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Nation Building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy

December 04, 2007 // 3:30pm5:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Cold War International History Project
History and Public Policy Program
Asia Program
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On Tuesday 4 December, the Wilson Center's NORTH KOREA INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTATION PROJECT and ASIA PROGRAM as well as the George Washington University's SIGUR CENTER FOR ASIAN STUDIES and INSTITUTE FOR EUROPEAN RUSSIAN AND EURASIAN STUDIES co-hosted "Nation-building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy," a discussion of Gregg Brazinsky's recent publication of the same name.

Following introductory remarks by WWICS History and Public Policy Program Director Christian Ostermann, IERES Director Hope M. Harrison, and Sigur Center Director Kirk Larsen, Gregg Brazinsky, assistant professor of history and international affairs at the George Washington University, briefly described the role that nation- building efforts have played in US foreign policy over the last century. Nation-building has been an integral part of US foreign policy for most of the 20th Century, and it played a key role in the Cold War as the US attempted to introduce American values such as liberal capitalism and democracy into the developing world in an effort to make them stable, reliable allies in the battle against communism. South Korea is one of the best examples of successful US nation-building, and according to Brazinsky, this is due to a combination of South Korean agency and US policy.

Brazinsky claimed that South Korea was of particular importance for US policy-makers because, following the Korean War, the US felt that its credibility as a world leader depended in large measure upon its ability to build-up South Korea's economy. Additionally, because the Korean Peninsula was divided between North and South, the US viewed it as a laboratory for demonstrating the inherent superiority of capitalism over communism. If the ROK prospered while the DPRK stagnated, the world would take note.

Outlining the challenges that the US faced in South Korea, Brazinsky explained that prior to Japan's defeat in the Second World War, Korea functioned as a cog in colonial Japan's economic machine. When Japan's colonial empire in Northeast Asia collapsed, so did the Korean economy. The division of the peninsula further complicated the task of rebuilding the South. Given the importance of building a strong South Korea, the US poured more financial and military aid into the ROK during the 1950s and 60s than it did into any other nation in the world.

By the 1960s, South Korea had developed into what Brazinsky termed a "developmental autocracy," an autocratic government that focused on fueling economic growth before relinquishing power. While the US never intended for the ROK to be a dictatorship, Washington's primary objective was to maintain stability and economic viability on the peninsula. Instead of attempting to force democracy upon the South, the US encouraged the development of civil-society institutions which later formed the basis for South Korea's democracy movement. This, in addition to the US' role as the guarantor of security and stability on the peninsula, created an incubator in which South Korea could develop.

Korean history and culture contributed to its economic and political development as well: Korea had historically been heavily influenced by larger regional hegemons. Because of this, Korean culture is amenable to learning from and adapting systems from larger foreign powers. Moreover, because Korea had never had a Western colonial master, South Korean nationalism was not anti-American despite the strong US influence on the peninsula. The intersection of these cultural, economic, political, and historical characteristics from both sides of the ROK-US relationship, Brazinsky concluded, led to the creation of a strong nation for the South Koreans, and the maintenance of power in Northeast Asia for the US.

Following Brazinsky's comments, William Stueck, a distinguished research professor of history at the University of Georgia, offered praise for Brazinsky's book, stating that it was 'keenly sensitive' to both sides of the ROK-US relationship, and offered a nuanced and balanced history of South Korea's growth between 1945 and the present. The book, he claimed, demonstrated continuity between the immediate post-liberation period and the 1960's in the construction of a human infrastructure that made later development possible. Stueck also noted that Brazinsky convincingly demonstrated how deeply the United States penetrated Korean society.

Stueck felt that Brazinsky erred in his conclusion by claiming that during three periods, 1945-1948, 1960-1961, and 1979-1980, American actions proved vital to the rise of autocrats at the expense of governments or political leaders who enjoyed stronger popular support. During these periods, Stueck argued, it was not clear what the popular will was. Indeed, it is difficult to determine what popular will is at any given point. Stueck provided specific examples for each of the three periods to demonstrate the difficulty of gauging popular will. In the first period, 1945-1948, for example, the Korean people wanted liberation, but not much is clear beyond that. The claim that Koreans wanted revolution, as Bruce Cumings has argued, does not consider the traditional and conservative nature of Korean society. Scholars also tend to underestimate the support for Korea's first president, Rhee Syngman.

In 1960-1961, Stueck argued, the US was quite aggressive with autocratic leader Park Chung-hee, encouraging him to end his military rule and to hold direct elections, both of which he did by 1963. Park thus submitted to American pressure. It is therefore not fair, Stueck claimed, to say the US supported autocracy at the expense of democracy.

Finally, James Delaney, a former CIA station chief in Seoul during the 1980's, rounded out the discussion by drawing upon his own experiences to describe important episodes in the US-ROK relationship during the 1980's. In Delaney's opinion, the single most important watershed event in the history of South Korean nation-building was Chun Doo-hwan's decision to step down in 1987 and allow his successor to be directly elected by the people.

Drafted by James F. Person, NKIDP Coordinator, HAPP Program Associate
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program

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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • James Person // Senior Program Associate
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant