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International Politics

Foreign policy 1

Joining the U.S.-Led World Order: 1948 to 1960
 
The Republic of Korea from its birth in 1948 into the late 1960s actively supported and endorsed, mainly for security reasons, the postwar international order created and led by the United States. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that ensued in the aftermath of World War II made it impossible for newly decolonized and impoverished states like Korea to adopt and maintain a neutral position. The dearth of economic resources in the country that had been devastated by a major internecine war also meant that Korea would not be able to achieve economic self-sufficiency for decades to come. Joining and actively supporting the U.S.-led world order was thus an inevitable choice the Korean government was compelled to make.
 
(1) Domestic and International Conditions
The birth of the Korean Republic was a result of multiple and complex patterns of competition between two world powers—the United States and the Soviet Union—during and after World War II. After winning the war, the Allies appeared intent on ushering in a new international order based on cooperation and alliance. Such a vision of friendship between the United States and the Soviet Union, however, floundered, giving way to express hostility and tension beginning in 1947. The Cold War, first unfolding across Europe, eventually affected the process in which the new Korean government came into being. Leaders from the United States and the Soviet Union who had reached a consensus on establishing a joint trusteeship on the Korean peninsula in the Moscow Agreement in December 1945 abandoned the trusteeship in 1947, deciding instead to partition the peninsula in half, with each nation’s government setting up in their half. In October 1947, the United States referred the Korea problem to the United Nations. The UN recommended that general elections, proportionate to populations, be held in both North and South Korea, but the United States did not expect Moscow to accept this recommendation. Washington thus set out to use the UN’s recommendation rather as an instrument for supporting its move to establish a separate government in South Korea. The general elections of May 10, 1948, and the resulting republican government in South Korea thus became inseparable features of the Cold War that had been expanding worldwide at that time.

The Cold War was characterized by escalating tensions between the two ideologically and politically opposing camps, and the formation of ever-growing alliances among nations within each camp. The United States and the Soviet Union continued to expand their respective spheres of influence around the globe, perpetuating and elongating bloodless wars and proxy wars in an infinite zero-sum game. The authority of the UN, ostensibly set up as an organization for fostering friendship among all nations, thus remained in a doubtful state during the Cold War period, while international relations and friendships developed within each camp. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact are two main representatives of the organized, intra-camp cooperation and alliances that were formed at that time, both of which evolved into systematic and permanent organizations of partnership.

South Korea continued to struggle with the devastating effects of the Korean War into the 1960s, remaining unable to develop and maintain the adequate production infrastructure required to support a self-sufficient economy. The Korean government thus remained hopelessly dependent on foreign aid and grants, especially from the United States.[1] During this period, South Korea was poorer and weaker than North Korea. As shown in Figure 2-1, South Korean military spending barely managed to exceed half of North Korea’s spending until the mid-1970s or so. Whereas North Korea was able to expedite its reconstruction process after the Korean War, South Korea lacked the resources and political leadership to support such speedy reconstruction. As a result, South Korea seriously lacked self-defense capacity.

Source: Correlates of War 2005
 
[Figure 2-1] Gap in Military Spending: South Korea vs. North Korea

Source: Bayer, 2006
[Figure 2-2] Resident Diplomatic Delegations Sent and Received by Korea


 

 
[1] Throughout the 1950s, foreign aid and grants made up over 10 percent of the gross national product, reaching as high as 22.9 percent in 1957. They also represented between 17.1 percent (1953) and 54.1 percent (1957) of the national revenue (Committee on the Compilation of the History of the Four Decades of Korean Finance, 1991, 157).


Source: Korea Institute of Public Administration. 2008. Korean Public Administration, 1948-2008, Edited by Korea Institute of Public Administration. Pajubookcity: Bobmunsa. 

 

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 (2) Joining the U.S. Side
During the period between its establishment in 1948 and the late 1960s, the Korean government sought to garner respect in the international arena by becoming a vocal ally and supporter of the United States in the raging Cold War. The choice was inevitable, given the state of deprivation and insecurity South Korea faced at the time. It was through its alliance with the United States that Korea was able to build and maintain close cooperation with others nations making up the so-called Western Hemisphere. Patterns in the resident envoys Korea sent and received during this period are evidence of this. In 1950, the United States and Britain were the only countries in the world that had sent resident envoys to Korea, with Korea sending its own resident envoys to the United States, Britain, and France in turn. The situation hardly altered by 1965, when only six countries had sent resident envoys to Korea, i.e., the United States, Britain, Zaire, Turkey, South Vietnam, and Taiwan. On the other hand, Korea had sent its resident envoys to 13 countries in 1960, and to 56 countries in 1965. The number of Korean resident envoys sent abroad abruptly increased in the 1960s as the Korean government sought to diversify its diplomatic channels and partners amid the rising non-alliance movement. The main policy of “bandwagon diplomacy” with the United States continued nonetheless.

