Americans are beginning to appreciate the reality of the Republic of Korea’s rapid emergence as one of East Asia’s most dynamic powers. The R.O.K. has a new image, symbolized by the export of Hyundai cars and the scheduling of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. South Koreans are finally beginning to earn some of the international respect they feel they deserve for their impressive economic and social accomplishments.

This new image is nevertheless shadowed by anxiety over South Korea’s political stability—anxiety generated by the turmoil following President Park Chung Hee’s assassination eight years ago and now focused on the leadership transition scheduled for next February in an atmosphere of radical student demonstrations, government repression and seemingly endless political confrontation. Foreign understanding of the situation is confused, moreover, by contrary analyses. One interpretation, quite pervasive in the American media, tends to portray the Korean people as seething under repression in a country variously described as a "smoking volcano" or a "ticking time bomb." An opposite view, common among supporters of the R.O.K. government, is that the situation is under control, and the society is liberalizing at a pace which, while deliberate, is the only way the Korean political structure can evolve, given its lack of democratic tradition and the danger posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.) in the north.

There is something right and something wrong about both of these interpretations, and it is not easy to strike a balance between them. One may dismiss the "ticking time bomb" analogy as too alarmist; South Korea is not on the eve of revolution. But one must ask whether the government’s defenders take adequate account of recent changes in Korean society, particularly the rapid growth of a middle class that wants not only stability but also greater freedom. Indeed, South Korea seems to have reached a point of maturity where continued political stability requires discernible progress toward a more democratic, less repressive political system.

To a considerable extent American attitudes, behavior and policy have not kept pace with the growth of South Korea’s power. They still reflect their origins in an era when Korea was weak and undeveloped. Yet the R.O.K. is already at the point where it could achieve military superiority on the Korean peninsula if it wished to do so, and its economic drive has distinguished it as a foremost exemplar of rapid development. But Americans have not absorbed these changes in South Korea’s strength and its new sense of self-importance, changes that will necessarily affect the U.S. role and position in Korea.


The immediate issue is South Korea’s intense political confrontation. It stems from a zero-sum contest for power in a highly centralized state with neither a tradition of power-sharing through local autonomy or a system of checks and balances, nor tested institutions for a peaceful transfer of leadership. Opposition forces, particularly those dominated by Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, are desperate to change the rules that have effectively shut them out of power since the establishment of the republic in August 1948. The government and the ruling Democratic Justice Party, while eager to improve their popular standing, are equally determined to arrange a succession that leaves them in office.

An overwhelming majority of people hope the contest will be peaceful and will break the pattern in which the Korean army forcefully intervened during the past two transitions, leaders from the military ruled the country for 26 years, and the military retained critically important influence over key political issues. Many South Koreans are distressed by the periodic attempts of the hard-line opposition to challenge the government on the streets by flexing the muscles of its popular support—in some cases losing control of the process to students and dissidents who resort to violence. They feel the government, in turn, has been heavy-handed, using every available occasion to underscore its determination to deter and control these public pressures through massive police power.

The present government’s record is a paradoxical blend of competent rule and transparent unpopularity. Although there is reason to question whether the opposition is inherently more democratic than the current rulers, there is no question about the essentially authoritarian character of President Chun Doo Hwan’s government, generally seen by Koreans as self-appointed through an army coup, besmirched by the bloody 1980 Kwangju incident (where 200 or more died), hobbling all potential opposition forces with a web of repressive measures, and disappointing those who had hoped it would be above corruption. At the same time, even bitter critics privately acknowledge that the government is administratively competent, that the country is prospering, that the society is marked by a high degree of economic and social mobility as well as considerable equity in the distribution of wealth, and that there has been a noticeable, if limited, expansion of press and political freedoms over the past two years.

A government with this record would be the envy of less-developed societies. Most Koreans, however, feel the Chun government lacks legitimacy because of its origins, and large numbers oppose it because of its conduct. Seeing no peaceful alternative and not wanting to risk the costs of chaos, they have tolerated the regime since 1981. Nevertheless, in the context of an impending transition, most Koreans now want a more democratic government less beholden to the army.

