The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper, has gone out of the business of printing angry letters from angry Americans–that much is apparent if you scroll through its “letters” page. In spite of the paper’s “conservative” reputation, it has not gone out of the business of printing columns taking unfair digs against the United States. This column by Kim Dae-Joong (similar name, different guy, no relation) blames the breakdown in the U.S.-Korea relationship on American “callousness.” I served three tours and four years in Korea, all voluntary, so I felt the need to respond. Since they won’t publish it, I will:
The general theme of Kim Dae-Joong’s recent column, America Is Changing, Too, was correct; Korea has chosen to be “independent” of the United States, and the manner in which South Korea made that choice has made it a certainty by alienating the American people. But Mr. Kim then makes the stunning accusation that the deterioration of the U.S.-Korean alliance is the result of American “callousness” and self-interest. On the contrary, we are paring back the alliance because we can see that Korea does not want it, and because we do not wish to impose it. I wonder if Mr. Kim can answer the following questions, which have been on many American minds lately:
1. Why do Koreans consider the United States–which has wanted to withdraw its forces since the 1970s–to be a greater threat to them than North Korea, which keeps a million-man army and a forest of artillery just north of Seoul? Are they not intimidated by its admitted possession of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, its infiltration tunnels, its missiles, or its vast network of concentration camps, which hold 200,000 people today? Isn’t it at least slightly scary to live next to a country that sets boxes of newborn babies in the cold to die, tests biological weapons on female prisoners, kills Christians by pouring molten iron over them, and shoots people in front of young children for stealing food? How can you seek common ground with Kim Jong-Il after he starved two million of his people to death and forced his people to resort to cannibalism to survive, all while he diverted millions of dollars and tons of food aid to his military and his luxurious lifestyle? What kind of mind can forgive this? Or ignore it? Or deny it, in the face of all the evidence? (click here for more links to published stories on these topics)
2. Koguryo is dead; 300,000 North Korean refugees in China are still suffering. Why do the same South Koreans who fly into a rage over Koguryo display complete apathy when China sends thousands of refugees back to a living hell (and probable death) in North Korea, or when it imprisons brave South Koreans like Choi Bong-Il for trying to help them?
3. Why does South Korea unleash its bitterest emotional bile on a country that gave up 34,000 young lives and billions of dollars to make it free and prosperous? Have South Koreans forgotten that the United States saved the life of Kim Dae Jung three times–once from North Korea, and twice from South Korea itself?
4. Why was America called a capitalist exploiter when the IMF bailed out South Korea’s economy in 1997, but demanded the adoption of basic sound economic and accounting practices? Did Korea realize that although the money was mostly American, the man in charge was French? Why is South Korea not a capitalist exploiter for moving its factories to North Korea, where workers earn just a few cents an hour, can’t organize unions, can’t even think about demanding more pay or better working conditions, and would probably be shot for breathing the word “strike?”
5. Does Korea expect us to subject our soldiers to trials in a legal system that even Koreans know is primitive, corrupt, politicized, and unfair? Do Koreans think our government fails to realize that Korean police torture suspects, even to death on occasion? Don’t South Koreans think they deserve such rights as the right to trial by jury, the right to competent legal representation, the right to confront and cross-examine a witness in court, or the right of a defense counsel to at least see the prosecution’s files before trial? Are these simply “Western” values, and if so, then why is Japan considering adopting them? Do Koreans expect us to believe that the same judges who express “understanding” for violent attacks on our military bases can give our soldiers a fair trial? What about the fact that in Korea, it’s perfectly legal for many businesses not to allow Americans through their doors, or even to put “No Americans Allowed” signs in their windows? Or the fact that those who stab, spit on, or attack our soldiers on the streets are seldom prosecuted? Which part of this suggests that our soldiers will be treated fairly in your legal system? (webmaster’s note: I spent four years as an Army judge advocate in Korea, both as a prosecutor and defense attorney; I interacted extensively with the Korean legal systems, and to a lesser extent, the Japanese system.)
5. Why do Koreans have the right to burn our flag, particularly just before an election, but risk arrest if they burn the North Korean flag? Why restrict the right to burn either one? Why does South Korea ban publications that criticize Kim Jong-Il? Why did its police join forces with both pro-North Korean thugs and North Korean secret police (masquerading as journalists) to beat and arrest Norbert Vollertsen, who tried to peacefully protest the horrific human rights situation in the North? Is that a preview of the new vision for unification?
6. Why does the value of human life increase so dramatically when there is an American to blame? Why does a tragic accident that cost two lives bring angry mobs into the streets, while Koreans remain ignorant, apathetic, or endlessly forgiving of the fact that North Korea starved two million of its own people to death? Where were the angry mobs after the first million died, and when the second million could have been saved? Where are they now, when they could still save the third million, or the fourth? Why do dozens of South Korean accident victims go unnoticed by the media every week, unless the driver of the other vehicle is American?
7. Why does Korea accuse us of being a colonial occupier at one moment and plead for us to keep our troops there the next?
8. Why should we suffer this expense, discrimination, violence, abuse, and hate for the sake of South Korea’s tax rates, share prices, and investment climate?
The problem with America’s perception of South Korea is not callousness; it is an excess of love for our soldiers and compassion for the suffering people of North Korea. It is fatigue that our sacrifices have earned no appreciation and much inexplicable hatred. It is confusion that you can ignore, dismiss, or forgive the hellish crimes being perpetrated against your northern countrymen today, and which openly wishes to devour you tomorrow. It is, ultimately, the realization that we were never working from a single, common set of values. Americans cannot understand the illogical double standards that favor the most repressive regime on earth over South Korea’s most loyal benefactor. Like an adolescent who has lived too long in his father’s basement, South Korea needs to become independent to learn to make sound decisions with the knowledge that bad ones will have real consequences. We do not wish for Seoul to become Kim Il Sung City, but we have realized that Korea will not mature until it assumes responsibility for itself.