A “Presence” in the South of Korea

For a country to enjoy sovereignty, it must exert control over its entire territory.

— Ecuadorian deputy defense minister Miguel Carvajal speaking at the International Conference for the Elimination of Foreign Military Bases, 5 March 2007.

On 19 May, 27-year-old first lieutenant Oh Jong Soo, a Republic of Korea soldier was found shot dead at a barber shop on a military base in northern Iraq. His death has been ruled a suicide caused by stress from his duties.1 It was the first death of a ROK soldier in Iraq, a country where the ROK plays a role in support of the United States’ ill fated occupation.

The sinister irony of the “presence” of the ROK military in occupied Iraq became clear when US president George Bush said he foresaw a long-term U.S. troop “presence” (euphemism for “occupation”) in Iraq similar to the one in southern Korea.

“[The] US presence enabled the South Korean economy and system to evolve … It is to say, however, that the US can provide a presence in order to give people confidence necessary to make decisions that will enable democracies to emerge, and say to other people, step back and let the democracies emerge,” said Bush. The message is palpable: the US arrogates the right to occupy another land, and no interference will be brooked while a system amenable to US interests evolves.

The evolution of southern Korea has witnessed a shift from resisting a foreign “presence” on its territory, to acquiescing to a foreign “presence,” and, currently, to assisting that “presence” in imposing its “presence” elsewhere abroad.


In September of 2006, I walked up the sprawling, manicured grounds of the Independence Hall of Korea,2 located near the city of Cheonan. It is the largest museum in the ROK, with seven large exhibition halls dedicated to the Korean peoples struggle against Japanese colonialism. I asked the two Koreans, who accompanied me to the museum, a perhaps impertinent question: “Is South Korea really independent?”

At that time, there was a staunch opposition by Korean farmers and peace activists to the expansion of the US Camp Humphreys Air base near Pyeongtaek. ROK riot police had been attempting a forcible eviction of activists. Even the ROK military was being used against its own people.

This action begs a question: what kind of independence does a country have when the citizenry loses out to the demands of a foreign military on its soil?

In fact, the Korean military does not exercise ultimate authority on its own territory. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)3 grants the US the specific right to “take all the measures necessary for their establishment, operation, safeguarding and control” of the area and facilities. The ROK, upon consultation, “shall, at the request of the United States armed forces and upon consultation between the two Governments … take necessary measures… The United States may also take necessary measures … upon consultation between the two Governments.” (Article III)

Of particular consternation is Article XXII, which allows US preeminence in concurrent jurisdiction over members of the United States military and dependents. During the period 1967 to 1998, there were over 50,000 crimes committed against Koreans by US military personnel — murder and violations against women being prominent. No apology had ever been issued, and in the “overwhelming number of cases, the accused has never been held accountable to Korean victims.”4 In 1998, 96.1 percent of crimes committed by US troops were handled outside Korean jurisdiction.5

Consequently, there have been calls to amend the “devastating effects” of the SOFA. The US is accused of being rejectionist in this regard.6

SOFA remains in force unless terminated earlier by agreement between both the US and ROK governments (Article XXXI). South Korea appears poised, however, to assume military command over its own forces in the period 2009-2012 when the ROK-US Combined Forces Command are scheduled to be separated.7 The turnover of Hong Kong happened in a day, so one might wonder why a three to six-year period is required for the turnover of military sovereignty to the ROK.

University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings characterizes the ROK as a semi-sovereign state.8 The DPRK, on the other hand, despite superpower belligerency against it, goes its own path.9

The supposed threat posed by the DPRK is allegedly the justification for the continued stationing of US forces in the ROK. That the DPRK is a threat is adduced, according to many Koreans and Americans, by the fact that the North started the Korean War.

But is this a fact? There were several ROK troop incursions into the North preceding the preponderant DPRK invasion that began on 25 June 1950.10 Cumings wrote, “[C]ivil wars do not start: they come. They originate in multiple causes with blame enough to go around for everyone — and blame enough to include Americans who thoughtlessly divided Korea and then reestablished the colonial government machinery and the Koreans who served it.”11 This could be construed as a fence-sitter position: no single entity started the “civil” war.

