Relations with the United States
South Korea's relations with the United States have been most extensive and intense since 1948. This relation was perhaps inevitable because South Korea was primarily established by the United States and was saved from a total collapse in the course of the Korean War (1950-53) by the United States-initiated, United Nations-sponsored rescue operation. During the subsequent four decades, however, Seoul came of age economically, politically, and even militarily and was no longer as economically or militarily dependent on the United States. Instead, by the 1990s it was seeking to establish a partnership for progress. The Seoul-Washington relationship in this transition was increasingly subject to severe strains.
Trade had become a serious source of friction between the two countries. In 1989 the United States was South Korea's largest and most important trading partner and South Korea was the seventh-largest market for United States goods and the secondlargest market for its agricultural products. Friction, however, had been caused in the late 1980s by South Korea's trade surplus. Correcting and eliminating this trade imbalance became the center of economic controversy between Seoul and Washington. Although Seoul gave in to Washington's demands to avoid being designated as a "priority foreign country" (PFC) under the United States "Super 301" provisions of the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 economic policymakers in Seoul greatly resented this unilateral economic threat. They also feared that the PFC designation would fuel anti-Americanism throughout South Korea.
Security was another source of strain. Some policymakers in Seoul and Washington maintained that United States forces should remain in South Korea as long as Seoul wanted and needed them. Not only did 94 percent of South Koreans support the presence of United States forces, but even the vocal opposition parties favored a continued United States military presence in South Korea. Stability in the peninsula, they argued, had been maintained because strong Seoul-Washington military cooperation deterred further aggression.
Other policymakers, however, felt that United States troops should gradually be leaving South Korea. They argued that South Korea in the late 1980s was more economically, militarily, and politically capable of coping with North Korea. Moreover, they doubted that P'yongyang could contemplate another military action, given its acrimonious relationships with Moscow and Beijing. In Washington, meanwhile, an increasing number of United States policymakers advocated gradual troop withdrawal for budgetary reasons. The consultations on restructuring the Washington-Seoul security relationship held during Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney's February 1990 visit to South Korea marked the beginning of the change in status of United States forces-- from a leading to a supporting role in South Korea's defense. In addition, Seoul was asked to increase substantially its contribution to defense costs. Although the precise amount of savings would be difficult to measure, the United States would likely save at least US$2 billion to US$3 billion annually if defense costs were restructured as the United States wished. Furthermore, disengagement would avoid the potential for American entanglement in complicated internal South Korean politics. In short, it was suggested that it was time for Seoul to be treated as an independent entity responsible for its own security.
Politics also strained relations between Seoul and Washington. The increasingly sensitive South Korean nationalism was faced with what Seoul viewed as a hardened Washington. The United States role in the May 1980 Kwangju uprising was the single most pressing South Korean political issue of the 1980s. Even after a decade, Kwangju citizens and other Koreans still blamed the United States for its perceived involvement in the bloody uprising.
Washington's policymakers applauded Nordpolitik as a necessary adjustment of the relationship between Seoul and Moscow. However, the South Korean press contributed to a distorted zero-sum notion of the situation--if ties with the Soviet Union improve, then it must cause strains in the relationship with the United States. In his February 1989 speech to the South Korean National Assembly, President George Bush defined continuity and change as the guideposts in Seoul-Washington relations.
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