The current focus is the upcoming national election. Convinced it could never win power under the current procedure of indirect presidential elections, the main opposition has demanded revision of the constitution to permit direct presidential elections; they calculate that this would maximize prospects of offsetting the government’s advantages as the incumbent. After long resistance Chun agreed in April 1986 to constitutional revision on the condition that a consensus be developed in the National Assembly on a new system. The government party, however, insisted that revision take the form of a parliamentary system, which it saw as the best way to ensure its continued control. Both sides refused to budge on the basic institutional issue.

Never enthusiastic about a change, Chun had earlier threatened to reverse his 1986 decision if no consensus were reached. With neither side showing any real flexibility, and in the face of heightened opposition intransigence this spring, he declared in April of this year that the February 1988 transition would take place under the indirect procedure of the present constitution and that any revision would have to be postponed until after the 1988 Summer Olympics.

The earlier impasse had stimulated moderates on both sides to see if a "grand compromise" might be developed in which the government and ruling party would yield on the issues of fairness and openness in return for the opposition’s at least tacit acceptance of a parliamentary system. The moderates had in mind a "democratization" package involving revision of election laws and permitting greater local autonomy, as well as press and political freedoms designed to give the opposition more equitable conditions to challenge the government.

Some of the concessions demanded by the opposition, particularly the restoration of all political rights to the army’s bête noir, Kim Dae Jung, are inherently difficult, if not impossible. Nevertheless, important elements of the ruling party have favored substantial concessions, not only as timely for the R.O.K.’s political development but also as advantageous in dividing opposition forces. Others, feeling the government has the upper hand, have urged a hard line. In announcing the postponement of the constitutional debate, Chun indicated his intention to adopt a number of the "democratization" measures. It is not clear how far the government will eventually go, but its tactics through late spring were not encouraging.

The ultimate position of the oppositionists is also unclear. Talk of compromise has exposed deep cleavages among them. Many rank-and-file members who were privately attracted to the original suggestion of a "grand compromise" remain interested. But the two Kims have consistently opposed any accommodation on the grounds that it would perpetuate government rule and, many would add, frustrate their personal leadership ambitions. In any event, the Kims have tried to silence the compromisers.


The current confrontation is heavily burdened by history. The South Korean army has been directly involved in politics since 1961, when General Park Chung Hee and other politically oriented officers mobilized their cohorts and rationalized their military takeover as necessary for internal order and defense against the North. Neither Park then, nor Chun later, ruled for any length of time through a military junta. But military power was and is the key to their taking—and sustaining—control. Moreover, their colleagues, freshly retired from the service, came to hold central positions in economic and political life.

Park established civilian government in 1963, but he exercised control through a rigid regime centered on a strong security apparatus under the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, the army and a tightly controlled party; after 1972 an authoritarian constitution gave the president virtual carte blanche to do as he pleased. When Chun took power in 1979-80, he, too, did so through army force, moving even more quickly than Park to establish a civilian regime. And, in contrast to Park, who displayed no tendency toward anything but a lifetime tenure (and got his wish), Chun early on set a goal of a one-term presidency, a goal that was written into his new constitution. Many Koreans still harbor doubts about Chun’s intentions, but even many opposition politicians think he will honor his pledge to step down from office next year and do not really believe he can hold substantial power behind the scenes for long after that.

While successive regimes have played up the threat from the North for domestic purposes, a very large majority of South Koreans take that threat seriously and oppose weakening the R.O.K.’s defense capability. Even so, growing numbers, including in the military itself, feel that the army’s political role is anachronistic. With varying degrees of unhappiness, many Koreans recognize as a fact of life that the military will not disappear and will limit choices in 1988. Specifically, an ex-army officer is virtually certain to be the government party candidate to succeed Chun, uncontrollable street violence will not be tolerated, and Kim Dae Jung will not be allowed to become the national leader.

