US never left South Korea post-war — now democracy thrives

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Captured in the eerie green of night-vision goggles, the image of a grim-faced major general boarding the final evacuation flight from Kabul at the stroke of midnight has come to symbolize the end of the war in Afghanistan. 

As the last US soldier to leave the country, he flipped the switch on “America’s longest war.” Except that this wasn’t our longest war, at least not technically. That would be the Korean War, which erupted in 1950 and resulted, somewhat unsatisfactorily, in an armistice three years later. 

You might think that arguing about which was America’s longest war — Korea or Afghanistan — is simply quibbling over a political slogan, mere words. But the two eras reveal a key difference: the willingness of American leaders to stay committed to our allies. 

The debacle in Afghanistan is prompting even some of our stalwart European allies to doubt American resolve. British Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat told his fellow MPs they should consider reinvigorating “European NATO partners.” French President Emmanuel Macron, who’s now fuming over a security pact between the US, Britain and Australia known as AUKUS that scuttled a sale of French submarines to the Australians, said on a recent trip to Iraq that France would continue to support the fight against ISIS there, “whatever the American choice.” 

The Korean War and America’s 70-year involvement in the country may be known as the “Forgotten War” in this country, but the Chinese haven’t forgotten. A massive three-hour Chinese war film celebrating their role battling the Americans and preserving North Korea as a separate state premiered at the Beijing International Film Festival on Tuesday. It’s expected to be among the country’s top-grossing films this year. 

The image of the last soldier leaving Afghanistan has now become iconic.
AP

Historically, had the US walked away from its role in South Korea, millions more Koreans might have grown up in an oppressive gulag, facing the prospect of hunger and arbitrary group punishment. 

“South Korea would have been overrun . . . immediately after the 1953 armistice by Maoist Chinese forces supplied by Stalin, were it not for the presence of the US troops,” said Thomas Byrne, president and CEO of The Korea Society in New York. “The mutual defense treaty preserved South Korea as an independent nation.” 

Still, Byrne said, there were times when South Koreans had good reason to fear that the US might abandon their country, especially during the Nixon and Carter administrations. 

Even during the Cold War — when 78 percent of Americans approved of sending in US soldiers after communist troops invaded South Korea — the mounting death toll of more than 36,000 US soldiers meant that three years later fewer than half of Americans saw a good reason to be in Korea. 

Yet American forces stayed on . . . and on. Today, there are 28,500 US troops stationed in the country and another 55,000 at a moment’s notice in Japan. Despite this deterrence, North Korea has made hundreds of incursions into South Korea by land, air and sea in violation of the 1953 armistice. To drive home the point, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un tested a long-range cruise missile that he claimed could potentially strike Japan on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. 

The all-girl robotics team in Afghanistan proved the US was slowly enabling progress for citizens in the country.
The all-girl robotics team in Afghanistan proved the US was slowly enabling progress for citizens in the country.
AFP via Getty Images

Over the years, the US has also provided the country with crucial non-military aid and advice, Byrne said, pointing to the establishment of the central bank and the first scientific institute, both formed when South Korea had authoritarian governments with awful human rights records. 

It wasn’t until the 1990s that democratic elections and a free press began to flourish. Today, South Koreans show up in droves to vote and the country has one of the freest media environments in Asia, according to Reporters Without Borders. South Korea recently grew to become the world’s 10th largest economy, in large part driven by an endless engine of creativity. Samsung, K-pop and the Oscar-winning filmmaker Bong Joon-ho all sprang from the inherent genius of the Koreans. 

The military deterrence and civilian advisers didn’t create this thriving democracy, but they created the space for democracy to evolve. 

On the face of it, the conflict in Afghanistan seems a world away. Koreans share a common culture and language on both sides of the demilitarized zone. Afghans have a diverse culture and speak many languages. 

But, like South Korea at the end of the last century, Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover showed every sign of someday blossoming into an Asian high-tech culture. You need look no further than Afghanistan’s all-girl robotics team to grasp the lost potential. 

Multi-Oscar-winning filmmaker Bong Joon-ho is one of the many examples of the thriving, creative country South Korea is today.
Multi-Oscar-winning filmmaker Bong Joon-ho is one of the many examples of the thriving, creative country South Korea is today.
AFP via Getty Images

The young Afghan democracy was far from perfect. Voter turnout had been low in recent elections because of Taliban attacks on polling places and widespread sentiment that the government was corrupt. Still, before the Taliban returned to power, the political transitions had all been democratic and freedom of expression was arguably better than it had been during South Korea’s early years. 

It’s typical for public support to flag when an overseas conflict drags on. Initially, more than nine out of 10 Americans saw the invasion of Afghanistan as a good idea in 2001, after it emerged that al Qaeda had planned the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in that country. Since then, 2,461 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan. By this summer, even before the Taliban seized control, nearly half of Americans thought the decision to send in US troops had been a mistake. 

In this era, when foreign policy seems to be based more on public opinion polls and slogans, that may be the ultimate line in the sand. 

J. Alex Tarquinio is past national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, and a German Marshall Fund fellowship recipient to cover another divided land, Cyprus. She has made two reporting trips to South Korea.

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