Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Choosing the Oppressor over the Liberator

Why is it that whenever a country is saved from a brutal enemy by another country, a sense of resentment arises towards its rescuer? The young French have pretty much forgotten the United States' efforts in liberating the country from its Nazi occupers. Young Germans are unaware that their country is free and democratic because of American efforts in containing the Soviet threat. And now this poll reveals a pervasive feeling of antagonism against Americans among young South Koreans:

Nearly half of South Korean youths who will be old enough to vote in the country's next elections say Seoul should side with North Korea if the United States attacks the communist nation, according to a poll released Wednesday.

Maybe I am jumping the gun and ignoring the possibility that young Koreans simply share more in common with other Koreans on the other side of the demilitarized zone. In a traditional ethnocentric national polity like Korea, it's likely that the unity of the Korean 'race' trumps all other considerations and alliances. As the poll later reveals, most Koreans wish reunification with the North. But I wonder if these youths are being a bit naive on their desire for both Koreas to become one. Having lived in Germany three years after reunification, I was able to observe how the euphoria of national togetherness was replaced by an endless litanny of resentment from both sides. From the West Germans' loathing of having to pay extra taxes for reconstruction in the East to the Easterner's disenchantment with Westerner's snobbery and indifference to their plight, reunification has exacted a heavy toll on everyone. Korea's reunification would pose an even greater challenge than that in Germany, as the disparity in the standard of living between North and South is greater, and South Korea has even fewer resources to sponsor reconstruction. In addition, the collective psychological damage done to the North Koreans will inflict insurmountable hardships on South Koreans who are, in my opinion, very much in the dark about what goes on north of the border.

The poll reveals a lot about what these youths don't know. They seem to be unaware of the excessive famine, brainwashing, expansive political gulags, and illicit weapons development taking place in their northern neighbor. The youths also are completely unaware of who their true international partners are:

The youths named China as South Korea's most important partner for maintaining friendly relations, at 39.5 percent, followed by the United States and North Korea at 18.4 and 18 percent, respectively.

China is North Korea's only real ally, and is also the primary reason that Kim Jong Il is still in power. Not only does China provide North Korea with just enough materials and resources to prop up one the most oppressive regimes in the world and thus ensuring the fragile military tension between North and South. But China had sacrificed hundreds of thousands of its own citizens during the Korean War to repell American-led efforts to unify the country under a democratic government. What angered most about the poll results was the implied ingratitude towards the one nation that guaranteed South Korea the opportunity to prosperous and free. This one nation isn't China, which has tirelessly in the last half century ensured that half the Korean peninsula remains imprisoned under a totalitarian dictatorship. It's the United States, which has deployed over 35,000 soldiers to contain North Korean aggression, that has guaranteed young Koreans to highlight their hair, enjoy their own kind of hip-hop music and take part in their obsession of short-track speedskating. Without the American presence at the border, the young Koreans would have missed out on having hosted the Olympics and the World Cup. The selection of China as their best friend reminds me of polls showing Germans trusting Putin's Russia more than the United States. Somehow they feel more secure allying with a regime that has progressively shut down the press and excluded opposition parties than with one that lets individuals around the world enjoy the fruits (and risks) of freedom.

I have listened quite a lot to the viewpoints of these young Koreans, particularly during my time as a graduate student. They hold a suspiscion that Americans are only in Korea to exert power and influence and could care little about the actual well being of South Koreans. They are confident that they could handle the job of containing the North Koreans by themselves, and anyway the policy of rapprochement with Kim Jong Il will inevitably lead to a joyous reunification. It makes me wonder what these young (and often brilliant) students are told by their teachers and political leaders. There must be a concerted effort among the South Korean political leadership to conceal that true nature of their neighbors in the North. It is obvious that the North Korean political refugees aren't given much of a forum when they make it past the border.

Is it just a natural reaction for the people of a country unable to defend itself at a crucial moment in their history to convince themselves that they were indeed quite capable, but that a foreign power prevented them from proving themselves? It's quite entertaining to listen to Europeans brag about their 'superb' military forces and advanced tactical skills, making it seem that they could have man-handled the Soviets all by themselves. Or that because young conscripted South Korean soldiers repeatedly practice their movements in the event of North Korean aggression, that somehow they could overrun the border and disregard nuclear retaliation.

The desire to believe that one's nation is completely self-sufficient is a strong influence on a person's views about America. If you come from a country that has displayed military impotence and economic disarray, the shame of having a benevolent foreign power revive your country must provoke sense of shame. This in turn incites feelings of resentment, as in "how dare you show how weak I am in confronting my enemies!". I'm sure quite a few Iraqis feel this way, especially when the Americans got rid of a regime in three weeks that the people themselves were unable to depose for several generations. But the Koreans have much to be proud of, and have sorted themselves in an enviable position internationally. From where I stand, any contrarian point of view spouted by a young Korean will be moot. The South Korea of muscular industrial conglomerates, top-flight schools and competitive athletes owes the United States an unending due.

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