On 21 May 2022, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived in Seoul, South Korea, for a meeting with Yun Sŏg-yŏl, the newly elected president of the Republic of Korea (rok). An important objective of the summit for both leaders was to demonstrate the strength and shared purpose of the U.S.-rok partnership. “The alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States,” Biden emphasized at their initial press conference, “has never been stronger, more vibrant or, I might add, more vital.” He also pointed to the continuing U.S. troop presence in South Korea as “emblematic of . . . our readiness to take on all threats.” Of course, posing the greatest threat to the rok is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (dprk). Significantly, Biden and Yun both have abandoned the approach of seeking engagement with North Korea in hopes of persuading it to denuclearize that their predecessors had followed. Instead, they have adopted a policy of maintaining international economic sanctions and refusing to negotiate with the dprk until it demonstrates a serious willingness to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. In response to North Korea’s upsurge in missile tests since January 2021, Biden and Yun, during the May 2022 summit, agreed to begin “discussions to expand the scope and scale” of joint U.S.-rok military exercises that have elicited angry protests from the dprk. The U.S. president also announced that Washington would collaborate with Seoul in combating cyberattacks from North Korea. Not surprisingly, Yun, who came to office promising a tougher approach to North Korea, expressed satisfaction with Biden’s remarks. “President Biden and I see eye to eye on so many fronts,” Yun declared. Given their skepticism about trusting North Korea, it is predictable that Biden and Yun would prioritize fortifying the U.S.-rok alliance to reinforce deterrence.1
One hundred years ago, U.S. government leaders and informed Americans would have been shocked to learn that the United States currently has political commitments and a military presence on the Korean peninsula. In 1905, Washington had acknowledged Japan’s imperial dominance over Korea in the Taft-Katsura Memorandum, although the United States in 1882 had signed a treaty with the country promising to exert its “good offices” if another nation threatened it. That October, King Kojong asked President Theodore Roosevelt to use his “good offices” to prevent imposition of Japanese control over Korea. Instead, Washington withdrew its legation from Seoul because Roosevelt judged Korea unworthy of U.S. support because it was backward and unable to defend itself. In 1907, missionary Homer B. Hulbert requested U.S. endorsement for his appeal at the Hague Tribunal to sanction Japan, but Roosevelt did nothing. Rather, in 1908, he approved the Root-Takahira Agreement, formally affirming the Taft-Katsura betrayal. Many Koreans expected a reversal in U.S. policy when President Woodrow Wilson in January 1918 called for global national self-determination in his Fourteen Points. A year later, however, Wilson at the Versailles Conference ignored a petition Koreans submitted pleading for action to end Japanese colonial rule. Indirect support at the time for U.S. indifference toward Korea came from journalist George Kennan, who wrote that Koreans without hope of improving themselves would benefit from Japanese tutelage.2 Sang Me Oh, in this volume’s first article titled “‘Why Korea Failed?’: The American Discourse of Korea’s Historical Failure at the Turn of the 20th Century,” describes how American writers of histories of Korea in the 1890s and early 1900s elaborated on the dismissive views of critics like Kennan to reinforce among U.S. leaders and the American people a reading of Korea’s past as a story of steady decline that ends in failure.
Oh describes how Americans came to accept a discourse of Korea’s failed history during the first half of the 20th Century. Japanese writers and the Korean elite originated this view in the 1890s, but William E. Griffis and Homer B. Hulbert popularized the narrative in the United States after writing histories of Korea titled Corea: The Hermit Nation (1882) and Passing of Korea (1906) respectively. Because Japanese colonization halted the writing of similar works, Oh explains, “what guided the Western perception of Korean history for the next four decades was these early American popular texts.” While there were differences, Griffis and Hulbert both emphasized three themes to explain why Korea failed. First, Korea’s persistent isolation meant that, unlike Japan, it did not follow the U.S. example of “openness and progress.” Second, Korea suffered victimization, notably in the Hideyoshi and Manchus invasions during the 17th Century. Third, the dependency of Korea “on powerful neighbors . . . prevented the rise of an autonomous spirit.” Oh shows how the two authors were selective in citing historical events, insisting that the three themes did not exist throughout Korea’s history. But because few scholars challenged their narrative, it “continued to inform American perception of Korea in popular and academic texts in the years thereafter.” Harold J. Noble and George M. McCune, for example, repeated Korea’s failure narrative in their doctoral dissertations. Thereafter, they “worked as Korean experts in the U.S. Army during the Pacific War (1941–1945) and taught Korean history at American universities.” As a result, “they not only informed the American policymakers during World War ii and the U.S. occupation in Korea, but also influenced later scholars who established Korean Studies programs in the United States.” Oh persuasively concludes that “American knowledge about Korean history occurred in a specific way that was the product of an unequal power relationship, thus reflecting the Orientalism and temporalizing trend of the time.”
