IN HIS FIRST TRIP to Saigon in 1962 as a reporter for the New York Times, David Halberstam saw the American effort in Vietnam as a worthwhile endeavor. The war, he says in his notes in The Best and the Brightest, seemed to be a test of two political systems in a political war, and he preferred "our system." Admitting his failure, the failure of the press and many others at the time to see the atrocities the United States government would commit in Southeast Asia, Halberstam arrived at a different conclusion by 1962--that our handling of Vietnam was doomed, and that the government was on the "wrong side of history." "American optimism," he says, "was clearly mindless." The U.S. government had the wrong sense of the people, while the Vietcong knew all too well the nature of the people they were fighting.
In January 1977, Vice President Mondale announced that American ground troops would be withdrawn from South Korea, an announcement which clearly indicates that this time, the Carter administration does not wish the U.S. government to be on the wrong side of history. Despite the claim presented by Donald Zagoria in his article in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday entitled, "Why We Can't Leave Korea," the decision was wise thinking on the part of the Carter administration to never again be drawn into a situation similar to the one which 20 years ago grew into one of the greatest calamities this country has ever experienced. Zagoria's argument that South Korea is not the same country as Vietnam and that the government should not withdraw its military support through the "residue of guilt and fear left over from Vietnam" is well taken, but there is a radically different conclusion to be drawn from those lessons the government had to so stupidly learn from Vietnam.
There are a number of sound reasons why the U.S. government should and can leave South Korea. First, although Carter has not been popular in the government or throughout the country for his decision to gradually withdraw all American ground troops from South Korea over a five-year period, the fact is that most Americans would not support another war in Asia. Nor should they. The United States has no business supporting a country so lacking in human rights and with the dictatorial regime South Korea has. President Park Chung Hee, who came to power in 1961 through a military coup, has changed the Korean constitution to assure him a lifetime of power. "He has crippled the opposition political parties, punished the exercise of free speech, prevented free association, censored the media, curbed the courts, subdued the universities, restricted religious groups, controlled labor movements and generally created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Those who have tried to resist, the ruthless extermination of the Korean democratic experiment have met economic sanctions, threats to their person and family, arrest, kidnapping, torture and even death," as Jerome Cohen, director of East Asian legal studies and associate dean of the Law School, stated in an article for a Japanese magazine, PHP, in January 1976.
If the argument for why the U.S. government should not be in Korea is not enough for those who oppose a withdrawal of military support, there are enough facts to reason that it would by no means leave South Korea to inevitable doom when our immediate military presence no longer exists. As Zagoria himself points out, by 1981 "if present economic trends continue as they have," South Korea's gross national product will be six times that of the North. This points to the fact that South Korea is not only a prosperous nation, but as most of its income is poured into military defense, it would be perfectly capable of defeating the North. Kim II Sung, the North Korean dictator, "would be absolutely out of his mind to launch a war against the South," Edwin O. Reischauer, University Professor and one of the strongest advocates of a military withdrawal, says. Sung would surely lose a war fought against South Korea not only because the South is stronger, but because Russia and China have shown no recent interest in supporting the North, and since July 1950, when deputy minister of foreign affairs Andrei Gromyko concluded that the civil war in Korea was a "civil war among the Koreans and the Soviet Union could take no action," Russia has consciously extricated itself from the situation.
Yes, South Vietnam was different. There was a war there that was already ten years old when the U.S. government became involved--but Korea has been without a war for more than a quarter of a century and not due to the presence of one American division in South Korea, as Zagoria argues. Rather, the nature of the situation in Korea is such that the chance of war is an extremely dubious proposition.
SOUTH KOREANS, few will disagree, live in a perpetual fear of the North and are some of the strongest anti-communists to be found in the world today, President Park has exploited this fear to an unecessary extreme in his repression of human rights, claiming that the country must be unified against the North, but Park believes this is the way to keep himself in power. Although his support is weakening, the South Koreans' unity against the North is not. Unlike the Viet Cong, who knew that South Vietnam was internally weak and spiritless in its fight against northern communism, Kim II Sung knows very well of the solidity of the opposition in the South. If he is plotting to take over the South before he dies, as Zagoria so weakly argues, he had better have a good plan.
Thus, there should be little doubt about South Korea's self-sufficiency in protecting itself from communism. In fact, as Reischauer points out, what if the South were to take over the North, a possibility which does not seem likely in the near future, but is definitely a possibility since the South does not enjoy existing with North Korea on its border. What kind of a position would the United States be in if it had ground troops in South Korea were such a war to begin?
The United States has no business, under any circumstances, in South Korea. And it seems appropriate that in a decade which is on the surface so full of political apathy, that the Carter administration is wise to begin taking steps to avoid a situation which required the protests Americans raged over Vietnam during the later '60s. Neither the government nor the citizens of this country may support Carter today, but there is little doubt that if the U.S. were to involve itself in a Korean civil war in the future, Carter would deserve the blame for the kind of mindlessness for which Halberstam accuses those "great" leaders in the Kennedy administration.
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