Privately most politicians across the spectrum understand these realities, and they designed various formulations to overcome the political impasse with them in mind. But there is an increasingly articulated belief that it will be essential to South Korea’s continued economic dynamism and social stability—not to mention the legitimacy of the government—that the army refrain from another forceful imposition of leadership and that the civilianization of R.O.K. politics continue.

Fortunately, racial and cultural differences do not complicate politics in South Korea, and no ideological gulf divides rulers and opposition. People on both sides have a stake in the defense of the country and in sustaining its rapid modernization. But these favorable conditions are usually obscured by the deep-seated mutual distrust that permeates South Korean politics. Park and the army launched their coup convinced that the opposition, briefly in power, lacked the competence to rule. Today, when the people are so much better educated and the bureaucracy is among the world’s best, one finds less arrogance in military circles about the uniqueness of their qualities to guide the nation.

Yet virtually all military and security officials, justifiably or not, seem convinced that if Kim Dae Jung were in charge he would cut back the R.O.K.’s defense capacity and adopt soft policies toward North Korea. If they have a more benign view of Kim Young Sam and the newer crop of opposition leaders, they still question their competence and, should they come to power, their ability to prevent vengeful retaliation by radical elements against Chun Doo Hwan and others.

The opposition’s distrust of the regime is, if anything, even more intense. Many years of frustrated struggle have fostered extremism in their posture. Thus, although it is largely made up of moderates, the opposition has tended to cater to the hard line advocated by Kim Dae Jung and has failed to break cleanly with radical students, who alienate the growing moderate center.

Mutual distrust is magnified by the combative and uncompromising quality of Korean political behavior as well as by the almost total centralization of the political structure. Compromise connotes weakness among a people renowned for admiring strength and boldness and for seeing right and wrong in stark terms. There are still no elected local governments in South Korea in which oppositionists, ruling party and government might learn to work with each other. And regionalism, which cuts across party lines, frequently has an intensifying effect as well. Much of the fervor in Kim Dae Jung’s support in Kwangju and the surrounding Cholla provinces reflects the bitterness of people in southwest Korea who feel, with considerable justification, that they have been disadvantaged by the rest of the nation for many centuries.

Partly as a result of long confrontation, there is a peculiarly static quality in South Korean politics that contrasts with the dynamism found elsewhere in the society. The main protagonists of the opposition have remained in place since the battles of the 1960s and their ambition still governs much of opposition behavior. Although the government has new leaders, they still come from the same mold. Thus, in what is largely a struggle between "ins" and "outs," rather than a competition between vastly different visions for Korea, the political agenda remains bogged down in a dispute over the institutions for exercise of power.

Whether cause or effect, these problems of past history and national character harden the present confrontation. Quite possibly they would have generated turmoil of sufficient force to tear at the basic fabric of the R.O.K. were it not for the real, if no longer imminent, threat of interference or even military attack from North Korea and for the concern of most South Koreans to preserve the accomplishments of national development. The force of this preserving instinct is sometimes discounted by foreign observers unfamiliar with the importance of security and economic well-being in the Korean order of values. But it is fairly certain that it played a critical role in stabilizing events in 1980-81 in the wake of Kwangju. In current circumstances, it has been reinforced by an almost universal desire in South Korea that the 1988 Summer Olympics take place smoothly and bring the international recognition Koreans want so much.


The Chun government seems genuinely to believe that it can maintain order during the coming months. The odds are that it can do so without resort to martial law by using its vast police power (largely in a deterrent role) and counting on the people’s fear of unruly behavior. Some developments, all possible but none likely, could generate enough disorder to require a declaration of martial law and disruption of the Seoul Olympics. Conceivably, President Chun might renege on his promise to step down (even though he reiterated it in his April declaration). Yet another group of politically ambitious young officers might attempt a coup, or the government might commit some egregiously repressive act that would increase popular support for normally isolated student protesters.

The domestic and international costs of such events would be severe—disaster for South Korea’s political institutions, risk of real confrontation between the military and the populace, potential disruption of economic growth, and humiliating embarrassment for South Korea internationally. Widespread Korean awareness of these hazards gives reason to hope that the transition will, in fact, be peaceful. If it is, regardless of the specific political solution, this apparently minimum accomplishment may appear after the fact to have been a watershed in R.O.K. politics.

