October 13, 2011
South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bok is getting the hat trick of official honors for a foreign head of state today in Washington, DC: a one-on-one summit with President Obama, an address to a joint session of Congress, and a state dinner at the White House. The stunning economic achievements of South Korea, and its status as a front-line ally facing a nuclear armed communist state, certainly merit the recognition.
But in the wake of Wikileaks’ release of a diplomatic cable indicating that the Japanese government rebuffed the idea of an Obama visit to Hiroshima to apologize for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, President Lee must be wondering if his American counterpart is capable of handling the subtlety and complexity of his own and South Korea’s delicate situation. An advocate of close and open relations with the US and a hard line toward the Communist North, Lee’s domestic popularity has suffered for these positions recently.
President Obama appears to lack any depth when it comes to understanding East Asian cultures, and the dynamics of American relations with these ancient, sophisticated, and complex societies. His notorious precedent-shattering bow to the Japanese emperor, embarrassing that monarch, is indicative of his knee-jerk abasement of American power and prestige, a form of humility that earns no credit in the eyes of cultures steeped in Confucian values. The apparent floating of the idea of a presidential trip to Hiroshima to apologize for the use of nuclear weapons was so ridiculous in Japanese eyes that a Vice Foreign Minister deemed it a “non-starter” to the US State Department — as blunt a rejection as can be imagined in Japanese diplomatic circles.
Both The US and Korean legislative bodies are considering the pending free trade agreement, with American assent considered likely but not certain. (Update: The House of Representatives passed the act yesterday, with Senate approval now considered likely.) Because Korea already has a free trade pact with the European Union, ratified this past summer, American manufacturers are at a disadvantage in the Korean market. After many years of protectionism, Korea now seems to welcome overseas manufactured goods as the price of access to foreign markets for its own export powerhouse companies like Hyundai, Samsung, LG, Kia, and many others.
But the pact faces spirited opposition in both countries. The AFL-CIO claims that 159,000 jobs will be lost (though a US International Trade Commission study shows an increase in exports of close to $10 billion, and a net increase in US GDP exceeding that amount). Federal assistance to workers displaced by the agreement is the likely price for the Democrat-controlled Senate approval. In Korea, opposition to the agreement is based on fears of Korean farmers, and objections to a lack of transparency in the negotiations. Korean farmers fear cheaper American agricultural products flooding their own market (even though rice is specifically excluded), and have staged noisy protests. The main Korean opposition party, the liberal-leaning Democratic Party, opposes the pact, claiming it favors the US, and should be renegotiated. On Monday, prior to his departure for the US, President Lee urged the National Assembly to pass ratification. Congressional passage will escalate pressure on the National Assembly.
President Lee has taken a lot of heat domestically for his support of the free trade agreement, but other issues also are causing trouble, most particularly his hard line approach to North Korea. Reversing the “Sunshine Policy” of his two predecessors, President Lee has linked further opening to the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang to its retreat from its nuclear armament program. In response to the harder line taken by Lee, the North sank the South Korean frigate Cheonan, and shelled the Yeonpyang island, claimed by both countries, but held by the South. As a result of these incidents, President Lee and his conservative-leaning Grand National Party have suffered in public opinion polls, receiving blame for dashing hopes for reunification.
Out of a population of 50 million in the South, as many as 8 million people are refugees from the North, or have close family ties there. Popular sentiment deeply longs for reunification. Korea has among the most tragic histories of any nation, having the misfortune to abut 3 great powers, China, Russia, and Japan, and often being a pawn of great power rivalries. Korea suffered a brutal occupation by Japan from 1905 – 1945, during which the Japanese treated Koreans hideously, to the point of attempting to abolish the Korean language. As a result of this suffering and humiliation, Koreans have a strong sense of national identity, a desire to prove themselves to the world, and a longing to be accepted as a great nation themselves. Reunification, in addition to reuniting families, would make Korea a larger and more significant actor on the world stage.
South Korea, while a steadfast ally of the United States, has built a huge trading relationship with China, outweighing even its trade with the US. To some extent, Korea is now able to play off the US and China, though not publicly or overtly; nevertheless, everyone in South Korea understands that China is rising, and the US weight in world affairs may be diminishing. This perception colors politics and economics, regardless of any governmental actions.
The US paid a severe price in blood and treasure to protect South Korea from the invasion of the North (reinforced with Chinese troops in “human wave” attacks) during the Korean War. But the South was utterly devastated by the war, with about 90% of its land overrun by the Communists, and the people left impoverished and starving. General McArthur’s brilliant counterstrike at Incheon turned the tide, resulting in a truce which remains to this day, with the DMZ separating the two Koreas To this day, tens of thousands of US troops are stationed in South Korea, which brings its own set of problems and aggravations to the Koreans.
Under the Current Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), US troops accused of crimes against Korean civilians enjoy extraterritoriality, and are tried by US military courts. Just this month, two US servicemen have been accused of rape, in separate incidents. Koreans deeply resent this immunity, and want a revision of SOFA to allow prosecution in their own courts. SOFA revision is reportedly not on the agenda for the presidential summit, but President Lee would politically benefit from American movement on the issue. However, given the level of popular resentment toward US military personnel, the difficulty of Americans coping with Korean courts, and fears of anti-American prejudice, revision of SOFA will face strong opposition on the American side.
If the free trade agreement is ratified by both sides’ legislatures, we can expect further growth in mutual trade, but the geopolitical realities suggest delicacy and subtlety are required for America to succeed in keeping Korea a steadfast ally. Sadly, President Obama does not seem up to the task, a prisoner of simplistic and naive notions, and unaware of his own serious limitations in understanding the dynamics of power in East Asia.
While no doubt flattered by the attention he is receiving in Washington, President Lee must realize that in dealing with Obama, he is handling a loose cannon.
Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker. He spent the past 6 days in Korea, and will be writing further about that nation.