It was one of the grandest banquets my family ever held. My mother slaved for two days, even hiring a cook to assist her. Lacquered folding-tables, laden with our best dishes, were set up. Then the guests of honor arrived: three American soldiers stationed in South Korea.
As a child of around 9 years old, in the late 1980s, I didn’t understand the event’s significance. Only later did I learn that it was common for South Korean families to host members of the American military in a show of appreciation. Women would set themselves to making their most succulent galbijjim (braised short ribs) and their crispiest mung bean cakes for our great defenders against the Communists up north.
It isn’t a strange custom considering what many South Koreans grow up hearing: The United States is South Korea’s oldest and staunchest ally; we need America for our protection; and it is only right to honor the Americans in return.
But when that partner turns ungrateful, and even unreliable, it is time to question the idea that the alliance is sacrosanct.
South Korea’s relationship with the United States started as one of dependency. Korea was a Japanese colony until 1945. It became independent after Japan’s defeat in World War II, but the American military ruled the southern half of the Korean Peninsula until 1948. The Korean War broke out in 1950.
The war turned in the South’s favor when the United States made an amphibious landing near Seoul, cutting off the North Korean forces. Pyongyang was stopped but not fully defeated, leading to the division of the Peninsula.
The United States could credibly claim to be the South’s savior, the bulwark against a Communist takeover, and the subsequent signing of the mutual defense treaty in 1953 ensured an American military presence lasting to this day.
Contrary to how South Korean conservatives and some Americans frame it, the protection, while something to be thankful for, has not been free.
Housewives haven’t been the only South Korean women to toil for the pleasure of American soldiers in the ensuing decades. As detailed by Katharine Moon in her authoritative study “Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations,” the South Korean military dictatorship coerced women into sex work for American soldiers. Survivors testified to forced testing for sexually transmitted diseases and treatment while in confinement, all for the health and happiness of our protectors.
Then there is the Status of Forces Agreement, signed between the two nations in 1966 and renewed twice. It has been understood to grant the United States military nearly exclusive jurisdiction over its personnel, such that even high-profile offenses committed by American soldiers against South Korean citizens go unpunished.
One of the most heinous examples happened in 2002 when an American military vehicle ran over two middle-school students, crushing them to death. The perpetrators were shielded from South Korean authorities and a United States military court dismissed the case.
More recently, the United States military has refused to take responsibility for its environmental degradation of its base in central Seoul.
Being an ally has also meant deploying soldiers for America’s wars — to Vietnam, where some 5,000 South Koreans died and many suffered from exposure to the United States-made chemical weapon known as Agent Orange; and to Iraq in the 2000s, despite enormous local protests. Government officials from that time have explained that the Iraq deployment came in response to the Bush administration’s threat to reduce the number of Americans stationed in South Korea.
But the biggest cost of the alliance has been the erosion of South Korea’s sovereign spirit. There is enormous support among South Koreans for the United States military presence, and it isn’t simply a reflection of national goodwill toward America. It speaks volumes about just how much South Korea has become psychologically dependent on a foreign army as a potential barrier against North Korea, despite an annual national defense budget amounting to about 2.7 percent of its G.D.P. and a nearly 650,000-strong military.
Washington knows full well that stationing its soldiers on South Korean soil isn’t an act of charity. America offers protection, but only in return for influence over its lesser allies’ affairs.
Still, many South Korean conservatives consider any critique of the alliance blasphemous, even as Seoul finds itself being called a freeloader by President Trump. He has also demanded that South Korea pay for the American-made missile-defense system deployed here, which has had the effect of provoking Chinese outrage and economic retaliation against South Korea. (In a gesture at damage control, a senior White House official later took back the freeloader statement, admitting South Korea is a “model ally” that spends sufficiently on its own defense, and the administration had to reiterate that Seoul wasn’t being asked to pay for the missile shield, at least for now.)
South Korea has pulled out all the stops to prepare for Mr. Trump’s state visit on Tuesday. Domestic news outlets have been fixated on every detail, fretting over whether his single-night stay means he isn’t invested in South Korea. (He is spending two nights in both Tokyo and Beijing.)
That obsessiveness itself is tragic. Consider Mr. Trump’s repeated threats to incite war here, and the majority of the American public’s indifference to Korean lives — a poll from September found 58 percent of Americans support military action against Pyongyang if peaceful means cannot put a stop to its weapons program, even as a congressional report recently concluded that a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula could leave up to 300,000 people dead in the early days of fighting.
In the age of Trump, South Korea should look to an example set by another longtime American ally. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany didn’t hesitate to say in May that Europe can no longer “completely depend” on the United States. “We Europeans have to take our destiny into our own hands,” she said.
After being a dutiful ally for more than six decades, it may be time for South Koreans, too, to take their destiny into their own hands.
Se-Woong Koo is the editor in chief of Korea Exposé.