Daily Archives: 12 February 2007

The Two Koreas: Cold War Tails Wagging Dogs

“NON-ALIGNMENT” was not the only weapon available to small powers seeking to expand their autonomy while living in the shadow of superpowers: so too was the possibility of collapse. There was no way that staunch anti-communists like Syngman Rhee in South Korea, Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan, or Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam could plausibly threaten to defect to the other side (although Diem, desperate to hang on to power as the Americans were abandoning him in 1963, did implausibly attempt to open negotiations with the North Vietnamese). Nor could such dedicated anti-capitalists as Kim Il-sung in North Korea or Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam credibly raise the prospect of alignment with the United States. What they could do, though, was encourage fears that their regimes might fall if their respective superpower sponsors did not support them. The “dominos” found it useful, from time to time, to advertise a propensity to topple.

Korea’s history after the Korean War provides a clear example. Rhee had adamantly opposed the 1953 armistice that left his country divided, and in an effort to sabotage it, had released thousands of North Korean prisoners-of-war so that they could not be sent home against their will. Washington was as outraged by this as was Pyongyang, for Rhee acted on his own. He did not succeed in scrapping the armistice, but he did signal the Eisenhower administration that being a dependent ally would not necessarily make him an obedient ally. His most effective argument was that if the United States did not support him—and the repressive regime he was imposing on South Korea—that country would collapse, and the Americans would be in far worse shape on the Korean peninsula than if they had swallowed their scruples and assisted him.

It was a persuasive case, because there was no obvious alternative to Rhee. The United States could “do all sorts of things to suggest … that we might very well be prepared to leave Korea,” Eisenhower noted gloomily, “but the truth of the matter was, of course, that we couldn’t actually leave.” And so Rhee got a bilateral security treaty, together with a commitment from Washington to keep American troops in South Korea for as long as they were needed to ensure that country’s safety. This meant that the United States was defending an authoritarian regime, because Rhee had little patience with, or interest in, democratic procedures. South Korea was what he, not the Americans, wanted it to be, and to get his way Rhee devised a compelling form of Cold War blackmail: if you push me too hard, my government will fall, and you’ll be sorry.

The Soviet Union, it is now clear, had a similar experience with Kim Il-sung in North Korea. He was allowed to build a Stalinist state, with its own cult of personality centered on himself, at just the time when Khrushchev was condemning such perversions of Marxism-Leninism elsewhere. That country became, as a result, increasingly isolated, authoritarian—and yet totally dependent on economic and military support from the rest of the communist world. It was hardly the result Khrushchev or his successors would have designed, had they had the opportunity. They did not, however, because Kim could counter each suggestion for reform with the claim that it would destabilize his government, and thereby hand victory to the South Koreans and the Americans. “[I]n the interests of our common tasks, we must sometimes overlook their stupidities,” one Soviet official explained in 1973. Both Washington and Moscow therefore wound up supporting Korean allies who were embarrassments to them. It was a curious outcome to the Korean War, and another reminder of the extent to which the weak, during the Cold War, managed to obtain power over the strong.

SOURCE: The Cold War: A New History, by John Lewis Gaddis (Penguin, 2005), pp. 129-130

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