But South Koreans want more than the mere maintenance of public order. Much will depend on how both sides conduct themselves. Even if the president continues to insist on an indirect election, significant election reforms and liberalization measures could generate enough positive popular support that the government could carry on with a reasonable degree of normalcy. In such circumstances hard-line resistance, including street demonstrations, would not be very successful in rousing popular protest. It might open the opposition to considerable blame for stymieing progress and could even provoke a backlash against the opposition forces.

If, on the other hand, the government enforces its position using strong-arm methods, thereby dampening all hopes of liberalization, the successor regime will be burdened with the same critical question of legitimacy among large segments of the Korean population. The political structure would not disintegrate, but radical elements would find more public support, setting into motion once again a cycle of protest and repression with discomforting consequences for Americans as well as Koreans.

Although the outcome of these domestic Korean events is largely beyond American control, U.S. interests will be importantly affected. The United States has been entangled in South Korea’s domestic politics since the end of World War II—initially as the occupying power trying to facilitate the emergence of a representative regime, later as a protector and activist provider of massive aid, and in recent years as an ally more respectful of R.O.K. sovereignty but still prone to offer advice.

This American involvement has grown out of concern for political stability as a requisite for an effective security relationship. Throughout, even during the occupation period, Americans have been frustrated by the marginal nature of their influence as Koreans have, for the most part, made their own sovereign decisions. Despite a drumbeat of criticism from those who appreciate neither the nationalist sensibilities of the Koreans nor the inherent limits of foreign influence, all American administrations have wisely refrained from trying to apply leverage through major sanctions that would endanger U.S. security and economic interests as well as embitter the Korean people. Nonetheless, successive South Korean governments have generally resented American advice as interference, while oppositionists, although disappointed with American restraint, have been generally receptive.

Many Koreans credit the U.S. government—both the Reagan Administration and Congress—with exercising a moderating influence on the Chun government. There is, nevertheless, a pervasive feeling that Washington is partly responsible for the government’s existence—because the United States failed to prevent the coup that eventually brought Chun to power, because the United States not only worked with his government but went out of its way to bless it through summit meetings, and (utterly wrong but perniciously propagated by student radicals, dissidents and North Korean propagandists) because of alleged U.S. involvement in the Kwangju incident. In fact, after trying unsuccessfully to sustain civilian control and democratic progress in 1980, the Carter Administration, and later the Reagan Administration, found they had no choice but to work with the Chun government. In the process they were able to ameliorate problems to some extent, including extracting Kim Dae Jung from under the threat of a death sentence. Still, these perceptions of American behavior necessarily complicate the present confrontation in South Korea and contribute to a growing mood of anti-Americanism in some circles.


Despite the political confrontation, the performance of the South Korean economy has been extraordinary. Koreans had a per capita GNP of under $100 in 1960, but they prosper at $2,300 today. The 12.5-percent growth of the economy in 1986 and South Korea’s standing as America’s seventh-largest trading partner are but the latest manifestations of a remarkable success story.

But problems remain. There has been heavy reliance on large-scale enterprises. While this concentration is characteristically Korean and has had a number of economic benefits, it has generated growing resentment over income disparities, and a concerted effort is being made—without much success so far—to strengthen small and medium-sized firms. Although it has managed its debt very well, and has even begun to cut back short-term obligations, the R.O.K. has the fourth-largest external debt (around $45 billion) among less-developed countries, and, perhaps more for political than economic reasons, there is pressure to reduce it further. The R.O.K. has committed itself to export-led growth, and officials confidently profess that they have "done their homework," and that, whatever world growth patterns, South Korea will prosper. Given rising competition, however, and the increasingly testy mood in the United States on trade issues, the fact that over 40 percent of South Korea’s exports go to the United States creates some real vulnerabilities. With a growing trade surplus with the United States ($7.6 billion in 1986 and projections of as much as $10 billion in 1987), trouble is brewing. Accelerating the pace of liberalization of the economy will be a minimum requirement for economic peace.

