When it comes to the US troop presence in their homeland, South Koreans aren’t sure what they want. On the one hand, their government has responded with shock and dismay to the American announcement that we’ll be withdrawing a third or more of our troops over the next year, and pulling the rest back from the DMZ, where they have guarded the invasion corridors between the North and Seoul since the 1950s.
But a few years ago, when we were in Korea, there were massive anti-American demonstrations in the wake of the accidental killing of two Korean girls by a heavy military vehicle, with strong demands that the US troops at least clear out of Seoul. And President Roh Moo-hyun has called for a change in the longstanding arrangement by which an American general would be commander in the event of an actual conflict.
The US doesn’t want to give up control — no surprise there — but we are more than happy to let the Koreans step up and pay for more of their own defense, and we aren’t too sad about stepping back from the border either. Personally, I think the South Koreans should take this as a major opportunity. I think the Americans are right to point out that while it made sense for America to spend billions defending South Korea when the latter was a poor, struggling country, it is now time for the world’s 13th-largest economy to pay much more of its own way. (As for South Korea’s position on its own success, there’s plenty of ambiguity there as well: the government clings to its developing-country status, despite the increasing preposterousness of the notion, in an attempt to maintain some degree of solidarity and influence with the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement and other developing states.)
The South Koreans should accept this burden, which will greatly increase their international stature and their standing with the American government. If they’re footing the bigger bill, it will be easier for the South Korean leadership to demand control over military action on the Peninsula.
And it will help Korea to emerge at last from more than a century of dependency, something that has enormous symbolic importance for the Korean people. Indeed, if North Korea has any legitimacy at all in the minds of South Koreans, it is because it is seen as more fully independent, though of course it relies on China. If South Korea becomes not only the richer, more democratic of the two states, but also the more independent, that will undermine the last shred of credibility to which the North clings.