Korea in a Bind? Time to Try to Understand an Ally


Last Friday, a Korean newspaper claimed: “Korea Caught in a Bind Between China and the U.S.”

It reads as an illustration of the old Korean proverb that depicts the country as a “shrimp among whales.” And “when whales wrestle, shrimp die.” Why would South Korea consider itself in a bind? And why would the editorial board of the Chosun Ilbo say that South Korea depends on both the United States and China? How could South Korea choose any side but America’s?

Of course, the simple (and western) way to look at it is South Korea should be grateful for America’s support and military defense for the past 60 years.  There is no doubt that the South Korean government and military leadership fully support the alliance and have “chosen sides.”  But the op-ed gives voice to complex internal South Korean politics and divisions within society.

While the United States is broadly popular in South Korea—with 78% approval rating according to a recent poll—you can’t please all of the people all of the time.  For some years, factions within South Korea have feared that the United States would bring it to war with China particularly because the United States has said American forces on the Peninsula would have a role outside of Korea.  Some interpret this as American intent to use Korea as a staging base in a war with China.  Further, China is South Korea’s largest trading partner. There are also some within South Korean society who remain suspicious of the United States and feel that it would cast away South Korea if need be.  The historical dispute between South Korea and Japan also has U.S. fingerprints on it from the 1905 Taft-Katsura Agreement, which led the way to Japanese colonization of Korea in 1910 (A recent poll revealed the level of persistent anti-Japanese enmity when it found that 62% of South Koreans see Japan as a credible military threat).  While we look at the 1945 division of the Peninsula at the 38th parallel as a diplomatic success saving the South from being communized and overrun with Soviet forces, there are those who blame the United States for the division.

In fact, there are those who blame the United States for the Korean War—not for starting it as Bruce Cumings has written in the past—but for not allowing South Korea to develop the military capabilities to defend itself. While North Korea was arming with then-advanced conventional weapons, the U.S. decided that South Korea should only have a lightly armed constabulary force with no armor and only limited artillery.  Washington assessed that the main threat to South Korea was more from the irregular side of the spectrum, not a large-scale conventional attack.  As a consequence, according to some historians, South Korea was unable to adequately defend itself when the war broke out.  And then there are those in South Korea who have seen a steady decline in America’s commitment as evidenced by the steady withdrawal of U.S. forces and capabilities since 1978.

The South Korean leadership is fully committed to the alliance just as America is committed.  However, South Korea, like the United States, is not a political monolith.

Remembering the Korean expression about shrimp and whales can help Americans understand how many Koreans have viewed their history over the last few centuries.  We should recall that foreign military forces—currently the United States and previously the Japanese, Russians, Chinese, and Mongols—have continuously occupied the U.S. Army base at Yongsan. We should try to appreciate the history, politics, and culture of our ally (as we should with all of our allies and they of us as well).  But, we all view our alliances through our political and security lens; thus, when we read op-eds like the one in the Chosun Ilbo, we scratch our heads and wonder how they could be so “ungrateful.”

We fail to try to understand the politics of this ally and all others at our peril.


David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with 30 years of service.


Photo credit: Expert Infantry