Most specific trade issues have been resolved, but others will inevitably arise as the U.S.-R.O.K. economic relationship deepens. While there are still questions regarding implementation of some agreements already reached, generally speaking Seoul has a reputation for tough bargaining at the table but faithful execution once a deal is cut. South Korea still has relatively high tariffs and many other protectionist barriers, and some adjustment of the dollar-won exchange rate as well as further market opening are justified from an economic perspective. Politically, moreover, Seoul must face the fact that, fair or not, it is caught up in the souring mood over trade in the U.S. Congress. While the problems with Korea may not be as great as those with Japan, the R.O.K. does not have the compensatory advantage of being America’s most important ally in Asia. Although committed to defending the South against aggression, many Americans draw a clear line between that pledge and a growing inclination to nip any trade or other economic problem in the bud, even through drastic action if necessary.

At the same time the United States must keep in mind that South Korea is still a developing country, that it has a major external debt to service, that 1986 saw the first R.O.K. current-account surplus since 1977 and its first trade surplus in modern times, and that, bureaucratic rigidities notwithstanding, Koreans have no inherent biases against imports. For most of the last decade, moreover, the United States has enjoyed a favorable bilateral trade balance with South Korea. Perhaps most fundamentally, adjusting the exchange rate may reduce immediate political pressures on Korea, but viewed from an overall U.S. trade perspective, without a reduction of capital flows into the United States (stemming primarily from the U.S. budget deficit and inadequate domestic savings), the principal effect will simply be to shift the U.S. trade deficit from Korea to other countries.

At certain times pressure from Washington will be necessary to get action from the Koreans, who usually respond sensibly when convinced the message is serious. But such pressure should be limited and focused to avoid stirring antagonism among Koreans, who frequently see themselves as thoughtlessly treated by self-preoccupied Americans.


The U.S.-R.O.K. military relationship should be reviewed and revised to ensure that America’s policies and posture accommodate South Korea’s new strength and national pride. One of the most critical aspects of the relationship is a military command structure that still reflects Korean War conditions. Partly because of the overwhelming dominance of American forces during the war, the U.S. (and simultaneously U.N.) commander was given operational command of South Korean forces. And, because President Syngman Rhee refused to sign, the U.S. commander became solely responsible for U.S.-R.O.K. enforcement of the 1953 armistice agreement. In one or another of the seven hats he wears, the senior U.S. military commander in Korea is in charge of almost all South Korean as well as American forces in wartime, and most of them in peacetime as well. (Except in case of a cross-border emergency he has no effective control over R.O.K. troops used in domestic situations.) These command arrangements have probably been a more painful reminder to South Koreans of their dependence on the United States than the physical presence of American soldiers on South Korean soil. Moreover, while this subordination has been accepted over the years with a remarkable degree of grace—both by the South Korean military and the general populace—in current circumstances it is beginning to grate on nationalist sensibilities.

Whether or not U.S. forces will be allowed to come under the command of Korean officers (and there are differing views on this in both Seoul and Washington), the current American dominance of command responsibility over South Korean forces will not be possible for much longer. The U.N. Command will probably have to remain in place until the armistice agreement is replaced by a more permanent arrangement; there is no effective substitute. And the commander-in-chief of the U.S.-R.O.K. Combined Forces Command will probably have to remain an American. But revision to permit real and perceived South Korean command over its own ground forces, at least in peacetime, will be required if rising Korean nationalism is not to erode military cooperation.

There is less urgency to making quantitative changes in the U.S. military presence in Korea. As R.O.K. military capability grows—with the potential to reach war-fighting parity with the North in the next few years—it will be natural to consider some reconfiguration of the 40,000 American forces in Korea, three-fourths of whom are ground forces. The need for so many troops may shrink. Before any decisions are made, however, the United States will have to take account of factors not specifically relating to Korea, such as the impact on the U.S. federal budget and availability of alternative basing areas for troops removed. It will be essential that any reconfiguration of the U.S. presence be discussed thoroughly with the South Koreans and preserve—and be perceived as preserving—the linkages and tripwire functions, as well as uniquely American capabilities (e.g., certain types of air power). The United States will have to ensure that no misleading signals about unwavering U.S. commitments are conveyed to any player—North, South or beyond the peninsula.

