Chalmers Johnson / Common Dreams – 2006-07-11 23:36:42
Exporting the American Model: Part 2
The Korean Case
Chalmers Johnson / Common Dreams
(May 3, 2006) — In South Korea, the United States resorted to far sterner measures. From the outset, we favored those who had collaborated with Japan, whereas North Korea built its regime on the foundation of former guerrilla fighters against Japanese rule.
During the 1950s, we backed the aged exile Syngman Rhee as our puppet dictator. (He had actually been a student of Woodrow Wilson’s at Princeton early in the century.) When, in 1960, a student movement overthrew Rhee’s corrupt regime and attempted to introduce democracy, we instead supported the seizure of power by General Park Chung Hee.
Educated at the Japanese military academy in Manchuria during the colonial period, Park had been an officer in the Japanese army of occupation until 1945. He ruled Korea from 1961 until October 16, 1979, when the chief of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency shot him to death over dinner.
The South Korean public believed that the KCIA chief, known to be “close” to the Americans, had assassinated Park on US orders because he was attempting to develop a nuclear-weapons program which the US opposed. (Does this sound familiar?) After Park’s death, Major General Chun Doo Hwan seized power and instituted yet another military dictatorship that lasted until 1987.
In 1980, a year after the Park assassination, Chun smashed a popular movement for democracy that broke out in the southwestern city of Kwangju and among students in the capital, Seoul. Backing Chun’s policies, the US ambassador argued that “firm anti-riot measures were necessary.”
The American military then released to Chun’s control Korean troops assigned to the UN Command to defend the country against a North Korean attack, and he used them to crush the movement in Kwangju. Thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed. In 1981, Chun Doo Hwan would be the first foreign visitor welcomed to the White House by the newly elected Ronald Reagan.
After more than thirty postwar years, democracy finally began to come to South Korea in 1987 via a popular revolution from below. Chun Doo Hwan made a strategic mistake by winning the right to hold the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988. In the lead-up to the games, students from the many universities in Seoul, now openly backed by an increasingly prosperous middle class, began to protest American-backed military rule.
Chun would normally have used his army to arrest, imprison, and probably shoot such demonstrators as he had done in Kwangju seven years earlier; but he was held back by the knowledge that, if he did so, the International Olympic Committee would move the games to some other country. In order to avoid such a national humiliation, Chun turned over power to his co-conspirator of 1979-80, General Roh Tae Woo. In order to allow the Olympics to go ahead, Roh instituted a measure of democratic reform, which led in 1993 to the holding of national elections and the victory of a civilian president, Kim Young Sam.
In December 1995, in one of the clearest signs of South Korea’s maturing democracy, the government arrested generals Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo and charged them with having shaken down Korean big business for bribes — Chun Doo Hwan allegedly took $1.2 billion and Roh Tae Woo $630 million.
President Kim then made a very popular decision, letting them be indicted for their military seizure of power in 1979 and for the Kwangju massacre as well. In August 1996, a South Korean court found both Chun and Roh guilty of sedition. Chun was sentenced to death and Roh to twenty-two-and-a-half years in prison.
In April 1997, the Korean Supreme Court upheld slightly less severe sentences, something that would have been simply unimaginable for the pro forma Japanese Supreme Court. In December 1997, after peace activist Kim Dae Jung was elected president, he pardoned them both despite the fact that Chun had repeatedly tried to have Kim killed.
The United States was always deeply involved in these events. In 1989, when the Korean National Assembly sought to investigate what happened at Kwangju on its own, the U.S. government refused to cooperate and prohibited the former American ambassador to Seoul and the former general in command of U.S.
Forces Korea from testifying. The American press avoided reporting on these events (while focusing on the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing in June 1989), and most Americans knew next to nothing about them. This cover-up of the costs of military rule and the suppression of democracy in South Korea, in turn, has contributed to the present growing hostility of South Koreans toward the United States.
Unlike American-installed or supported “democracies” elsewhere, South Korea has developed into a genuine democracy. Public opinion is a vital force in the society. A separation of powers has been institutionalized and is honored.
Electoral competition for all political offices is intense, with high levels of participation by voters. These achievements came from below, from the Korean people themselves, who liberated their country from American-backed military dictatorship. Perhaps most important, the Korean National Assembly — the parliament — is a genuine forum for democratic debate. I have visited it often and find the contrast with the scripted and empty procedures encountered in the Japanese Diet or the Chinese National People’s Congress striking indeed.
Perhaps its only rival in terms of democratic vitality in East Asia is the Taiwanese Legislative Yuan. On some occasions, the Korean National Assembly is rowdy; fist fights are not uncommon. It is, however, a true school of democracy, one that came into being despite the resistance of the United States.
The Democracy Peddlers
Given this history, why should we be surprised that in Baghdad, such figures as former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority L. Paul Bremer III, former Ambassador John Negroponte, and present Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, as well as a continuously changing cohort of American major-generals fresh from power-point lectures at the American Enterprise Institute, should have produced chaos and probable civil war? None of them has any qualifications at all for trying to “introduce democracy” or American-style capitalism in a highly nationalistic Muslim nation, and even if they did, they could not escape the onus of having terrorized the country through the use of unrestricted military force.
Bremer is a former assistant and employee of Henry Kissinger and General Alexander Haig. Negroponte was American ambassador to Honduras, 1981-85, when it had the world’s largest CIA station and actively participated in the dirty war to suppress Nicaraguan democracy. Khalilzad, the most prominent official of Afghan ancestry in the Bush administration, is a member of the Project for a New American Century, the neocon pressure group that lobbied for a war of aggression against Iraq.
The role of the American military in our war there has been an unmitigated disaster on every front, including the deployment of undisciplined, brutal troops at places like the Abu Ghraib prison. All the United States has achieved is to guarantee that Iraqis will hate us for years to come. The situation in Iraq today is worse than it was in Japan or Korea and comparable to our tenure in Vietnam. Perhaps it is worth reconsidering what exactly we are so intent on exporting to the world.
Chalmers Johnson is, most recently, the author of “The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic,” as well as of “MITI and the Japanese Miracle” (1982) and “Japan: Who Governs?” (1995) among other works.
This piece originated as “remarks” presented at the East Asia panel of a workshop on “Transplanting Institutions” sponsored by the Department of Sociology of the University of California, San Diego, held on April 21, 2006.
© 2006 Chalmers Johnson
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