South Korea, Longtime U.S. Ally, Refuses to Fight

06/03/2010 10:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tom Hayden Former State Senator and leader of sixties peace, justice and environmental movement. Director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center.

South Korea should be the most faithful of US allies in the Afghanistan War, but a visit here last week revealed the hollowness of the US-led alliance.

There still are 27,000 American troops at the Demilitarized Zone, one of the remaining flash points of the Cold War. A huge American base is located in the center of Seoul. The US troops stand astride the external defense boundary of the US, in Pentagon-speak. Thousand(s) of American lives and billions in tax dollars have been spent in making South Korea a key factor in the Pacific power balance.

South Korea has been an important subordinate ally in past American wars. Three hundred thousand Koreans fought in South Vietnam, where 5,000 Korean soldiers died. A total of 20,000 were deployed in Iraq in rotations of 3,000 each. They suffered only one death before Seoul withdrew its troops in December 2008.

In Afghanistan, Seoul sent 200-300 troops in the beginning, then withdrew in December 2007 after the Taliban captured 21 Korean Christian missionaries. The South Koreans became the only country to send more troops after withdrawing, sending 200-300 troops and helicopters to protect a Provisional Reconstruction Team [PRT]. As in Iraq, there has been only one Korean soldier killed in Afghanistan.

Far from a fighting coalition, the arrangement is a payment on Cold War debts to the US, a token contribution to the symbolic "war of perceptions" projecting an image of multilateralism.

Numbers tell the tale. Among the 45 nations in the Afghanistan alliance, US troops number over 100,000. British troops follow with 10,200, then the decline begins. 33 countries have fewer than 1,000 troops. The casualty rates are topped by 1,000-plus Americans, 289 British troops, 146 Canadians, then drop to 42 from Germany, 42 from France. The number of allies with fewer than 25 deaths in Afghanistan is 18.

There are massive peace, justice and labor movements alive in modern South Korea, I was told, but no organized opposition to sending the token force to Afghanistan, as long as the troops are not engaged in combat.

This disengagement from US imperial designs is likely to continue in South Korea, despite ongoing tensions with the North.

Most South Koreans remember Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard Holbrooke not in their present incarnations, but as Carter White House players who in 1980 green-lighted South Korean forces to crush a popular uprising in Kwangju, a city in the southern part of the peninsula. The justification at the time was law-and-order, even if it meant the Carter White House forgetting its human rights agenda. In the end, 127 protestors were killed and one thousand wounded, in a clash that led to the end of the dictatorship seven years later, in 1987, and the birth of South Korean democracy.

To a Korean sensibility, the Carter-Holbrooke-Brzezinski Cold War justification for the slaughter still echoes in today's discourse over Afghanistan. On May 23, 1980, for example, a State Department spokesperson declared support for "security and order in South Korea while deferring pressure for political liberalization." Above all else, the US wanted to prevent "another Iran" in Korea, a reference to the Islamic revolution which had taken place the previous year.

The bankrupt nature of such Cold War thinking was illustrated last week in the debate over North Korea's role in the Mar. 26 sinking of a South Korean ship, killing 46 [naval personnel]. While most South Koreans suspect North Korea as the culprit, the overall lack of warlike indignation is palpable, as reported by B.R. Myers in the International Herald Tribune on May 29.

"Koreans have been told for 55 years that the North is about to attack or drop nuclear bombs, and so a certain fatigue and skepticism has set in", one Korean observer told me. A small but substantial minority "suspect an elaborate gover(n)ment conspiracy", according to Myers. The Korean blogosphere is filled with questions that have yet to be resolved; for example, how a North Korean submarine could have eluded American and South Korean sonar defences to fire a torpedo into a single ship before turning around and eluded the same defenses, presumably on heightened alert. Many see the North Korean attack as inevitable retaliation for South Korea's crippling one of their ships in contested waters last November 9.

The deaths at sea, however, have revived the sinking electoral fortunes of Korea's right-wing party, the Grand National Party. Undecided voters have moved towards the ruling party as it faces elections on June 2. But surveys show a majority of voters against a confrontational or retaliatory stance against North Korea, preferring efforts at peaceful coexistence, according to the New York Times of June 2.

Until the ship sinking, Korean voters were opposed to the Grand National Party on domestic economic issues such as opening the country to more US investments and imports of beef. The crisis has shifted political attention to debates over national security, benefitting the Korean right in the short term. Many bloggers insinuate that the current crisis was timed for the election today.

The Obama administration was quick to react to the crisis with unchanged Cold War reflexes, including a more hawkish rhetoric than past US administrations. "For 15 years, the North Koreans have been in the extortion business, and the US has largely played along. That's over", declared a senior administration official. [Herald Tribune, May 31]. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Seoul to threaten unspecified "consequences."

No one believes that war with the North is likely, though tensions could escalate out of control. The most dangerous of "consequences" would be a plan for regime change, including an invasion of the North to secure its nuclear arsenal, in the event of an internal meltdown in Pyongyang. Such a move, unlikely as it seems, would cause a second Korean war engulfing the outnumbered 27,000 US troops in the DMZ.

Strategic retreat is out of the question, however, for an Obama admininstration obsessed with protecting its superpower credentials. Some claim that the image of power is more important than power itself. That is true of diplomacy. But what happens when the reality of power is put to the test, in Afghanistan or the Korean peninsula, and the empire has no troops able or willing to fight? Sooner or later, the test will come.

TOM HAYDEN is director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center, in Culver City. He recently traveled in South Korea.