Saturday, 14 November 2009

Is Korea an independant state ?

In a few years, South Korea should get the total control of its army back.

What is that supposed to mean ? Isn’t Korea a sovereign state able to manage its army as it wishes according to the circumstances and the required needs?

Well no.
At least not yet.

At the moment, the ones who control the South Korean army in case of war are not the Korean military but the US.

It is hard to believe that South Korea regained control of its army in time of peace only in 1994. Before that date, this control belonged to the Americans.
More recently, in one of his speeches, on the 15th of August 2004, Roh Mu-hyun, the previous South Korean president (now deceased after committing suicide in march of this year), mentioned how important it was for South Korea to own an independant military, in order to get his country free from any military interferences from the US, and to develop a partnership with the Americans where the US would be allies but not able to dictate anything to the Korean army.

So, South Korea got the control of its army back in time of peace in 1994, and this should happen on the 17th of April 2012 in time of war.

Since Korea and Koreans are both a complex country and people, the decision of the president to put an end to this military control by the US was met with strong opposition by a certain category of people, namely the old generation for whom the United States are synonymous with protection and without whom South Korea would have fallen into the hands of the communist North.

Of course, a country does not need to cede the control of its army to forge a strong alliance and be assured to get the protection of a super power – after all, it is the case of numerous US or Russian allies – but this is apparently not what seem to think some Koreans, who fear that getting back this control (a very legitimate demand) – be perceived as a weakening of their army by foreign preying eyes.

The transformation of the Korea-US alliance worries even more so some Korean supporters of the US that it represents only one part of the changes brought by the late president. Indeed, the soon to come relocalization of an important American base that is located right at the centre of Seoul (approximately the size of New York's Central park !) to Pyeongtaek, about 65 Km south of the capital, is an additional element to worry about for those who think that their country is weakening its defenses in case of an eventual North Korean attack.

The same people worry that such a move might be the sign of an American withdrawal from the peninsula that could potentially lead to a higher risk of war. As a matter of fact, by moving its troops out of range from the ‘killer box’ that is Seoul, Americans would make sure they would only have a low level of casualties in case the South Korea capital is bombarded, and would therefore be less hesitating in engaging the North head on, and less able to prevent another start to a war that never officially really ceased (only a ceasefire was signed in 1953).

It is important to know that Seoul is within range from the North artillery (not missiles, just plain artillery) and that an armed conflict would result in a real carnage in terms of civil casualties, among the more than 20 million residents of Seoul and its surroundings.

It might seem surprising that such a debate, about an element so essential to any country’s sovereignty, can exist in the first place, for what can be more symbolic of the independance of a nation that the control of its army ?

Given the fact that the present alliance between South Korea and the United States is the direct heritage of the Korean War (1950-1953) resulting from the Cold War, and since this war is technically still going on, we might be tempted to see the origin of such worries from the South in the Civil war that took place some 60 years ago.

But that would be ignoring several centuries of Korea's history, for which Koreans are extremely proud.
In fact, if we look closer, we can note an essential element in the thousand year history of the Korean peninsula, that is the fact that for a large part of its recent past, or even less recent, Kore was denied independence.

The Korean peninsula was occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945, an extremely important period during which Korea temporarily ceased to exist in the world of international diplomacy, and which is at the origin of disagreements with Japan until today. For example the issue of the surrounding seas (the « Sea of Japan » instead of the « East Sea », or vice-cersa) that are currently visibile on numerous world atlases.

The period that preceded Japanese occupation corresponds to the Yi Dynasty, or Joseon period, embracing more than 500 years, from 1392 to 1910.
Even if during this period it is not really possible to challenge the fact that Korea was an ‘independent country’, it is also true that Koreans themselves acknowledged China’s dominance in the region, and paid an annual tribute to the Middle Kingdom, as a sign of submission, and expected China to protect them in case of trouble and a benevolent attitude toward the Hermit Kingdom, like that of a big brother taking care of his youngest sibling ; this is an image and a role fulfilled by China during the Japanese invasion of 1592-1598, during which Chinese sent numerous armed forces to help out the Korea army, and contributed to the weakening of the Chinese army, which would soone have to face the Mandchu invasions that were around the corner.

But even without going back so much in time, it is possible to notice a characteristic that seem to characterise a large part of recent Korean history, that is the fact that Korea has rarely been a really independent country, be it on the material (Japanese occupation), or psychological level (position of vassal vis-à-vis China for hundreds of years).

Therefore, it should not be surprising to see the unwillingness of some Koreans toward their government wanting to develop a more independent policy. For those, independence is synonymous with both insecurity (who will help Korea in cae of trouble ?) and unknown (what are the implications ? You have to decide on your own).

In short, Korea struggles to free herself from a schema of submission printed in its history during the past centuries. It is legitimate to ask whether Korea will be able to develop a more independent line of policy that would aim to reach a more egalitarian relationship with the Americans. That is not something easy, but since Korea has recently become part of the club of rich countries, and since its pop culture has recently experienced extraordinary success throughout Asia, therefore becoming particularly influential in the region, one might start thinking that it is possible that Korea will eventually realize she has to play a role on the international stage, partly freed from the ubiquitous American influence. It is only for her to assert, after a pause of several hundreds of years, the unique character of its culture and its own vision of the world.

But before this can happen, Koreans must be persuaded of their ability to free themselves from external influences and to act independently from other great powers. This process, if it ever happens, will probably need great many years.

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