Soviet deployments in the region and supplies to the North will be factors in any U.S. decisions about deployments. In fact concern about expanding Soviet power may stimulate opposite thoughts of an increase in U.S. deployments to base strategic weapons systems in Korea. Some South Korean military officers in the past have been receptive to such thinking presumably because they hope for spin-off of military benefits and appearance of greater U.S. defense commitment. Any significant move to expand the U.S. role would, however, risk serious changes in the Korean security and political environment. It might erode the restraint the Soviets have displayed toward building up North Korean forces; it would complicate efforts to achieve a less hostile coexistence of the R.O.K. and D.P.R.K.; and it might risk Soviet counterdeployments in the Soviet Far East and even in North Korea, with military and political implications for China and Japan as well as the United States.

On balance, all of the factors seem to point toward an eventual reduction in American ground forces, and the parallel need to resist firmly any temptation to use Korea for strategic deployments.


The disposition of American forces will obviously be affected by North-South Korean relations. The fundamental reality of these relations is still the hostility of the two regimes, each facing the other with very large forces in a narrow band of the Korean peninsula just 25 miles north of Seoul, where a quarter of South Korea’s population lives. The South has been grappling—cautiously and inflexibly at first but more boldly in recent years—toward lowered tension and peaceful coexistence with the North. Occasionally D.P.R.K. behavior suggests that at least some elements of its leadership favor adjustments to ease the strains of an enormous military burden (20-25 percent of GNP versus Seoul’s 5-6 percent) and to accommodate to the growth in the R.O.K.’s strength as well as realignments in great power relations in Northeast Asia. But so far adjustment to these new realities has been minimal, erratic and interspersed with periods of hostility and violence such as the assassination attempt against Chun Doo Hwan during a visit to Burma in the fall of 1983 which left 17 South Koreans dead, including four cabinet ministers.

After a sporadic dialogue in 1984-85, Pyongyang canceled discussions between Red Cross, economic and parliamentary delegations set for early 1986. The ostensible reason was a protest over a U.S.-R.O.K. military exercise, though in reality the North saw a chance to fish in the South’s troubled political waters. Beginning in late 1986, North Korea proposed a variety of talks, first between defense officials from North and South Korea and the United States, and later between "high-level" officials from the North and South. There was a subsequent exchange of counterproposals and counter-counterproposals, which was brought to a halt, at least temporarily, by North Korea in late April, with each side blaming the other for the breakdown.

Of greater medium-term consequence are the talks on the 1988 Olympics. The International Olympic Committee awarded the summer games to Seoul alone. Pyongyang has launched a campaign to co-host the games on an equal basis and to generate a boycott if it fails in this effort. The IOC and South Korea have offered the North four events, but there seems no prospect that formal co-hosting will occur, and little prospect of a successful boycott. If the North can find a way out of the corner in which it has placed itself, it is possible, and even likely, that it can get more games sited in Pyongyang. A compromise solution would decrease the chances of D.P.R.K. troublemaking and could spur North-South accommodation on a much broader plane. But considering the background of the highly successful Asian Games in Seoul in late 1986, even without the D.P.R.K.’s acquiescence and assuming no breakdown of social order in the South, Seoul seems well positioned to carry off the Olympics without major disruption and to emerge with its international prestige enhanced. Thus, South Korea will be a winner in any case, while the North, perhaps for internal reasons, could end up underscoring its isolation through continued inflexibility.

Indeed, North Korea is one of the most isolated and secretive societies in the world. It is difficult to fathom Pyongyang’s motives and objectives. With an apparently mediocre economic performance in recent years (per capita GNP is estimated at around $900 and growing at 2-4 percent) and a leadership succession on the horizon that is likely to be contentious, Kim II Sung may be inclined to reduce tensions on the peninsula and to engage with the rest of the world. Confident of their own performance, South Korean officials make clear they would welcome this, but they remain skeptical. They will continue to press for step-by-step relations with the North, resisting the grandiose but inherently unworkable reunification schemes that are the staple of North Korean proposals.

