Nathan Park is an attorney based in Washington and a frequent commentator on South Korean politics and economy.
North and South Korea have just finished their first joint talks since 2015. It’s official: The North will be sending a delegation to participate in the Winter Olympics, which are starting next month in the southern city of Pyeongchang.
With the talks concluded, there is sure to be anguished reaction from some American commentators about how it represents just the sort of craven compromise typical of liberal governments in Seoul. Even before the talks, one otherwise well-informed expert claimed that there is a “serious ideological disagreement” between South Korea and the United States. Nor is this the first time we’ve heard such concerns. After Moon’s election last spring, one journalist even wondered, “Who poses tougher challenge [sic] for Donald Trump: South Korea’s Moon Jae-In or the North’s Kim Jong-Un?”
Such worries are badly outdated. It is true enough that many South Korean liberals previously regarded the United States with suspicion — and with good reason. But that’s just not true anymore, and to assert the contrary ignores important shifts that have taken place on the South Korean left in recent years. This error could not come at a worse time, as it is imperative for the United States and South Korea to stand shoulder to shoulder against the North Korean threat.
The skepticism with which many South Koreans once regarded Washington was well-grounded in the history of the two countries’ relations. North Korea’s brutal dictatorship tended to overshadow the fact that South Korea also endured a series of murderous authoritarians who were supported by the United States. Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president, oversaw the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians he accused of communist sympathies. Gen. Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1961 to 1979, imprisoned and tortured opposition leaders. His successor, Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, ordered troops to fire on demonstrating citizens in the city of Gwangju in 1980, killing hundreds.
Throughout, the United States stood by the dictators in Seoul. Because the Americans regarded South Korea as a crucial front-line country in the Cold War, they looked the other way when the South Korean dictatorship murdered its own people. U.S. approval for the atrocities committed by South Korean leaders was often quite explicit. To name but one example, President Jimmy Carter responded to the Gwangju massacre by pledging his support for the dictatorship (though he also claimed that he would apply “longer term pressure for political evolution”). In those years, anyone who aspired to democracy in South Korea had every reason to regard the United States as part of the problem. And, yes, certain corners within the South Korean left even developed a naive and romanticized view of the North Korean regime as a heroic source of resistance to American imperialism.
Such attitudes colored the liberal wing of South Korean politics for some time after the transition to democracy in 1987. They continued into the years of the George W. Bush administration, when the invasion of Iraq – coming on top of a 2002 incident when a U.S. military vehicle ran over two schoolgirls – prompted a series of massive anti-U.S. protests in the streets of Seoul.
That, however, was fifteen years ago. When reporter Barbara Demick spoke of “hundreds of thousands” of South Koreans attending anti-U.S. demonstrations in a recent interview, she was referring to the past. As liberal democracy gradually established itself, the center-left began displacing the radicals among the ranks of South Korea’s liberals. And as South Koreans belatedly learned the full horrors of North Korea’s massive famine in the late 1990s, which claimed more than 300,000 lives, virtually all lingering sympathy for the North Korean regime evaporated. The new generation of South Korean liberals harbor few illusions about the brutality of the North’s dictatorship, and see the United States as a crucial source of peace in the Korean Peninsula.
Moon is emblematic of this newer generation. Moon served his military duty as a special forces soldier defending the demilitarized zone. His own family comes from the North, which they escaped during the Korean War on a U.S. ship. Moon has little reason to romanticize the regime in Pyongyang and has consistently stated his support the alliance with the United States. Despite considerable controversy at home and intense economic and political pressure from China, he allowed the Americans to deploy a missile-defense system to protect U.S. troops in South Korea. He has even managed to get along with President Trump, who has criticized South Korea for not paying enough for the stationing of U.S. forces. (In a recent phone call before the inter-Korean talks, Trump said: “America supports President Moon 100 percent.”)
It’s worth noting that South Korea remained a steadfast ally of the United States even at the peak of anti-Americanism in 2002. Today, Trump is personally even more unpopular in South Korea than Bush was, but there are simply no large anti-U.S. protests in South Korea — not even when Trump personally visited Seoul. Nor is there any indication that South Korean liberals are displeased with Moon’s pro-U.S. stance. A recent opinion poll puts his approval rating at a remarkable 77.2 percent.
To suggest that South Korea doubts its alliance with the United States is a mistake — and a dangerous one, given the need for us to maintain a common front against the nuclear threat from the North. Let’s put our faith in the present, not the past.