The U.S.-Korea Tie: Myth and Reality

Shorenstein APARC's Daniel Sneider takes the occasion of South Korean President Roh's visit to the United States to remind policy makers in both Washington and Seoul that they should keep in mind that the current challenges to the alliance are no more difficult than those faced and survived in the past.

The U.S. visit this week by South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun offers yet another opportunity to bemoan the crisis of confidence in our alliance. Anti-American views, particularly among the young, remain widespread in South Korea. On an official level, there are strains over the role of U.S. troops based in Korea and a stark divergence in approaches toward North Korea.

This portrait of a troubled alliance is often contrasted with a supposed golden age in U.S.-Korean relations during the Cold War. But that view obscures a history of sharp disagreement between the two allies. It is a mythical past that stands in the way of repairing our alliance today. In reality, Korean nationalism and American strategic policy goals have often clashed. Differences over North Korea have arisen repeatedly. And anti-Americanism has been a feature of Korean life for decades.

This was true from the earliest postwar days, in a relationship born out of a fateful and poorly considered decision to divide Korea, after decades of Japanese colonial rule, into American and Soviet zones of occupation. Syngman Rhee, South Korea's first leader, was often at odds with his American backers. Washington feared Rhee would provoke a war with the communist North, even after the end of the Korean War.

Relations with Park Chung Hee, who came to power in a military coup in 1961, were even thornier. Park was a fierce Korean nationalist and, according to a close former aide, uncomfortable with Americans. The two countries collided over North Korea policy, economic goals, human rights and democracy.

In the 1970s, South Koreans developed deep doubts about the durability of the alliance, an uneasiness fed by the Vietnam debacle and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea. Park defied U.S. pressure in declaring martial law in 1972, junking the constitution and jailing leading opposition figures. He launched a secret campaign of influence-peddling and bribery of American congressmen to counter U.S. criticism of his policies.

While Park feared abandonment by the United States, North Korea's Kim Il Sung worried that China, after developing ties to Washington, might sell him out. Thus Park, even though he had been the victim of two assassination attempts by North Korea, reached out to Pyongyang. During high-level talks in 1972, there was a remarkable shared belief that the major powers were the obstacle to Korean reunification.

The most alarming sign of an alliance in crisis was Park's dangerous decision to develop nuclear weapons, made in secret in 1971 after Richard Nixon's withdrawal of one of the two American infantry divisions. According to my research, American officials became alarmed over the seriousness of this effort when a young CIA agent provided evidence of a crude design for a nuclear warhead.

In the spring of 1975, my father, the late ambassador Richard Sneider, sent a top-secret cable to Washington calling for an urgent review of the U.S.-South Korean alliance. Korea was "no longer a client state," he wrote, but was "well on its way to middle power status with ambitions for full self-reliance including its own nuclear potential."

Sneider recommended creation of a new partnership, one more akin to our alliances with NATO or Japan. He also pushed for quiet but tough diplomacy to dissuade Park from heading down the nuclear road. That campaign succeeded finally, but not before my father warned Park that the entire security alliance was jeopardized.

Park was assassinated in 1979 by his own intelligence chief, who claimed to have acted at American instigation. The charge was false, but it remains widely believed in Korea. The perilous state of our alliance reached a peak with the Kwangju uprising against military rule the following year, when hundreds of Koreans were killed by troops deployed with the alleged acquiescence of the United States.

Dispelling the myth of the previous golden era in U.S.-Korean relations does not mean that our relations lacked a foundation of shared interest or that the difficulties we face today are not serious. The gap over how to handle the threat from the North is certainly wider and more evident than in the past. And the democratization of South Korea makes our differences visible and harder to manage.

As policymakers from both countries meet this week, they need to take a deep breath and remember that our alliance survived tremendous stresses in the past. The task before us is not to focus on our divergence but to pick up the challenge left unmet 30 years ago -- to define the basis for a long-term relationship that is durable and reciprocal and that finally sheds the shackles of dependency.