Civil war?

Dictionary.com’s definition of “civil war” is: “a war between political factions or regions within the same country.” By definition, therefore, to call the Korean War a civil war is inaccurate, as the presence of the US-UN and Chinese forces indicates this was not purely a civil war. If it had been purely a civil war, then Korea would likely have been unified by the DPRK, as the northern forces had pushed far south to the Pusan perimeter. Socialism had widespread support throughout Korea, especially in the southernmost provinces. A different outcome was looming when the US entered the fighting. At the point of US entry, the conflict was no longer purely a civil war.

Question: If Korea had not been divided, would DPRK ruler Kim Il Sung and ROK ruler Rhee Syngman have pined to reunite Korea? I submit that origin of the “civil” war can be answered by another question: Who divided Korea? Cumings answered that question: “it is the Americans who bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for the thirty-eighth parallel.”12 If Cumings is referring to Aesops’s fable, then he is apportioning all the blame to the US. If he is referring to lion’s share in the common usage as major share, then he hasn’t named another party that might be responsible for a minor share.

Cumings described the Americans’ decision to divide Korea at the thirty eighth parallel as “hasty and unilateral.”13 US president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1943 declaration in Cairo of the looming partition was depicted as a humiliation to the Korean people. 14

The Koreans had other ideas, though.


Yo Un Hyung, called the Father of Democracy in Korea, is a politician well regarded in both the ROK and DPRK. He has a diverse background that spans Christianity, literacy campaigns, anti-smoking campaigns, pro-sports, media, militarization, and pro-independence movements. Probably what best defines him as a person is his being born into a landowning family but releasing his tenant farmers and “virtual slaves” and providing them enough money and land to become self-sufficient.15

Yo vigorously opposed the Japanese occupation of Korea. On 14 August 1945, Yo was rewarded when the Japanese governor general of Korea, general Abe Endo, handed the reins of self-government to Yo. Yo helped form People’s Committees in all Korean provinces and the Korean People’s Republic arose. On 14 September 1945, the first cabinet was formed. The US, however, feared communism. 16

For Washington, democracy is fine, as long as it is democracy amenable to US interests. The fledgling democratic Korean People’s Republic was abolished, and vice president Yo was forced to step down, as the United States Army Military Government in Korea consolidated its occupation of the South.

In essence, southern Korea had merely exchanged one form of occupation for another. To this day, US forces remain stationed on Korean soil, and some political figures in the US state that the US presence is a never-ending one. Neoconservatives forthrightly enounce that the US will have a “vital role” in the case of Korean unification to counter increasing militarization in China. While Korean unification might lead to a reduced US military presence on the peninsula, it will not lead to a “termination” of the US military presence, as it serves a “longer-range strategic purpose.”17

Following the USMGIK and the destruction of socialist movements in the ROK, a succession of military dictatorships ruled. Japanese collaborator Park Chung Hee ruled 18 years before being assassinated, and he was followed by military embezzler presidents Roh Tae Woo and Chun Doo Wan.18 Conclusively, the US policy in the ROK was anti-democratic.

Why did the US divide Korea? If the Korean people had been permitted to establish their own system of governance, then the masses, which were eager to overthrow the elitist yangban class, were heading toward socialism. The political will of the people was thwarted at great cost. On the southern island of Jeju an “all out guerrilla extermination campaign” by rightists resulted in the deaths of one of every five or six islanders and the destruction of half the villages.19


The Independence Museum’s website describes the “undying desire for Korean sovereignty.” It also proudly notes that the Korean independence movement “triggered and instigated other independence movements in other countries under Japanese ruling [sic] like the May Fourth Movement in China.” This strongly indicates a solidarity with movements against occupation.

The museum, however, does not feature the subsequent USMGIK. Nonetheless, it is discernible that for many Koreans of all ages, the history of the Japanese occupation arouses strong feelings of wounded pride and hostility. Given this animosity to occupation (mixed in the case of the US occupation of the ROK), one might logically infer that Koreans sympathize with other freedom struggles against foreign occupations. This is, paradoxically, not the case in the ROK.

