[KS] KSR 1999-04: _Korea: Division, Reunification, & U.S. Foreign
Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Fri Jul 23 19:48:13 EDT 1999
_Korea: Division, Reunification, & U.S. Foreign Policy_, by Martin
Hart-Landsberg. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998. (ISBN
0-85345-928-2 cloth; ISBN 0-85345-927-4 paper).
Reviewed by Alon Levkowitz
Korea has for many years drawn attention as one of the last places on
earth to exhibit the remains of the Cold War. The end of the Korean
conflict would solve one of the most important problems in Asia, and one
of the main solutions that has been discussed and researched is
reunification, an idea boosted after the reunification of Germany. Many
papers and books have been written and conferences held on the topic
since German reunification, a list too long to condense easily. Over
the years several questions have been raised, among them: who is
responsible for the division of Korea; and why did it take so many years
for South Korea to become a democratic state? Hart-Landsberg in his new
book Korea: Division, Reunification, and U.S. Foreign Policy claims
that the answers to these questions can largely be found in U.S. foreign
policy towards Korea.
The author analyzes the relationship between Korea and the U.S. since
the 19th century. Hart-Landsberg starts with the relations of the U.S.
towards Korea under Japanese rule, and continues analyzing relations
until after the end of the Second World War. U.S. policy is criticized
by the author for the preference given to security and regional
considerations over the promotion of the democratic process in Korea.
(This conflict over the need to achieve several at times inconsistent
goals has been one of the dilemmas for the U.S. in the post WWII years
in Korea, Japan and other areas. cf. Press-Barnathan (1998)). U.S.
policy in Korea before the Korean war has been incisively documented in
the two volumes of Cumings (1981, 1990). Cumings in a very detailed
manner, and Hart-Landsberg in a more concise way, show their readers
what they consider to be the mistakes that American generals and
diplomats have made in dealing with Korea.
One example cited by Hart-Landsberg is what Commanding General Hodge
told his officers in August 1945 before arriving in southern Korea, that
"Korea was an enemy of the United States" (p.71). Korea and not Japan
is the enemy, according to General Hodge. This statement came from
Hodge although the Americans fought the Japanese not the Koreans;
indeed, many Koreans fought with the Chinese forces against the Japanese
In chapters 3-4, the author states that the American forces under the
guise of the Cold War assisted the Korean regime to oppress many South
Korean opposition groups that called for democracy and Korean
reunification in the years prior to the Korean War. Any attempt to
promote a socialist government was seen in South Korea as a threat to
The Korean War is one of the great influential events in twentieth
century Asia. The legacy of the Korean War still influences the
policies of both Koreas and U.S. policy in the region, and the remains
of it can be seen at the DMZ. Who is responsible for the Korean War?
Was the U.S. defending the democratic world against the communist
world? The author argues that we should reinvestigate the origins of
the Korean War and look at other elements that might shed new light on
the responsibility of the U.S. He does not blame the U.S. as being
solely responsible, but as one of the factors. The U.S. stressed the
idea that it was defending democracy and that is why it should join the
war. One of the main reasons, according to the author, was that it was
just defending its interests in wider regional considerations. American
officials believed that Japan and Europe were at stake, and that the
loss of South Korea would cause the loss of Japan and parts of western
Comparing U.S. policy towards Korea and towards states in South and
Central America it is possible to demonstrate that the promotion of
democracy in these nations was just a slogan and not the real basis of
policy. For the Cold War decision makers, democracy was seen as a
weakness in some parts of the world. That is why the U.S. was willing
to support non-democratic regimes in some parts of the world and at the
same time support and promote other, democratic regimes elsewhere.
Hart-Landsberg quotes MacDonald who says that the first opinion survey
carried out by the American forces in Korea showed that a majority
supported a socialist economy. But at that stage in history no American
official would accede to such majority opinion. The result was that the
American forces worked together with the forces that opposed socialism
and communism, even though these movements had a following in South
The anti-communist policy of President Rhee and his successors found
support in the American government. The problem was that sometimes the
main goal of this policy was to strengthen the regime in order to
provide it with legitimacy, which it was not, in fact, accorded by the
public (Hong 1999). President Park established the KCIA, whose main
stated goal was to strengthen the security of South Korea against North
Korea. However, it was also used many times against political rivals
(pp.182-3), most well-known among them being Kim Dae Jung, who suffered
greatly at the hands of the KCIA during the years of the Park era.
