable progress in the Republic of Korea across the broad sweep of human activities remain optimistic that problems which perplex us today will be solved in Korean "can-do" style.

As I look back on more than four decades in involvement with Korea and Korean friends, it seems to me that the relations between our two countries now rest on a solid foundation, this despite frequent moments of tension and misunderstanding. We all know that sometimes serious differences can develop within families. At such times it is communication which becomes most important. For this reason, gathering such as this continue to be crucial for our mutual futures. Obviously we could spend many days exploring the complexities of U.S.-South Korean relations, and I gather that my task will be to stimulate discussion. Thus I have decided to present my own perspective in terms of a number of propositions which I believe can elucidate the changing yet solid aspects of one of my country's most important engagements in the world: our relations with Korea. So let me begin.

First, Korea can never again return to its traditional Hermit Kingdom patterns. The versatile and highly educated Koreans in the South move into wider and more wide-ranging activities around the world every year. Overseas Koreans help keep their country in contact with activities in such places as here in the United States,in China, in Japan, in Russia, Poland and even Uzbekistan. Manufacturing, commercial, art, music and other activities are bringing Korea into mutually exchanging contacts around the world. And at the same time a revolution is taking place in information flows, travel, electronic and cyberspace communications, and the movement of goods and capital across international boundaries.

All of this is occasion for intrusion into Korea of foreign ideas, foreign goods, and foreigners themselves as the citizens of the Republic of Korea participate in the age of globalization. Literally tens of thousands of Koreans have close contacts with think tanks and centers of learning abroad. And it is worth pointing out that such contacts with the United States are overwhelming in number. International activities and organizations ranging from the World Olympics to the Interparliamentary Union move into Korea just as Koreans move out to join in their activities. The pace is accelerating.

It is worth noting here that this is a major reason why the North Korean policy of juche belongs to another age and is doomed. The information age eventually makes possible the surmounting of artificial manmade barriers.

Second, a new generation of Koreans and Americans are moving into this new world role and this is in a manner which challenges past traditions and present concepts and terminology. Both members of the alliance have a third generation moving into decision-making roles. Many in the new generation accept and are more comfortable with urbanization, electronic gadgetry and more casual life styles. They have no active memories of past sacrifices and agonies. As my good friend David Steinberg, a truly remarkable old Korea hand, has written:

The preponderant influence of today . . . is of youth. Those younger than fifty have little if any recollection of the Korean War, and they are the majority of the population. The views of the preponderance of the population are shaped not by the American alliance and its support but more by a series of other factors exerting far greater influence on their thinking. These factors include rising nationalism, local politics, trade disputes and a sense of vulnerability combined with exaggerated confidence, resulting in a different set of priorities and concerns as compared with those of their elders. These younger - people are the individuals who will soon be making policy in the 21st century, and thus their premises and opinions must be considered now, even as we know they may he somewhat modified over time.
What some of us in the older generation regard as miracles, youthful Koreans and Americans take for granted: jet aircraft, e-mail, satellite weather projections, and computer guided machines which take the place of scores of workers for building skyscrapers or moving earth

This applies to the youth both in America and Korea, They are internationally connected. The interconnections have both positive and negative aspects. For example, this lay in part behind the fiscal problems and downturn in market confidence and currency stability which spread like a contagion in East Asia over the past year. And Korea was a big part of this. And, of course, we need to turn to the economic factors in U.S. - Korean relations.

Third, the current economic and financial crisis in Korea is decidedly very serious and constitutes one of the greatest challenge, the country has faced in recent years. But I join with Korea's former Prime Minister, who occupied that post when I arrived as the United States ambassador in 1981 in his assessment, and he is perhaps one of Korea's premier economists, Nam Duk-Woo:

The current crisis is a blessing for the Korean economy because ongoing reforms promise a new economic order in which economic units will exert the best effort in an environment where free and fair competition prevail.
There are some advantages to the crisis, and we all understand that it involves both the United States and Korea. It made us in the United States come to understand how deeply we are involved in Korea's economy and its future. Many Americans, as well as knowledgable Koreans have known for a long time that the Chaebols were in need of rationalization. Mark Clifford's book, Troubled Tiger: Businessmen Bureaucrats, and Generals in South Korea, called attention to the incipient problem half a decade ago. But the outside world watched with wonder and no little bit of admiration as citizens across South Korea contributed gold and other valuables to help their country The crisis helped to bring the people together. Despite initial resentment about the demands being made by the International Monetary Fund (and most Koreans linked this exclusively with the U.S.), there has come a realistic understanding of the need for sacrifice over the short period. Korea's international role and interdependence have probably helped to prevent a full-fledged xenophobia which could be dangerous to our relations in the long run.