The United States has strongly supported the South’s pragmatic approach to North-South Korean dialogue and has shared Seoul’s doubts about Pyongyang’s true intentions. But in an effort to test every possibility, Washington recently instructed American diplomats that it was permissible to engage in substantive conversation with North Koreans in informal or social settings, and it indirectly conveyed to Pyongyang its hope that this would contribute to a North Korean decision to participate in the upcoming Olympics and resume the North-South dialogue. If that were to happen, Washington has signaled its intention to take further steps, including at least limited American trade with the North and possibly welcoming unofficial North Korean visitors (e.g., academics) to the United States.

This modest initiative bespeaks an American hope that movement can be generated toward a greater stability on the peninsula. Underlying the American position is a belief that both China and the Soviet Union share this objective, even while they contest with each other for influence in Pyongyang. Moscow’s warming relations with North Korea over the past two years—as evidenced by the supply of MiG-23 aircraft and SA-3 missiles to Pyongyang, the commencement of Soviet reconnaissance flights over the D.P.R.K. directed against the United States, Japan and China, and a modest level of military exchange visits and joint exercises—have been irksome to Seoul, Beijing and others, but they have not changed the basic military balance or measurably raised the risk of war.

Pyongyang has for years blamed North-South Korean tensions on the U.S. military presence and the high level of U.S.-R.O.K. military exercises. Particularly sharp rhetoric has been directed at the annual "Team Spirit" military exercise, the largest annual exercise in the world. Conducted for the past ten years, in 1987 Team Spirit involved over 200,000 South Korean and American forces and lasted for about three months. Whether of genuine concern to North Korea or not, it at least provides a pretext for Pyongyang’s noncooperation, and it is frequently cited by the Chinese as an irritant that only enhances Moscow’s leverage.

The United States may be forced for purely budgetary reasons to cut back on the scope of the Team Spirit exercise in future years. But, particularly in light of Pyongyang’s announced stand-down from major field exercises since early 1986, the United States should seize the initiative to reduce—in meaningful measure—both the scale and duration of the exercise. This need not harm South Korean readiness or U.S.-R.O.K. collaboration and it could signal American willingness to engage in further reciprocal steps. In any case, it would put the ball back in the North Korean court.

Beyond these rather limited measures, the United States should press the R.O.K. government to develop joint positions on long-term mutual and balanced force reductions to be negotiated with North Korea as well as the conditions under which they could be discussed with Pyongyang. Actual movement in this arena seems most unlikely for some time, even if there is considerable change in North Korea’s behavior. Major changes would be unwise in the absence of an overall peace settlement—a prospect for the distant future, at best. But as South Korean forces reach rough equivalence to those of the North, the time has come to develop proposals for reductions that would preserve the relative military balance on the peninsula. These would help deflect potential domestic criticism in South Korea over defense spending, offer a way to reduce tensions and the risks of war, and take the initiative away from the D.P.R.K., where it has long resided.


American stakes in Korea are substantial and growing. The first is security in Asia. The interests of the United States, Japan, China and the Soviet Union are importantly engaged on the peninsula. Although their political purposes differ, all four countries seem to share similar concerns to avoid the danger of war or threatening changes in the regional balance of power. Nevertheless, not all Americans agree about Korea’s importance, and many have an ambivalent view of the situation, seeing the Seoul regime as unattractive and U.S. involvement as risky and of questionable strategic value. Manifestation of this ambivalence contributed to communist miscalculations in attacking South Korea in 1950 and played some role in President Carter’s abortive effort to withdraw all U.S. ground forces from Korea in the late 1970s. But despite continuing unease, since this latter episode a minimum American consensus seems to have developed.