The Korean government’s desperate attempt to ensure the nation’s survival by allying ever closely with the United States is most evident in the Korean government’s ceaseless efforts to host U.S. troops in Korea. The American troops that had originally been stationed to the south of the 38th Parallel in September 1945 to disarm the remaining Japanese soldiers became the subject of an escalating controversy after 1947, as the United States debated whether to withdraw these troops. With the Japanese soldiers eliminated and the Cold War not looming as large as it once did, and given the relative insignificance of Korea in the overall U.S. strategy, the Pentagon advocated the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. The Truman administration thus decided to withdraw these troops by the end of 1948 in a manner that minimized the negative impacts to Korea.[1]

The alarmed Korean government countered this decision with a series of measures, including sending an official statement of objection from Minister Yun Chiyeong of the Ministry of Home Affairs to Washington on September 8, 1948; dispatching Cho Byeongok to Washington as a special envoy in September 1948; sending a handwritten letter from President Rhee Syngman to Truman; and passing a parliamentary resolution on November 20, 1948 to encourage the U.S. troops to remain in the country. The Truman administration nonetheless insisted on its plan of withdrawing all U.S. troops by June 30, 1949, on the condition of transferring military equipment to Korea and dispatching a military advisory board, and providing additional grants and aid to support 65,000 troops, 35,000 police officers, and 4,000 Coast Guards.[2] As a result, only 500 U.S. military advisors remained in Korea on June 29, 1949—the start of the Korean War. The fact that the Korean War broke out shortly after U.S. troops were withdrawn manifestly indicates that the Korean government had relied exclusively on Washington’s pledge of security until that point.

The experience of the Korean War deepened the Korean government’s dependency on Washington for security and survival. The two countries entered the Agreement on the Criminal Jurisdiction Over U.S. Soldiers in Korea on July 12, 1950, which granted extraterritorial status to American troops in Korea, exempting them from criminal liabilities imposed by Korean law. President Rhee, moreover, sent a personal letter to Douglas MacArthur, then Commander-in-Chief of the UN Command, giving him complete “control over the land, naval, and air power of Korea” so long as the “current state of animosity persisted,” which MacArthur accepted[3] (Kim, 1976, 117-119). This transfer of operational command over the Korean forces was intended as an “opportunistic” and “provisional” move to promote the efficient execution of war efforts and secure greater support from the United States (Kim and Cho, 2003, 55-56). It also spoke to the desperate situation in which Korea found itself.

The ROK-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) did serve to cement the United States’ support for Korea. President Rhee explicitly acknowledged that support from the United States would be indispensable to ensure the survival of South Korea as an independent nation in the aftermath of the Korean War when then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles visited Seoul to sign the MDT.[4] President Rhee saw the MDT as a crucial buttress for the future prosperity and security of Korea, and expected that it would “endow many generations to come with numerous benefits” (Han, 1996, 174-195). The expression, “mutual,” is misleading, though, as the MDT was almost exclusively about the terms and conditions of unilateral support provided by Washington to Korea in emergency situations.[5] In exchange for the American promise of security support, the Korean government transferred operational command over its forces to the United States, abandoned its policy of marching northward, and promised to cooperate with the U.S. policy of foreign aid and grants (Lee, 2004, 9-11).

In an effort to secure and solidify Washington’s commitment to Korea’s security, the Korean government provided active assistance in overseas missions conducted by American forces. When the French forces, having lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, decided to retreat, Washington stepped up with serious propositions of dispatching its own troops to Vietnam. President Rhee met this move by proposing to deploy one division of the ROK Army on the American side in 1954, and additional Korean troops in the next year as well. President Park Chunghee was also the first to propose the dispatch of Korean troops to Vietnam when he came to power in 1961. Considering the state of affairs of the Korean peninsula and public opinion worldwide on the continuation of the Vietnam War, these Korean leaders were highly unusual in their proactive offer of military assistance. Chinese volunteer troops stayed in North Korea until 1958, while operations were being undertaken in South Korea simultaneously to round up hidden Communists and guerilla fighters. A series of major security threats continued to challenge South Korea at the time, including the infiltration of Uljin-Samcheok by armed Communist guerilla fighters, the attempted attack on the Blue House, and the seizure of the USS Pueblo. All these incidents occurred in and around 1968, when the number of Korean troops deployed to Vietnam reached its peak (Hong, 2001). The fact that the Korean leadership was so adamant on continuing the dispatch of Korean troops to Vietnam despite such alarming security threats on the domestic front suggests the depth of Korea’s desire to join the U.S. side in the escalating Cold War (Cho, 2004, 37). Thus Korea’s first deployment of troops to Vietnam in 1964 coincided with the stationing of 6,000 additional American troops in Korea
 
 

