American soldiers in action near the Ch'ongch'on River, Korea, 1950.
Wikipedia Commons

In South Korea today, 16 years after the United States set out to help instill the art of democratic self-government among its people, we find ourselves in partnership with an openly authoritarian régime. Eight years after the conclusion of a costly and bitter struggle to preserve the infant Republic of Korea against Communist assault from the north the United States faces the possibility that Communism may present the impoverished and police-ridden people of the south with an increasingly attractive alternative. The South Korean military, so carefully nurtured as Asia's finest free-world force, has defied its mentors and destroyed the country's free institutions. Four billion dollars in economic aid has largely healed the wounds of the Korean War and revitalized various industrial, mining and other operations, but it has failed to lift the South Korean economy above bare subsistence levels, has failed even to prevent actual starvation conditions in the countryside. Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, there has been a disturbingly large movement of free people, the Koreans living in Japan, to behind the Iron Curtain.

Until two years ago the magnitude of our failure in Korea was hidden from an indifferent American public by the bland reassurances of U.S. officialdom, by a claque of apologists for the Rhee régime and by the failure of the American press to report fully and frankly on the situation. Since the downfall of the Rhee Government, the recent military coup and the voluntary movement of 70,000 Korean residents of Japan to North Korea, the bleak features of the situation have been writ large for all the world to see. Yet even now, few talk openly in terms of a U.S. failure and fewer still seek to examine its causes.

The facts of the recent crises in Korea have been duly noted in the press, but an assessment of the underlying causes has neither been demanded nor given. When Syngman Rhee was toppled by a wave of popular unrest, culminating many lost years of suffering under a régime of mounting tyranny and futility, the closest thing to a public accounting was President Eisenhower's pronouncement that Rhee was "a great man, a tremendous patriot, and the father of his country. But as Mr. Rhee has grown older, some mistakes have been made." The military coup of May 16 was a nasty shock and a major embarrassment to the United States, yet the State Department has contented itself with mild reproofs more than balanced off by expressions of faith in Korea's future destiny and in those who guide it. Nor has the Congress demanded to know what went wrong in Korea.

What did go wrong? Why such bitter fruit from 16 years of massive presence in South Korea, a more intimate and costly involvement than the United States has had anywhere since World War II?

A look at our record in South Korea suggests a number of factors underlying the failure there. For one, the United States has followed a policy of drift, shirking the responsibilities thrust upon it first as an occupying power and then as the mainstay of the young Republic of Korea. A case in point is the U.S. Military Government's long delay in enacting vitally needed land reform, on the misguided ground that no solution to the land problem should be imposed on Koreans from without. Another is the failure to have insisted on the thorough reform of the Syngman Rhee régime or to have found a way to bring it to an early end. We had the power to do so, and this was also our obligation, in keeping with our stated objectives in Korea. The argument is made that this would have been "interference" in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. But was not continued economic and military support of the Rhee Government interference? And would it have been worse to be accused of interference years ago than to be faced now with a still more undemocratic régime and a still more desperate economic situation?

Secondly, the twin watchwords of internal stability and militant anti- Communism have blinded us to the overriding necessity of fostering a social order that will repel out of its own strength the Communist effort to subvert it. The political figures endorsed or tolerated by U.S. authorities in Korea have been those whose anti-Communist protestations were the loudest. It seems not to have mattered that in almost every case these men are political anachronisms, less concerned with changing traditional Korean society than in becoming its new élite. The uprisings in Taegu in 1946 and on Cheju in 1948 should have warned us of the need to redress legitimate popular grievances; instead, they were crushed with savage police brutality. The strong national police force built by the U.S. Military Government in the interest of combating Communist subversion (and with a Korean component of the hated Japanese gendarmerie as its nucleus) became the prime reliance of the Rhee régime. Today the Korean military junta employs a still more untrammeled police power to enforce its decrees dissolving all political parties, labor unions and social organizations and permitting the exercise of constitutional rights only "to such extent as is not inconsistent with the fulfillment of the tasks of the [May 16] Revolution."

Finally, the United States has not taken an intelligent approach to the basic problem of seeking an understanding of the land and its people. Seldom, surely, has such a massive presence of one nation in another been accompanied by such massive ignorance. One might excuse the unpreparedness of the United States in 1945, in spite of the fact that we had committed ourselves to a "free and independent" Korea and talked of a lengthy period of trusteeship which would precede Korean independence. In view of the multitude of other American responsibilities it is perhaps understandable that no plans were drawn up nor personnel trained for the occupation of Korea. But though it may be surprising that we had no Korea "experts" in 1945, it is incredible that today, after 16 years of Military Government, the Korean War and large-scale economic and military aid programs, we still have no experts on Korea, not even language experts. No one in the U.S. Embassy in Seoul rates higher than two on the State Department's language proficiency scale of five. Nor, indeed, are such talents to be found outside the government. There is probably not a single American of non- Korean extraction who can speak and read Korean really fluently. Studies of contemporary Korea almost never appear in our academic or intellectual journals, for no one has made this his field of inquiry; and the only history of Korea written by an American in the twentieth century is dated 1907.