At the beginning of the 70s, Park Chung Hee passed the Yushin
constitution which allowed him a free hand in various areas. Any
attempts by students or other organizations to protest against the new
constitution or other harsh policies were dealt with by force. The U.S.
government did not express any strong opposition to Park's
anti-democratic actions. The Carter administration was critical of
Park, but once the strategic balance in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan
had changed, policy towards Korea changed due to security
One of the most controversial issues is the Kwangju uprising, or,
alternatively, massacre: at the crux of the matter is whether the
Americans gave the green light to the Korean military to 'solve' the
problem in Kwangju by using military force. The highest military
officer of the Americans was also in charge of the Korean forces. At
this time, U.S. concerns were not limited exclusively to Korea. They
also focussed on Iran, where the Shah was ousted and replaced by
Ayatollah Khomeini. The Americans were afraid that the Kwangju uprising
would weaken the regime in Korea. According to the author they were
therefore willing to support some of Chun's non-democratic actions in
order to strengthen his regime (pp.189-192). The Kwangju monument
stands as an eloquent symbol showing the price that people had to pay
for their freedom.
The last chapter of the book is dedicated to the question of Korean
reunification. What is the best solution for the Korean peninsula? The
formal policy of South Korea is commitment to reunification. The South
Korean government supports reunification, but their biggest fear is that
North Korea will collapse imminently and that reunification will start
all too soon. The only comparable case study is the reunification of
Germany. German reunification took place after the collapse of East
Germany and the subsequent absorption of East Germany by West Germany.
Should Korean reunification proceed like the German model (i.e. after
the collapse of North Korea), or should it be handled between equal
partners? Through the years South Korea has tried to approach the
reunification process from a position of supremacy. Hart-Landsberg's
proposes negotiations between equals and assistance to North Korea in
order to prevent its collapse.
If the author had published this work a year or two later, he would, no
doubt, have discussed the change that occurred in South Korea since the
election of President Kim Dae Jung, who has stressed a "sunshine" policy
as a process of gradual reunification. In years past, some of the sorts
of provocation that North Korea has committed would have caused South
Korea to convince the U.S. to stop any assistance to North Korea.
President Kim and his "Sunshine" policy display a changed attitude
towards the North, however. There is an ongoing effort to try to change
the Balance of Power philosophy that has prevailed in South Korea for
many years, and a possibility exists that Kim Dae Jung will be able to
fulfil the "Alternative Solution" offered by Hart-Landsberg.
It would have been better if, in addition to the footnotes, the author
had supplied a bibliography. The book covers a long period in
Korean-U.S. relations, and by doing so, does not get into more detailed
discussion of specific events. The author could also have included a
list of recommended books dealing with each period for students. While
Hart-Landsberg has succeeded in his aim of showing that democracy was
not the main goal of U.S. policy towards Korea, and that reasons for
some of the events that have occurred in modern Korean history should be
re-examined, some of the issues dealt with in this book have already
received more thorough examination elsewhere, although these latter
works have focused on more limited timespans. This book is a useful
introduction to the relationship between Korea and the United States,
but it cannot replace the need to read more detailed accounts of modern
Cumings, Bruce 1990. _The Origins of The Korean War. Volume 2: The
Roaring of the Cataract 1947-1950_. Princeton: Princeton University
Cumings, Bruce 1981. _The Origins of The Korean War. Volume 1:
Liberation and Emergence of Separate Regimes 1945-1947_. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
Press-Barnathan, Galia 1998. _Choosing Cooperation Strategies - The
U.S. and Regional Cooperation in Asia and Europe in the Early Post-
W.W.II Years._ Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University.
Hong, Yong-Pyo 1999. _State Security and Regime Security: President
Syngman Rhee and the Insecurity Dilemma in South Korea 1953-60_.
London: Macmillan Press.
Levkowitz, Alon 1999
Review of Martin Hart-Landsberg, _Korea: Division, Reunification, & U.S.
Foreign Policy_ (1998)
Korean Studies Review 1999, no. 4
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