Sep 17, 2016 - America Transformed, Future Wars of the Empire, Imperialist Adventures, Lincoln's Revolutionary Legacy    Comments Off on A Korean Miracle and the Illusion of Allies

A Korean Miracle and the Illusion of Allies

Reminiscent of antebellum Massachusetts mills and their overworked young female workers is the sentence below regarding young Korean girls “condemned to stitch their eyes and lives away.” Over a century later and while escalating the Vietnam war in the mid-1960s, Lyndon Johnson’s administration supported the military coup of General Park Chung-hee, who had a distinguished career in the Imperial Japanese Army and established friendly relations with Japan, which dismayed most Koreans.

Bernhard Thuersam,


A Korean Miracle and the Illusion of Allies

Gerhard Breidenstein observed the South Korean “economic miracle” for three years, 1968-1971, as a visiting professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. Bernie Wideman lived in South Korea in 1972-1973 as a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Washington . . . these were boom years when money poured in from the Vietnam War, and Seoul was transformed as new office buildings reached toward the sky. South Korea was being “developed.”

Neither Wideman nor Breidenstein disputes the impressive increases in GNP and exports over the last several years . . . [but] Both authors . . . refuse to equate increased GNP with economic well-being or to ignore the moral question of earning foreign exchange by mercenary military service in Vietnam.

Briedenstein read the statistics but he also visited the slums, interviewed deracinated, bewildered industrial workers, and saw the warren-like textile sweatshops in Seoul’s P’yongwha market. He saw the exploitation of young girls condemned to stitch their eyes and lives away fifteen hours a day for a pittance.

In theory, labor laws protected the workers, but the authorities and management were in collusion and the laws were ignored. Other aspects of South Korea’s “miracle” raised profound doubts about the values behind the development model. While American observers professed great satisfaction at South Korea’s “astounding growth,” Breidenstein concluded that any meaningful social justice was impossible under capitalism.

Wideman went to the countryside to see for himself what was being done to the Korean peasantry in the name of higher GNP. He found that governmental policies, compounded by pervasive corruption and bureaucratic arrogance, were driving farmers off their land and turning them into unskilled day laborers in urban slums. [For writing his observations in the Far Eastern Economic Review] the South Korean government deported him in August 1973 because of these articles.

To be fair to American and South Korean economic planners, they apparently believed that the development model criticized by Breidenstein and Wideman will eventually lead to social justice. Professional economists tend to compartmentalize economic and political moral questions, confident that development must precede such political questions as the equitable distribution of wealth.

The 1961 coup [in South Korea] brought military leaders to power . . . [who recognized the] potentially lucrative opportunities in Vietnam due to the expanding US military involvement there [which] could only be pursued with Japanese political support. As the United States began to negotiate seriously for ROK troops to be sent to Vietnam in 1964, the Park government moved to crush popular opposition and establish relations with Japan.

Many Koreans charged in 1964-1965 that ROK leaders concluded the treaty for financial gain, that they were selling out their country.

The integration of military interests in Northeast Asia [by US planners] is best illustrated by the US utilization of South Korean troops in Vietnam. In November 1964 the Johnson administration launched a “More Flags” campaign as a prelude to the impending US military intervention in Vietnam. While designed to elicit concrete support for the Republic of Vietnam . . . the “More Flags” campaign was directly aimed at the American people.

The administration apparently never expected militarily significant “allied” troop contributions and they were not forthcoming (except from South Korea). Rather, “More Flags” was intended to establish a pragmatic basis for US intervention – the visible, committed presence of allies who would associate themselves with US actions in Vietnam militarily, if only in a token way, and diplomatically.”

(Without Parallel, the American-Korean Relationship Since 1945, Frank Baldwin, editor, Pantheon Books, 1973, pp. 21-22; 26-28)


Comments are closed.