For example, there is minimal awareness in the ROK of the enduring occupation of Palestine rooted in the genociding of the indigenous people and the theft of their land.20

The ex-ROK foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon, in his successful bid to become secretary general of the United Nations, sought the backing of the outstanding defier of UN Security Council resolutions, Israel, a nation in contravention of the conditions of its membership in the UN.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Zionist Anti-Defamation League, discussed with Ban Israel’s situation. Ban passed scrutiny. Foxman said, “The secretary-general demonstrated to us his grasp of Israel’s security concerns, having seen the country and its borders up close.” According to Foxman, Ban “acknowledged that Israel is treated poorly by the UN General Assembly and by the UN Human Rights Council.” 21

Ban also met with the families of Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas and Hizbollah. He pledged “his utmost efforts” to win the soldiers’ release. Later he visited Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial. 22

There is no mention of Ban having visited with families of Palestinian prisoners. There is no mention of “his utmost efforts” to secure the release of over 10,000 Palestinians from Israeli prisons. There is no mention of any visit to Deir Yassin Remembered. There is no mention of efforts to uphold human rights, international law, and the UN Charter so that Palestinian refugees might exercise their right of return, so that Palestinians dispossessed might repossess their land, so that the International Court of Justice’s ruling against the illegal Apartheid Wall might be enforced.

Ban projected an image amenable image to Zionist interests in his successful effort to become the UN secretary general. Uzi Manor, a former Israeli ambassador to South Korea, opined, “[Ban] is from a friendly country and he’s a friend of Israel.” Ban was depicted as representative of the general South Korean attitude to Israel: “generally admiring and even identifying with Israel as a small country surrounded by hostile elements that excels in technology and education.”23

How should one view a nation that continues to rail against its period under occupation while acquiescing to the occupation of other nations? Even worse, how should one view a nation that bemoans its period under occupation and yet it participates in the occupation of other nations? Does not the stationing of ROK forces in occupied Iraq thoroughly undermine any claim to historical grievance that it holds against Japan? Some might claim that the ROK forfeited its integrity to complain when it participated in the occupation of South Vietnam and the aggression against North Vietnam. At that time, however, the ROK was under an American-backed dictatorship.24

What has the US interference in Korea wrought? The US-desired partition of the peninsula and occupation of the southern half led to a vicious war, rife with scorched earth campaigns, massacres, torture, rape, and the use of chemical and biological agents. It has been estimated that up to 10 million people were killed. 25

The US “presence” has limited socialism to the North, but was the huge price worth it? Decades of dictatorship followed in the ROK, and what now dissembles as a “democracy” prohibits socialism, the forming of a socialist political party, and hence the appearance of a socialist option during elections.


The ROK economy has been, for the most part, robust. For this the US does deserve a chunk of credit. It provided the financial support (whether one would classify this as aid or reparations depends on how one depicts the US’s involvement/interference in contemporary Korean history), but it was forced to do this, as it would not do for the DPRK to outperform the ROK economically.

A direct comparison of the two Korea economies is, therefore, unfair.

The ROK, however, has pursued its own path outside the economic strictures of the Washington Consensus. During the 1960s and 1970s, Japanese collaborator-cum-president Park Chung Hee brought about major industrial development, pushing exports in a state-managed economy in cooperation with conglomerates. The DPRK, however, especially after the dissolution of the USSR, has fallen into economic collapse. Serial meteorological catastrophes played a predominant role,26 but economic sanctions and government-bureaucratic incompetence also hastened the famine that gripped the DPRK. The DPRK is also forced to devote an inordinate percentage of its production to defense because of the geo-political and military situation on the Korean peninsula.27 Consequently, at the present juncture, the ROK stands as a successful economy, especially next to the DPRK.

As for the DPRK’s drive to attain a nuclear weapon deterrent, it can also be viewed in this way: that it might free up government expenditure for other societal needs. Further, it must be understood that the DPRK quest for nuclear weapons followed a similar quest by the ROK under president Park. It came after decades of being threatened by US nukes stationed on South Korean soil and in the face of a continuing threat posed by offshore submarine-launched nukes.28 Finally, it came in the immediate aftermath of the unprovoked attack by the US on a disarmed Iraq.