    Minister    
    Vice Minister    
    Assistant Vice Minister    
Secretariat Political Affairs Bureau Commerce Bureau Treaties Bureau Investigation Bureau Information Bureau
Personnel Division
Protocols Division
Document Division
General Accounting Division
Planning Division
Asia-Pacific Division
Europe Division Americas Division
Policy Division
Trade Division
Instruction Division
Treaties Division
Legal Affairs Division
Political Investigation Division
Economic Investigation Division
Propaganda Division
Reporting Division
Culture Division

Source: Ministry of Government Administration (MGA), 1987, 410
[Figure 2-3] Ministry of Foreign Affairs Organization 1 (Announced on November 4, 1948)
 
 
 
 

      Minister      
      Vice Minister      
        Planning Office    
      Assistant Vice Minister      
          Protocols Office
  Asia-Pacific Bureau Euro-America Bureau International Organizations Bureau Commerce Bureau Information & Culture Bureau Protocols Division
Passport Division
General Accounting Division Northeast Asia Division
Southeast Asia Division
Overseas Koreans Division
Americas Division
Europe Division
Africa-Middle East Division
UN Division
International Treaties Division
Economic Cooperation Division
International Economy Division
Trade Promotion Division
Information Division
Public Culture Division
Foreign Communications Division
 
 

Source: Ministry of Government Administration (MGA), 1987, 588
[Figure 2-4] Ministry of Foreign Affairs Organization 2 (Announced on April 10, 1967)

(3)
Changes in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Korea’s jump onto the bandwagon led by the United States was evident in changes made to the organization of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well (MGA, 1987, 1166). Articles 3 and 16 of the National Government Organization Act (NGOA) of 1948 obligated the Korean government to “create a Ministry of Foreign Affairs in charge of matters pertaining to diplomacy, economy, Koreans abroad, investigation of international affairs, external relations and propaganda, and others not in the purview of other ministries.” Figure 2-3 shows the original organization of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, complete with one office and five bureaus, which came into being under Presidential Decree No. 19.

The Political Affairs Bureau, originally conceived to handle diplomatic affairs with the United States, saw its role gradually expand as treaties and investigation bureaus were abolished (under Presidential Decree No. 86 of May 5, 1949), and the positions of Assistant Vice Minister and Secretariat were removed (under Presidential Decree No. 305 of March 31, 1950). As Figure 2-4 reveals, the importance of relations with the United States only grew stronger under the Park Chunghee administration, with the tasks of the Political Affairs Bureau thus multiplied and divided between the Euro-America Bureau and the Asia-Pacific Bureau (Cabinet Decree No. 1689 of December 16, 1963).

The changes in the structure of diplomatic offices abroad also indicate the growing centrality of the United States in the Korean government’s policies, foreign and otherwise. Under Presidential Decree No. 60 of February 24, 1949, which obligated “the Minister of Foreign Affairs to announce the locations and jurisdictions of diplomatic offices, including, among others, embassies, legations, consulates general, consulates, and other such establishments abroad,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs began to dispatch resident envoys overseas, starting with the establishment of a Korean embassy in Washington on March 25, 1949. Though the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs had created numerous diplomatic establishments abroad prior to this point in time, such as the Chinese Envoy Office (November 7, 1948), the Consulate General in Los Angeles (November 21, 1948), and other such establishments for non-resident envoys, the embassy in Washington was the first ever Korean establishment abroad for resident envoys. At that time, Korea engaged in diplomat-level relations with the United States and China only. The Communist Revolution in China, however, almost severed the diplomatic ties South Korea had with Beijing.

Source: Korea Institute of Public Administration. 2008. Korean Public Administration, 1948-2008, Edited by Korea Institute of Public Administration. Pajubookcity: Bobmunsa.
 

 
[1] “NSC 8: Report by the NSC on the Position of the United States with Respect to Korea,” 2 April 1948 in Department of State, 1974, Foreign Relations of the United States 1948 (vol.VI). 1163-1169.
[2] “NSC 8/2: Position of the United States with Respect to Korea,” 22 March 1949 in Department of State, 1974, Foreign Relations of the United States 1948 (vol.VI), 1325-1327.
[3] “Assignment of Command Authority over all Korean Forces to General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief, Unified Command,” July 14 1950 in Se-Jin Kim, 1976, 117-119.
[4] “Memorandum of Conversation” by the Director of the Office of Northeast Asian Affairs (Young), 5 August 1953 in Department of State, 1984, Foreign Relations of United States 1952-1954 (vol.XV). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1471.
[5] The international consensus is that the ROK-U.S. alliance is based not on the bilateral mutual defense treaty, but on the United States’ unilateral pledge of security. See Gibler and Sarkees, 2004.
 
Source: Korea Institute of Public Administration. 2008. Korean Public Administration, 1948-2008, Edited by Korea Institute of Public Administration. Pajubookcity: Bobmunsa.