But there have also been severe disadvantages about which our allies read in their papers every day: unemployment figures rising to record levels without any "safety net," bankruptcies, erosion for a while of international confidence, and troubles about investments. As Dr Nam Duk-Woo put it, "The price for reform is formidable." The financial crunch makes it possible for social disruption and for fanatics to come forward. It does not offer much solace for us who are older to tell an unemployed person or the head of a company that has gone "belly-up" that there have been worse times. The younger generation shrugs off the platitudes of the old-timers. Probably the more serious disadvantage would be the exaggeration of what some sociologists have called the uri complex. The depth of the troubles could cause Koreans to see the problem as "us against them" or "we must take on the world."

But it is part of Korean national character also to show some spirit of resiliance. Koreans have a capacity for laughter and a ready smile in times of stress. I can recall vividly during the Korean War, when conditions were truly grim, seeing a woman with the heavy jug of water on her head, being carried Middle-Eastern style, walking up a slippery dirt slope, but breaking into a pleasant smile and greeting as we passed.

Fourth, in a creation for which the Americans have been of Some help, a solid structure is in place in South Korea. As Martin Feldstein observed in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs,

Korea's outstanding performance combining persistently high growth, low inflation, and low unemployment suggest that the current structure of the Korean economy may now be well suited to Korea's stage of economic and political development and to Korean values stressing thrift, self-sacrifice, patriotism and worker solidarity.
It is my personal belief that the basis for optimism about the foundations which have been laid for a responsibly led future lies in the formidable educational advances which have helped make the Republic of Korea a world leader in adjusting to the miracles of the information age -- the computers, the chips, the sophisticated productive facilities, and the educated people to use them are all there. Today's globalization points toward the need for highly educated, disciplined and motivated people. This need is met in today's Korea.

While I served in Seoul, I used to remind visitors that if we considered the ministers and vice ministers in the government and the many assistant ministers, and then the Blue House staff and the top levels of the chaebols there were, percentage wise, more people with advanced graduate degrees from American institutions of higher learning than in any country in the world, including the U. S.

In early decades Koreans made an uncommonly strong commitment to education, and that continues today. While authoritarian style characterized the rule of Park Chung-Hee and his successors, education did not suffer, even though at times student radicals seemed a threat. Alice Amsden in her book Asia's Next Super-Power, calls attention to one group, the A-TKE's -- the American Trained Korean Economists. I have known many of this group, and both of our countries owe them a debt of gratitude. They worked with and for the military leaders, knowing that in the long run economic progress could bring political development. But there have been other important groups which have helped to build a modern Korea related closely with America -- scientists, engineers, historians, and, yes, musicians.

Here I turn to my fifth proposition: Our Korean-American alliance holds the key to a successful future in Northeast and Southeast Asia. This alliance has moved through many difficult phases, and there are still problems on the road ahead Too often in the post World War II period the United States has acted arbitrarily and without sensitivity for Korean culture. The Koreans were too often treated as an intractable little brother to be lectured to. The Koreans on their part, however, often had what my friend Hahm Pyong-Choon called in a Foreign Affairs article a mendicant mentality. This has at times led to resentment and misunderstanding on both sides. The United States representatives wanted to bank too often on gratitude or exercized their "superpower demands." We failed to consult, and particularly after the ROK had developed into a world class player, Washington tended to lecture and bypass the key player in the Northeast Asian region. Koreans worried about our dealings with the strange regime which has held their relatives in the North in its grasp. Time after time Seoul's experts have been informed about policies after the United States has already reached decisions. There is a long litany from early times down to recent gaffes such as Warren Christopher's comment about the submarine incident.

On the other hand, Americans have sometimes felt that their Korean ally could be somewhat disingenuous about how Seoul's policies were being directed. But this is a natural problem in all alliances and relations as close as those of the two countries whose commitment helps keep the balance and the peace in the region. Military and security guarantees lie at the center of the Korean-American relationship still. This is a basic fact which cannot be ignored in the face of the continuing weird and threatening behavior on the part of the DPRK. I have on occasion after occasion urged that no negotiations be carried on with the DPRK without the full presence of our R0K allies a co-equal partners.

We all understand that the goals of Pyongyang have remained unchanged: (1) to deal exclusively with the U.S. and exclude our allies whom it continues to call our "puppets." (2) to sow division between the ROK and the U.S (3) to extort by threats of severe retaliation, including military, aid from the U.S., Japan, China, and others, and (4) to build a position as the sole legitimate power to govern Korea. To do this Pyongyang has resorted to the Stalin-style of personality cult building, reliance on military threat, and severe restrictions on contact with the outside world.

As I noted earlier, there have been some bumps on our alliance road, but it has proven its worth and its sustainability. Korea needs now to be regarded as a co-equal partner, and it needs to accept some of the obligations of a co-equal partner. Both of our peoples will need education in cultural sensitivity, restraint, and an ability for exchange of views in freedom. Seoul has inaugurated an opposition leader by legitimate and democratic means, and that augurs well for our future.

A group of us are planning events relating to the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War which really brought our two nations together in a truly formidable bond. Let us hope we can explain the significance of that bond to our children and grandchildren in a manner which can enable us to draw even great wealth from the relations between two vibrant cultures, both of which have major contributions to make to the world as it continues to undergo electronic shrinking and at the same time unbelievable varieties of enrichment.

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