The lesson that nationalists would draw from this cowardly international crime seems obvious.

  1. S. Korean soldier found dead in Iraq killed himself, Army says,” Yonhap News, 4 June 2007. []
  2. Independence Hall of Korea []
  3. General Contents of SOFA and All Ancillary Documents []
  4. Statement by 73 organizations, “We Demand a Full Revision of the R.O.K.-Status of Forces Agreement,” in Korean Truth Commission, Report on U.S. Crimes in Korea: 1945-2001 (New York: 2001), 18-1. []
  5. Civil Network for a Peaceful Korea, “Statistics on Crimes Committed by US Troops in south Korea,” in Korean Truth Commission, op. cit., 19-3. The Embassy of the United States Seoul-Korea contends that there is a common misperception that the US “has jurisdiction over every SOFA-status person who commits a crime. In 2001, 82% of all crimes committed by USFK personnel in Korea were subject to Korean jurisdiction. This high percentage confirms our respect for Korean sovereignty and judicial processes.” U.S. Policy and Issues, “U.S. Military Courts-Martial Fact Sheet.” []
  6. Statement by 73 organizations, op. cit.: 18-1. []
  7. Y Jung Sung-ki, “ROK, US to Exercise Separate Military Commands,” Korean Times, 21-22 October 2006: 2. []
  8. Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005): 472. []
  9. Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country (New York: The New Press, 2004). []
  10. Ho Jong Ho, Kang Sok Hui, and Pak Thae Ho, The US Imperialists Started the Korean War (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1993). []
  11. Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, op. cit., 238. []
  12. Ibid, 186. []
  13. Ibid, 187. []
  14. Ibid, 187-188. []
  15. Lee Wha Rang, “Who was Yo Un-hyung? (Part I),” Association for Asian Research, 20 February 2004. []
  16. Lee Wha Rang, “Who was Yo Un-hyung? (Part 2),” Association for Asian Research, 1 March 2004. []
  17. Thomas Donnelly, Donald Kagan, and Gary Schmitt, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century” (Washington, DC: The Project for a New American Century, September 2000): 18-19. It should be noted that the Bill Clinton administration had a similar view to PNAC, as then secretary-of-defense [sic] William Perry sought DPRK leader Kim Jong Il’s agreement to the long-term stationing of US forces on the Korean peninsula. Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Basic Books, 2001): 437. []
  18. Oberdorfer, op. cit., 376-382. []
  19. Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, op. cit., 221. []
  20. Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: One World Publishing, 2006). Regarding the term “ethnic cleansing,” see Kim Petersen, “Bleaching the Atrocities of Genocide: Linguistic Honesty is Better with a Clear Conscience,” Dissident Voice, 7 June 2007. []
  21. Breaking News, “Foxman: Ki-moon understands Israel’s plight,” JTA News, 6 April 2007. []
  22. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is flown by Israeli military helicopter over central Israel and the Israel-West Bank defense barrier,” DEBKAfile, 29 March 2007. []
  23. Hilary Leila Krieger, “Israel favors Ki-Moon to replace Annan,” Jerusalem Post, 3 October 2006. []
  24. Oberdorfer, op. cit., 64-65. []
  25. Ramsay Clark, “Indictment for Offenses Committed by the Government of the United States of America against the People of Korea, 1945-2001,” in Korean Truth Commission, op. cit., v. []
  26. Oberdorfer, op. cit., described it as “a deluge of biblical proportions,” (p. 370) and, as a comparison, over a year later, New Orleans still suffers from the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. []
  27. Oberdorfer, op. cit., 396. The percentage of GDP devoted to defense spending by the DPRK is reportedly the highest in the world. “Korean People’s Army,” Wikipedia. []
  28. Bruce Cumings, North Korea, op. cit., 125. []
Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Read other articles by Kim.

One comment on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Gunther said on August 23rd, 2007 at 2:56am #

    A very interesting and insightful piece. I hope you will be able to add similar insight to the blog I have just started http://www.koreanunification.net I am seeking all views, left, right, extremist, dissident, you name it… the aim – to progress thought on unification of the Korean peninsula. If you dont mind I will reference this piece in a future post.