That consensus rests on a general agreement that the U.S. military relationship with South Korea contributes importantly to the regional balance of power, and that the United States could not extract itself from the security equation without heightening the risk of war on the peninsula and without far-reaching effects in Japan and the rest of East Asia. Over half of all American ground and air combat forces in the western Pacific are based in Korea under extremely attractive operational arrangements. While the mission of these forces is defense of South Korea, they are also a vital constituent of the strong U.S. presence throughout Northeast Asia, a presence that has offset growing Soviet power and undergirded our own ties with Japan, China and the R.O.K. as well as the improving relations among them.

These realities, which constrain American options, also mean that the R.O.K. cannot eliminate a continuing dependency on the United States. In these circumstances Washington needs to adjust its military ties with Seoul not only to accommodate the evolving requirements of both sides but also the new nationalism in Korea. There are several changes, particularly greater equity in command relationships and a lowering of the currently high visibility of U.S. forces in Korea, that should be adopted in timely fashion.

The American stake in Korea goes well beyond security concerns. Once one of the largest recipients of American economic and military aid, South Korea now boasts a self-sustaining $95 billion economy. Although critically dependent on the U.S. market for its export-driven growth, its large trade with the United States (over $19 billion in 1986) has been quite balanced over the years, and its high educational level, skills, and strong work ethic make it an especially attractive partner for many American business enterprises.

A successful U.S.-Korean relationship requires a reasonable outcome to the immediate political confrontation. American objectives should be clear: (1) a peaceful transition of South Korean leadership; (2) the formation of a government enjoying greater legitimacy through fair elections and especially through the avoidance of another army coup; and, (3) progressive civilianization of the R.O.K. regime.

These objectives have been articulated publicly by the Reagan Administration in an exceptionally outspoken speech by Assistant Secretary of State Gaston Sigur on February 6 and later endorsed in Seoul by Secretary of State George Shultz. It is to be hoped that the Administration will not beat a retreat as the pressure builds, but a tougher public line would not seem warranted either. If Chun’s decision on the constitution is accompanied by a new pattern of oppression, some further moves by the United States will be inevitable. How much pressure Washington should apply—and how—is a delicate judgment best left to American officials with the clearest reading of the tactical situation.

The U.S. role in this necessarily domestic Korean process has to be as limited as in the past, but the United States must lean in the direction of peaceful, democratic change. The U.S. message needs to be conveyed discreetly but firmly to two rival audiences. The United States needs to use various channels, including authoritative military ones, to warn the Korean government, army and various security services of the severe consequences that would flow from a third coup or leadership transition manipulated by military forces. America should not threaten the R.O.K. with punitive sanctions that would weaken its security or seriously hurt the Korean people. Nor should Washington toy with Pyongyang to pressure Seoul. But the United States should make clear that if another self-designated group forcefully seizes leadership, there will be a long chill in relations with the United States, and perhaps a severe backlash in Congress.

On the other hand, Americans must not mince words in reminding opposition elements that they will have failed their declared purpose if they resort to extremist action, precipitating army intervention and blighting the prospect of military restraint they so desperately need if they are ever to come to power.

South Korea has come a long way in a short time. The almost spectacular speed and inherent difficulties of this modernization process have brought some serious problems, often compounded by Korean impatience. But even if the going is rough at times, there can be little doubt that the R.O.K. has come out from under the shadows of its far bigger neighbors—relying heavily in the process on the United States as a relatively benign protector.

For this mutually beneficial relationship to prosper, both sides must make accommodations. Rigidity and emotionalism could be costly. Americans and Koreans will need to remember that, while nationalism is natural, it could get out of hand. Seoul should avoid stirring up feelings against "American pressure"; Washington should avoid gratuitous and counterproductive rhetorical and legislative provocations. Adaptability and reasonableness on both sides will strengthen a dynamic relationship crucial in Asia and beyond.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • William H. Gleysteen, Jr., was a career Foreign Service officer and served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 1978 to 1981. Alan D. Romberg, who was also a career Foreign Service officer, is currently Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • More By William H. Gleysteen Jr.
  • More By Alan D. Romberg