The 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War falls on June 25. It is a day for somber reflection, not celebration.
After North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, devils stalked the land between June 1950 and July 1953, when an armistice was signed. Millions perished. Much of the peninsula – including virtually all of North Korea – was devastated.
And nothing was resolved by the carnage. The war ended with the national division – itself a result of great-power fiat in 1945 – not only unresolved, but deepened.
Korea was the first war from which the US did not emerge victorious. The United States and its free-world allies were unable to decisively defeat Chinese and North Korean forces. But after the guns fell silent, South Korea decisively won the peace.
It did so by leveraging its alliance with the US while enriching itself by participating fully in the US-led global trade bloc.
In the years since the collapse of European communism, South Korea has diversified away from its formerly overweight reliance upon the US. For example, nearby Korean War foe China has long since overtaken distant Korean War ally the US as South Korea’s leading trade partner.
Even so, the wartime legacy of Seoul’s relationship with Washington endures. It has been massively influential on national development in multiple spheres.
The biggest legacy for South Korea of US military intervention was simple national survival.
Given the virtual disintegration of the under-armed South Korean armed forces, had the US not intervened, it seems certain the peninsula would have been unified under Kim Il Sung’s rule within weeks.
The prosperities and freedoms – or otherwise – of a peninsula united under the Kims can only be guessed at, but indicators from today’s North Korea are not promising.
That South Korea survived is due to the efforts of the US-led UN Command, the multinational force that fought under US leadership.
The South Korean term seygyewha (globalism) was not coined until the 1990s; in fact, the process started during the war. Not since the 1590s – when armies from China and Japan roamed the peninsula – had such a variety of foreigners trod Korean soil as in the 1950s.
Some 1.9 million foreign nationals served in the UN Command. The vast majority were American, but their ranks included Colombians, Greeks, Ethiopians, Luxembourgers, Thais and Turks. Nor had so many modern goods – from rations to medicines, from jeeps to Bibles, the bounty of Uncle Sam and charitable or religious groups – been so available.
In one sense, the ragged, under-educated and insular Koreans of the 1950s were more internationally savvy than the prosperous, uber-educated and well-traveled Koreans of the millennium.
Those who learned English during the war years did so out of necessity, speaking an ungrammatical but practical English that more than sufficed for actual communication. Today’s Koreans endure a grammar-heavy English program in their school years that is entirely useless as a form of communication and many lack the confidence to utter even a sentence of English.
Wartime South Koreans learned new skills. The US Army trained Korean officers, teaching goal-setting, leadership, planning and organization, the basics of management. Engineers learned to fix machinery and build infrastructure.
Refugees without prior experience of mercantilism embarked upon survival capitalism in scratch markets that rose in towns, villages and base perimeters. And entrepreneurs working for US forces learned pitching, accounting and invoicing. One of Korea’s most famed companies, Hyundai, made its start fixing US vehicles.
Wartime South Korean president Rhee Syngman was so enraged that Washington brought the war to an end in 1953 with Korea still divided, he refused to sign the armistice. However, he did sign a mutual defense treaty with the United States.
It would be his greatest achievement. The treaty, and the stationing of GIs on Korean soil, endures to this day.
The US aegis not only guaranteed South Korea’s national security. It saved the country untold billions in domestic defense spending and continues to play an under-sung role in bolstering sovereign credit ratings and underwriting foreign direct investment.
Thanks to its alliance with the US, South Korea was integrated into the US-led global trade bloc during the Cold War years. South Korea’s ability to sell across this vast network laid the foundations of national prosperity.
In the mid-1960s, funded with major capital injections from Japanese colonial reparations and from its participation as a US ally in the Vietnam War, South Korea embarked upon industrialization. A national infrastructure and champion companies rose.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, governments coerced and incentivized firms to export. The aim was to earn foreign exchange, but as a byproduct, companies like Hyundai, Samsung and LG were forced to become globally competitive.
This was particularly the case in the US market where, armed with preferential trade status, South Korean companies made some of their earliest and biggest international export bridgeheads and investments.
Today, a free trade pact binds Seoul and Washington.
Many members of the UN Command professed to be fighting not just against communism, but for democracy. However, the South Korea of the 1950s was a democracy in name only. Its wartime government massacred tens of thousands of its own citizens, and authoritarian governments held power in Seoul for 34 years after the war ended.
