South Korea’s Ambivilant Relations with China, Japan and the United States

Inchon South Korea main attraction is its China Town,where beside the sites you can sit down to a good Chinese meal. As you wander around you might bump into a place called Freedom Park which houses a huge statue of the American General Douglas McArthur. The statue is oversized,much like a statue I saw of Mao in China both denoting some super human type of quality connected with giants of the twentieth century.Of course it was McArthur led invasion at Inchon that dangerous tide ridden South Korean port that links these two statues. The Korean War invasion at Inchon rolled back to the Chinese border North Korean forces which had already reached the southern tip of Korea is a seminal historical event in South Korean history.What followed was the Chinese intervention in the war prolonging the agony of the Korean Peninsula

The American General Douglas McArthur by his history touches on the tangled relations which between Korea Japan China and America from the late 19th Century onward. The American general fought the Japanese in World War Two and took their surrender aboard the battle ship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. This surrender liberated Korea from the bitter yoke of Japanese occupation that to this day carries considerable weight in South Korean politics. MacArthur’s drive to the Yalu River on the border between China and Korea stemming from his successful Inchon invasion  brought the Chinese over the border and into the Korean War. The troops of a revived Mao led China surged down the peninsula represented a country that had historically viewed Korea as tribute state of the Middle Kingdom    Finally MacArthur represents a continuation of American influence in Korean concreted by the Korea-U.S. treaty of 1882. This treaty which gave America rights on the Peninsula also represented a weakened China attempt to limit Japanese influence in Korea.The influnce of Japan, China and the United States have been so great in Korea that may Koreans believe their foreign policy is in effect a balancing act between the three powers.

Though the light of the current nuclear crisis in Korea we can see South Korea’s  attempts to deal with these three powers. Theoretically Japan should represent a possible ally against North Korea and the looming presence of China. Both countries are threatened by North Korea and to a certain degree China.From an economic standpoint there is a strong trading relations  between the two countries. Both countries are technological giants whose lagging economies might be spurred by military investments.Furthermore despite the past  brutal occupation of Korea by Japan on a personal level Japan remains a favorite holiday destination for many Koreans. Finally both countries since World War Two have lived under the umbrella of American protection indicating at least on a broad basis a commonality of interests between the two Asian neighbors. Despite this factors no Korean government would survive an open move towards an alliance with Japan.The historical Korean experience with Japan has leaked deep into Korean society. Various Korean issues such as collaboration with the Japanese during the war,the war-time forced prostitution of Korean woman called in Korea Comfort Women,disputed territories, and the brutal occupation itself all funnel in to a disdain for Japan and a fear of a rearmed Japan that eliminate any real possibility of a collective effort against North Korea and possibly China. So deep is the enmity between Korea and Japan that one might suspect South Koreans taking a secret joy as their northern brothers missiles fly over Japan.

China like Japan despite strong trade relations presents South Korea with a dilemma. For South Korea China presents an option of security as a replacement for its American umbrella. Many Koreans see America as a  receding power on the world stage whose place is increasing filled by China.Koreans feel caught between the two powers. Nowhere is this seen more concretely then in South Korean diplomacy aimed at China to control North Korea while at the same time deploying American supplied defensive missile systems which the Chinese vigorously protest. China has recently used manipulation of Chinese visas for South Koreans and a slowing down of Chinese tourism to South Korea to let is views be known. It is clear to South  Korea that North Korea serves as a buffer state against the American presence on the peninsula and is not interested in destabilising the situation in North Korea.Futhermore South Koreans understand that China is not interested in a united Korea with the potential of bringing the Americans to its doorsteps. Like Japan the Chinese present problems to the South Korea in terms of their need to begin moving towards a solution for their North Korean problem

Finally where does South Korea stand with America in the relation to its North Korean problem? If you visited South Korea today you would see two legacies of its relationship with America: a strong military bolstered by a large American presence and committment and a vibrant democracy with the United States as a model. The emergence of North Korea as a fledging nuclear power has in the eyes of many South Koreans  left doubts as to the reliability of America commitment to the preservation of the country. The apparent ability or near ability  of North Korea to deliver nuclear weapons to the United States mainland has left South Koreans with the disturbing question of would the United States really risk Chicago to defend South Korea from a North Korea attach? It was a similar question that led France in the fifties to develop nuclear weapons as a hedge against the possibility that the United States would not risk a nuclear exchange with the then Soviet Union over Europe.  Indeed an increasing number of South Koreans today are like the French did opting for the possibility of a South Korean nuclear strategy as a guarantee of their own security. Ironically enough in light of South Korea’s relationship with Japan many South Koreans have trepidations about the nuclear option because they are afraid that it will lead Japan to follow the same path. The North Korean-Chinese backed invitation to normalize the situation on the Korean peninsula if the United States withdraws from  Korea is a direct effort to decouple South Korean security from the United States. One wonders if this appeal will become increasingly popular among South Koreans as its northern brothers increase in power. As far as an ambivalence in Korean American relations there are other issues which strain in a more subtle way. Two of them are the original American created division of  peninsula at the end of World War Two,and the American led IMF  intervention in South Korea which led to a tremendous loss of jobs and had a shattering effect on Korea society. These lingering issues and the tremendous question of the ability to rely on the United States posed by the development of a North Korean nuclear threat has like Japan and China placed the United States in an ambivalent state for many Koreans.

About the Author
Born and educated in the United States Edward Stern has spent most of his adult life in Israel with the exception of five years when he lived and worked in China and Korea. He is an English teacher and sometime editor with a life long interest in politics and history. Some people have told him he is also a good photographer.