People power, not the U.S. military, created South Korea’s vibrant democracy

Millions of Korean citizens took to the streets in November and December demanding the impeachment of their corrupt president, Park Guen Hye.

As millions of South Koreans filled their streets in the weeks leading up to last week’s impeachment of their beleagured president, Park Guen-hye, I was reminded of a political refrain we often hear from U.S. political leaders about Korea.

It goes like this: by intervening in 1950 to prevent a communist takeover and then stationing thousand of U.S. soldiers at the border with North Korea, the United States provided the security that allowed South Korea to become the vibrant democracy it is today. The pride was typified by George W. Bush in a 2005 visit to U.S. troops.

“Five decades of sacrifice by the men and women of our Armed Forces secured peace and democracy on this peninsula,” Bush declared. Hillary Clinton echoed that sentiment in a 2013 speech to bankers later obtained by Wikileaks. South Korea, she said, became a “functional democracy” because “we had troops there, we had aid there, we had a presence of American business there. We were there for the long run.”

There’s a bit of hubris in these sentiments. While there is no doubt that American policy has had a positive influence on South Korea, it was the Koreans themselves who created their own democracy. Moreover, at several critical junctures in South Korea’s turbulent history, U.S. actions and miscalculations led to serious setbacks to their progress. Sometimes America was on their side; other times, not.

In 1960, for example, when South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee was toppled after weeks of violent street demonstrations, the Eisenhower administration took a hands-off approach.

Demonstrators surge down a Seoul boulevard demanding the overthrow of the hated Syngman Rhee in 1960.

Rhee — an autocrat whose frequent calls to “march north” irritated U.S. officials trying to enforce the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War — was seen as a liability. When the U.S. ambassador drove through Seoul after Rhee’s exit, his limousine was surrounded by jubilant students grateful for America’s support.

But a year later, Park Chung Hee, an Army general, seized power in a coup. To the shock of many Koreans, President Kennedy’s State Department decided to back the new junta. Park quickly turned out to be a dictator, ruling through a police state that imprisoned and tortured political opponents and stifled workers trying to organize unions.

But Park — the father of the president who was just impeached — was strategically useful to the United States, which supplied him with millions of dollars in military aid. He returned the favor by sending Korean troops to South Vietnam. Yet, even as U.S. officials praised South Korea as an “economic miracle” and a vital ally, Korean anger smoldered. In October 1979, students and workers in Pusan and Masan rose up to protest his authoritarian rule. In the midst of the uprising, Park was assassinated by the head of his own CIA.

This set the stage for one of the greatest blunders ever made by the United States in Korea.

By 1980, the Carter administration was anxious to avoid “another Iran,” where an Islamic revolution had just toppled the U.S.-backed Shah. That May, in the city of Gwangju, hundreds of people protesting the military takeover by another general, Chun Doo Hwan, were slaughtered by Korean paratroopers.

Citizens demanding an end to military rule face off with martial law troops in Kwangju, May 18, 1980. Minutes later, the troops charged with bullets and bayonets, killing dozens. Thus began the Kwangju Uprising of 1980. Photo courtesy of the 5.18 Foundation, Kwangju, South Korea.

Outraged, hundreds of people organized a citizens army and liberated their city from the martial law forces. Many of them believed that President Carter, who had made human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy, would side with the forces of democracy.

But on May 22, 1980, convinced that Gwangju was a communist-led rebellion that might tempt North Korea to intervene, the White House decided otherwise.

It authorized South Korean forces — who were under a joint U.S.-Korean command set up to protect the country from North Korea — to put down the uprising, which they did on May 27. (I obtained the minutes to that fateful meeting as part of a large cache of declassifed documents on Korea released under the Freedom of Information Act.)

Carter’s inept handling of that crisis paved the way for another seven years of military dictatorship. In contrast to 1960, dissidents began to openly criticize the United States, and for a period of time a wave of anti-Americanism gripped South Korea’s youth. Then, in June 1987, the death by torture of a student once again galvanized the population to take to the streets. This time Washington did the right thing.

With Chun threatening martial law again, President Reagan — who had welcomed the dictator to the White House in 1981 — bluntly informed him that the United States would not tolerate another military takeover. In 1988, democracy was finally restored. To many Koreans, the massive demonstrations and candlelight vigils that led up to Park’s impeachment mark the latest step in South Korea’s long march to democracy.

Park’s impeachment and potential resignation, however, is causing some nervousness at the Pentagon. It has counted on Park’s administration to support its tough policies against North Korea, including annual military exercises and a recent decision to deploy THAAD anti-missile batteries in South Korea.

But the United States has apparently learned the lessons of the past.

In the wake of last week’s events, U.S. ambassador Mark Lippert promised that the U.S.-South Korean alliance “would continue to be strong.” But he added an important qualification. “Obviously, this decision [to impeach Park] is a domestic issue and it is ultimately up to the Korean people and their democratic institutions.”

He’s right — and that’s exactly how it should have been been all along.

Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based writer who was raised in South Korea and Japan during the Cold War. His latest work, published by TomDispatch, is titled “Cops of the Pacific? The U.S. Military’s Role in Asia in the Age of Trump.” His handle on Twitter is @TimothyS.

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