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 ended this U.S. policy of indifference toward Korea. As Oh explains, the low opinion that U.S. leaders had regarding the capabilities of Koreans led to the adoption of plans for a postwar multinational trusteeship for the liberated nation. But the Truman administration delayed securing an agreement with the Soviet Union for this arrangement in hopes of forcing Japan to surrender before the Kremlin entered the war and this resulted in Soviet-American military occupation of a divided Korea. After Washington and Moscow failed to reach agreement on how to implement a revived trusteeship plan, two Korean governments emerged on the peninsula. Because North Korea had both a stronger government and military, the United States feared it would stage an attack to conquer the entire country and thus formed a constabulary force – precursor to an rok army – to provide deterrence after U.S. troops withdrew. The U.S. military sent advisors to train South Korean soldiers on how to use American weapons and employ battlefield tactics. Assuming these responsibilities when U.S. forces left in late June 1949 was the Korean Military Advisory Group (kmag). By spring 1950, the kmag believed that it had created a formidable South Korean army that was well trained and highly motivated. In June, Brigadier General William L. Roberts, the kmag commander, declared that the rok had the “best damn army outside the United States.”3 Shortly thereafter, North Korea’s attack sent South Korean forces into disorderly retreat, revealing that the training the kmag provided was less effective than it thought. Syrus Jin, in the second article of this issue titled “Interpreting Empire: English, U.S. Advisors, and Interpreters in the Korean War,” explains how language differences was likely one reason for this disappointing performance.
Jin describes how language limited the ability of U.S. military advisors in South Korea before and during the Korean War to use influence and suggestion to maximize the efficacy of the rok military since “few, if any, [of them] had Korean language proficiency.” During the U.S. military occupation from 1945 to 1948, American advisors gave preference to recruiting for officer training in the Constabulary South Koreans who could speak English, judging them to have greater intelligence and talent. This was, Jin argues, “emblematic of the politics and power rooted in language.” kmag provided U.S. Army officers to advise rok Army counterparts down to the battalion level who had no English capability, requiring the rok government to assign each an interpreter. Various problems emerged from the start, including English words having no Korean equivalent and the slowness of the translation process. More troubling, Jin explains how the interpreters “amplified existing concerns about the loyalty and trustworthiness of South Koreans.” Already feeling a sense of anxiety about their security working in a nation they considered inferior, many advisors attributed their failures to effect change to doubts that their interpreter was conveying their words accurately to their counterparts. While interpreters did strive to avoid offending superior rok Army officers, the complaints of U.S. advisors about their obsession with saving “face” and suspicions of distortion reflected the “American cultural assumptions about oriental men, with deceitful and conniving oriental villains frequently gracing Hollywood screens in the early 20th Century.” Jin insightfully concludes that the way American “personnel talked about language, made assumptions about the activities of interpreters, and understood their own position in relationship to non-English speaking people exposes how language was embedded” in the U.S. project to modernize and “Americanize” South Korea.