Regrettably, the present prospect in Korea is no less bleak than the record of the past. The economic problem is the most glaring. South Korea is now the world's fourth most densely populated nation. Nearly 75 percent of the population of 25,000,000 derives its livelihood from the land, only about one-fifth of which is cultivable. The average farm household, which consists of over six members, works just two acres of land; and 40 percent of farm families must subsist on one acre or less. The standard remedy of land reform has already been applied, but no form of reallocation of the country's land resources can sufficiently ease the plight of the farmer. Nor are the majority of the urban dwellers any better off. Unemployment is estimated at as high as 25 percent of the labor force. Gross national product in 1960 was less than $2 billion and per capita income well under $100. Electric generating capacity is only one-sixth that of, for example. Mexico and annual output is less than 70 kilowatt hours per capita. The only other source of energy is coal, there being no oil or natural gas. Mineral resources are deficient in several other vital categories. As much as three-fourths of the forest area is either denuded or covered with scrub growth. Exports have averaged a scant $20,000,000 annually as opposed to a volume of imports (exclusive of military items) amounting to $200,000,000 per year. Thus it can easily be seen that there is no possibility of an economic miracle being wrought in South Korea. Judging from the record to date, it will be miracle enough if the economy can be made to grow even a little faster than the burgeoning population.

All this is not to imply that the U.S. economic aid program in South Korea has been a dismal failure; indeed, it has a number of very real achievements to its credit. As already noted, the wounds of the Korean War have largely been healed. Much new plant has been built with American aid and this has helped to overcome the consequences of the division of the country and the severance of the ties that bound the Korean economy to that of Japan. South Korea has begun to produce a number of vital items that hitherto have had to be imported. A start has been made in many other sectors-in modernizing and expanding transportation and communications facilities, in building a modern fishing fleet, in reforestation, in improving agricultural technology, in revitalizing the textile industry, in rationalizing mining operations, in elaborating modern banking and credit systems. Meanwhile, the inflationary spiral has been kept reasonably well in check.

At the same time, it is acknowledged by all that American aid operations in Korea have been marred by faulty planning and waste. Evidence of this is to be seen in the failure to develop an adequate supply of electric power and in the fact that the country is unable either to consume or to export at competitive prices the output of a number of the factories financed with American funds. The reasons for these shortcomings must be assessed by experts. And indeed there are indications that the present Administration is revamping foreign aid operations and that this is already having an effect in Seoul. The layman can only urge that the reappraisal of the aid program there be thorough. Greater expertise in the area is badly needed and must be developed.

The most disappointing aspect of the aid program in South Korea is that it has not yet produced a rate of growth adequate to sustain a gradually rising standard of living and that the gains which it has made possible have brought no benefit to the great majority of the South Korean people. In these respects the economic performance in South Korea suffers in comparison with what has happened in North Korea. As will be mentioned in a moment, the conditions for economic growth are more favorable in the north than in the south. This being granted, the fact remains that the Communists' reconstruction effort since the end of the Korean War has met with remarkable success. True, the North Korean authorities publish economic information in a form calculated to impress; but confirmatory evidence from other sources lends credibility to many North Korean claims. In some key areas, such as output of electric power, North Korea has approached the per capita levels of Italy or Japan. Production in all sectors of the economy has surpassed previous totals, in most cases by wide margins, and an unusually rapid pace of economic growth has been attained. The fruits of this advance have been utilized to give the 10,000,000 inhabitants of North Korea a higher standard of living than they have ever known. And as these people have never lived under free institutions as we know them, the harsh features of Communist rule must seem less crucial to them than their material progress.

It is this appeal of a better material life that has led Koreans in Japan to choose to go to North Korea. To be sure, there are special circumstances surrounding this movement. Koreans have had only a minority position in Japan, and this has meant a marginal existence for most of them; they also have had a position there of social inferiority and have been excluded from the rights of Japanese citizenship. Accordingly, Koreans in Japan have been peculiarly susceptible to manipulation by the Communist activists among them, and the task of these has been simplified by the poor advertisement for itself offered by South Korea. Yet all but a fraction of those accepting repatriation to the north originated in the south. The choice they have made, therefore, in a very real sense reflects their judgment as to which half of the divided peninsula offers the better hope for the future.