Yet the seeds of change were planted. Seoul was never as successfully totalitarian as Pyongyang, and from the 1950s to the 1980s, South Koreans looked up to the United States as a benchmark of governance.
Moreover, there was behind-the-scenes pressure from Washington on the juntas in Seoul to live up to democratic ideals. The Central Intelligence Agency even intervened to save an opposition leader, Kim Dae-jung, from being “disappeared” by Seoul agents.
In 1987, after years of street protests, a one-man, one-vote system was installed. Although leftist students often claim responsibility for this, it was, in fact, a middle-class “people power” revolution that forced the generals to cave in.
The full story of US pressure to democratize remains unwritten. Indeed, in recent years, some media has concentrated more on US collusion with the military regimes. And anti-Americanism – perhaps an inevitable by product of a “big brother-little brother” relationship – has appeared.
Originally, this force was birthed because of perceived US siding with a brutal government that seized power in Seoul in 1980. Latterly, it has been deepened by resentment at the intrusive presence of US troops, who are not subject to Korean law.
There is an irony. South Koreans, enjoying US-style freedoms, can demonstrate and remonstrate against America. Yet even the current leftist government, which includes many veterans of the 1980s democracy movement, has not diluted South Korea’s partnership with the US.
South Korean pop culture – now a major asset in the national brand portfolio – has been heavily US influenced.
In the decades before the 1990s, when South Koreans were not permitted to travel abroad, American soldiers based in the country were a key communications channel. They brought US culture – notably, music and fashion – to South Korea, in camp towns that sprung up on the outskirts of US army bases.
Indeed, Seoul’s most multicultural neighborhood, Itaewon, is a remnant of the racy “ville” that served the adjacent US 8th Army base.
US troops also had their own TV and radio networks, which were widely patronized by South Koreans in the years before homegrown channels grew in sophistication.
While some historians hark back to the glories of the ancient Korean kingdoms of Goguryeo and Silla, it seems reasonable to assert that never before, in 2,000 years of history, has any polity on the peninsula won such a prominent and respected position in global affairs as South Korea. Nor have South Koreans ever had it so good, in terms of their personal freedoms and prosperities.
It is a remarkable turnaround. South Korea was, in 1953, a poor, demoralized, endangered basket case. It was not necessarily expected to survive, let alone thrive.
Yet because of astute industrial policy, it soared from zero to hero, becoming a global export powerhouse within three decades of war’s end. In 1987, its people overturned centuries of authoritarian rule on the peninsula – royal dynasties, a Japanese colonial regime, military governments – to win political enfranchisement for every citizen.
Today’s South Korea is a G11 economy, home to global brands and a glittering, high-tech infrastructure. It is an active and respected member of global bodies such as the OECD, the WTO and the UN – to whom it granted a secretary-general. Its national sport, taekwondo, is in the Olympics, its pop culture, such as the films of Bong Joon-ho and the music of BTS, is beloved worldwide.
Certainly, it is no utopia. South Korea’s legacy of breakneck development is visible in hideously ugly urban spaces, while its ferociously competitive social culture is demarcated by high youth suicide rates. Judicially, its politicians are hugely accountable, its tycoons barely. Its female populace faces one of the developed world’s highest glass ceilings.
And the divide in the body politic – to simplify massively, between the right-wingers, who built the economy, and the left-wingers who won democracy – is deep and bitter. That chasm has been exacerbated since peaceful people power protests led to the overthrow of a conservative president in 2017.
Even so, seen from a broader perspective, the country’s breathless rise from the ashes of 1953 marks one of the greatest national ascents of the 20th century.
A lesson for America
The primary authors of their fortune are the South Korean people themselves. Lacking natural resources, they made diligence their prime virtue and deployed sweat equity to build something from nothing.
Across the Pacific, patriotic Americans can point to South Korea – along with Japan and (West) Germany – as among their great, long-term foreign-policy successes. But thoughtful Americans may also recognize that not only is their alliance with Korea in the US national interest, but that in several areas of national life, the student now offers lessons to the master.
In terms of crisis management and social or health services, Seoul’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic left Washington’s standing. And at a time when US society is racked by violence and disillusionment, South Korea’s tradition of disciplined protest has much to teach Americans about peaceful, mass political mobilization – in other words, democracy.