American distrust and disdain for the rok Army steadily evaporated during the Korean War because South Korean soldiers demonstrated discipline, skill, and tenacity on the battlefield. Indeed, when the fighting ended in July 1953, the rok Army defended nearly two-thirds of the battlefront. The following October, the Eisenhower administration, with considerable reluctance, signed a Mutual Defense Treaty with the rok, thus formally establishing an alliance between the United States and South Korea that government officials and scholars have emphasized was “forged in blood.”4 During the year after the armistice, the United States withdrew almost eighty percent of its troops from South Korea, but 70,000 remained to deter North Korea and to serve notice of its commitment to protect the rok.5 The United States also retained, as Hosub Shim explains in the final article of this volume titled “Journey to Equality: The Establishment of the Relationship Between the United States and Republic of Korea Forces in the Vietnam War,” its Operational Control (opcon) over the rok military that Rhee had granted to General Douglas MacArthur, as head of the United Nations Command, in July 1950. The primary reason initially was concern that President Rhee, with unfettered control over the rok military, might carry out his ongoing threats to stage an offensive northward to rule a reunited country. The U.S. Army affirmed opcon over the rok Army in July 1957 when it established the United States Forces Korea (usfk) as the command headquarters for all rok and U.S. military units in South Korea. Rhee’s resignation in April 1960 shifted the usfk’s main priority to deterring North Korea. A year later, Major General Pak Chŏng-hŭi, who had seized power in May 1961, proposed sending rok forces to South Vietnam to fight Communist rebels in hopes of winning U.S. endorsement. Although the Kennedy administration rejected the offer, its successor would be more receptive.
President Lyndon B. Johnson in May 1965 asked President Pak to send combat troops to South Vietnam after U.S. forces initiated search-and-destroy missions against the Communist insurgents, creating the need for more soldiers. Not only were South Korean troops inexpensive, yet well trained, Shim explains, but “their presence supposedly could justify the U.S. Vietnam War as a multinational effort, especially since Koreans were Asians just like the Vietnamese.” Prior to deployment, controversy arose over whether General William C. Westmoreland, head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (macv), would have opcon over the Republic of Korea Forces in Vietnam (rokfv), which the Johnson administration assumed he would. Shim describes how Washington and Seoul never clearly resolved this dispute. At first, Pak agreed that the macv would have opcon, but his defense minister and Major General Ch’ae Myŏng-sin, the rokfv commander, convinced him that the rok should have opcon to insure that its forces fought “well to raise South Korea’s national prestige, while keeping its troop casualties low” to avert domestic criticism of the deployment. U.S.-rok discussion of the matter led to an ambiguous agreement. When the rokfv arrived in Vietnam in October 1965, Ch’ae persuaded Westmoreland that U.S. opcon would make the South Korean troops appear to be mercenaries. They agreed that Ch’ae would have opcon, but would coordinate and cooperate with both the macv and South Vietnam. This allowed the rokfv to focus in their assigned areas “more on clearing and securing operations rather than conducting U.S.-style search-and-destroy missions.” South Korea’s refusal to stage large-scale offensive operations annoyed the U.S. military, but it had no choice but to accept the reality that, as Shim conclusively establishes, “the rokfv held status regarding opcon in Vietnam that was unlike other foreign allied forces fighting there.”
In closing, the editor-in-chief extends his sincere thanks to those scholars who served as manuscript reviewers during the past calendar year – Donald Baker, Dana L. Barnes, David Cheng Chang, Jonathan M. DiCicco, David P. Fields, Marc S. Gallicchio, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Charles W. Hayford, Ronald I. Heiferman, Joseph M. Henning, T. Christopher Jespersen, Noriko Kawamura, Jeffrey A. Keith, Hoenik Kwon, Mark Atwood Lawrence, Mitchell B. Lerner, Jana K. Lipton, Lorenz Lüthi, Peter Mauch, Rana Mitter, Priscilla Roberts, Michael Schaller, William Stueck, Christopher W. A. Szpilman, Kathryn C. Statler, Christopher Waters, Charles S. Young, and Thomas W. Zeiler. Without their unrewarded assistance, it would be impossible to fulfill the journal’s commitment to providing prompt reviews of submissions and publication decisions.
Peter Baker and Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “Rejecting ‘Love Letters’ to North Korea, Biden Offers Carrots and Sticks Instead,” New York Times, 21 May 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/21/world/asia/biden-south-korea-yoon.html (accessed 6 July 2022).
James I. Matray, Crisis in a Divided Korea: A Chronology and Reference Guide (Santa Barbara, CA: abc-Clio, 2016), 34–35, 37.
Quoted in James I. Matray, The Reluctant Crusade: American Foreign Policy in Korea, 1941–1950 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1985), 231.
William Stueck and Boram Yi, “‘An Alliance Forged in Blood’: The American Occupation of Korea, the Korean War, and the US – South Korean Alliance,” Journal of Strategic Studies 33, no. 2 (April 2010): 177–209.
Alon Levkowitz, “The seventh withdrawal: has the US forces’ journey back home from Korea begun?,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 8 (2008): 136.