In one vital respect, of course, the North Korean economic achievement has nothing to do with Communism. In the old united Korea the industrial base was mainly in the north. This, together with related factors of population and resources, has favored rapid economic development in North Korea, while the South started with an initial handicap. Nevertheless, the skill and purposefulness of Communist leadership has counted heavily also, as has the sense of individual sharing in a great national undertaking which seems to have been given the North Korean laborer and farmer. The economic effort in South Korea has, in contrast, lacked just these indispensable ingredients. Whatever improvements may be made in the U.S. economic aid program, they will not of themselves lead to sustained economic growth and a wider diffusion of its benefits. These results cannot be expected so long as political power rests in the hands of a leadership that is unwilling or unable to bring the South Korean populace as a whole into full participation in the political, economic and cultural life of their nation.


The record of the first months of military rule offers little hope that here at last is the kind of leadership South Korea has been crying for. Technically, the democratic constitution of the Republic of Korea has not been suspended, but in effect it has been abrogated. All executive, legislative and judicial powers are lodged in General Pak Chunghi's Supreme Council for National Reconstruction. Not only the National Assembly but all deliberative bodies, down to the village level, have been disbanded and all elected officials discharged. All manner of association and discussion has either been banned or is carried on under the threat of arbitrary police suppression. Though the initial wave of wholesale arrests has subsided, the public is pointedly reminded of the dangers of dissent by a decree empowering the Supreme Council to "enact special laws in order to punish those who, prior to or after the May 16 Military Revolution, have perpetrated any anti-state or anti-national improper acts or counter- revolutionary activities."

The startling thing about these actions of the military junta is not just their extreme character but the speed with which they were put into effect. The political apparatus through which Syngman Rhee governed South Korea for 12 years and his successors for one year more was evidently so shallowly rooted that it could be almost casually destroyed overnight. Outside the military itself there were no influential leaders to woo, no social forces to placate, no economic interests to coddle, no political rivals to fear. The very speed with which the military junta moved reveals the ideological sterility of their May 16 coup. For their harsh measures were neither essential to the seizure of power nor necessary for the achievement of its professed aims of rooting out corruption, improving living conditions and strengthening the country's anti-Communist posture. They gained good will initially by a series of salutary moves to promote public order and morality; but this was quickly dissipated. Korean intellectuals are increasingly restive under the continued repression. The business community has been cowed into a state of anxious inactivity. The economic downtrend continues. Public morale is at a low ebb. Meanwhile, it is safe to assume that other factional groupings among Korean military men are watching in the wings for General Pak to falter.

Viewed in historical perspective, the so-called Military Revolution of May 16, like the upheaval of April 1960, represents little more than a shift of political power from one segment of the traditional ruling élite to another. Generals Chang and Pak are products of essentially the same social mold in which were cast John M. Chang and Syngman Rhee, and there is scant basis for supposing that they are capable of guiding South Korea through the thoroughgoing social revolution it desperately needs. General Pak lacks the personal appeal and ideological conviction of a Nasser, Kassem or Ayub Khan. It may be granted that he and the officers around him have given evidence of dedication, vigor, honesty and discipline, a composite of virtues not found in earlier régimes, and that they have promised to restore a form of constitutional government by mid-1963. At the same time, they believe that the road to "true democracy" lies through a period of police state tutelage. This fallacy is both naïve and perilous.

The shock caused abroad by the latest crisis in Korea has already been dissipated. With General Pak's consolidation of power the assumption seems to be that the current series of troubles has ended. Past experience would indicate that this is unlikely and that we should be straining our eyes to discern the dangers ahead. Where is the evidence of our search for a new approach to the Korean problem? Instead of that, we give every indication that we are prepared to go on trying to live with whatever forces thrust themselves up through the turbulence in Seoul, and that we have failed to examine the implications of such a course.

For example, if General Pak should be unseated by opposing elements within the Korean military establishment, will we stand idly by and let events take their course regardless of the consequences? What if the severe repression of individual liberties continues? What if the junta reneges on its promise to relinquish the reins of government, or the sick economy deteriorates still further? Shall we condone a ruthless suppression of popular discontent on the theory that frontline anti-Communism is more effective in the long run than the building of indigenous anti-Communism through the satisfaction of the minimum needs of human existence? Since all of these developments are possible in the months ahead, it seems imperative that the United States strive to achieve a measure of control over the direction of events.

It should not be excluded that the United States work toward an early dissolution of the present military régime. Nor should it be accepted that we do not have either the means or the right to do so. Mr. Bowles has remarked with regard to recent events in Korea that the United States is "not omnipotent;" but neither is it helpless. The primary task of the United States in Korea, as elsewhere in the non-Western world, is to identify itself with the aspirations of the common people. The Communists have successfully done so in North Korea. The Communist threat to South Korea today is the threat of subversion by invidious comparison. In the long run South Koreans will not choose between Washington and Moscow but between Seoul and Pyongyang. For us not to insist on the ordering of South Korean society so as to bring a material betterment in the Korean way of life would be to admit that we do not have the will or the wisdom to compete with Communism in a critical underdeveloped area of the world.