The Korean does not nearly know enough about Afghanistan to offer any specific thoughts as to what to do with Afghanistan right now. But the Korean does know a good deal about America-led nation building, because he knows a lot about Korea. Recently, comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam has been in vogue. The Korean is certain that there are important lessons to be drawn from the Vietnam experience. But he also believes that America would be remiss to ignore the lesson from its Korea experience.
Why Korea? Because bar none, Korea has been the most successful America-led nation building attempt in history. For the last 100 years, America has invaded, occupied and established governments in a number of different countries, including Germany, Japan, the Philippines, Iraq, etc. After the Americans finished establishing the government and (more or less) left, each of these countries generally followed its pre-existing historical arc. Germany and Japan were world powers before World War II; after World War II, they resumed being world powers. The Philippines was not exactly a world power previous to American occupation, and it currently is not either.
Only Korea bucked this trend. Korea was in desperate poverty for centuries prior to the American occupation. Korea was never strong enough to influence its neighboring countries in any meaningful way. Korea never had any tradition of democracy. There is absolutely nothing in Korea’s history that suggested that within 50 years of American occupation, it would turn itself into its current incarnation.
Yet the current incarnation of Korea is magnificent, and completely unexpected. At this point, Korea is one of the wealthiest countries in the world; one of the most influential creators of soft culture, in the form of movies, dramas and the like; one of the soundest democracies in Asia, and a rising regional power.
Of course, a huge caveat must be attached: Korea is not, and never has been, Afghanistan. The two countries’ historical experiences have many significant differences, which must be taken into account in attempting to glean any lessons from the Korean experience and apply them to the Afghan situation of today. Again, because the Korean does not know much about Afghanistan, he is not giving an opinion about what America should do with Afghanistan today one way or the other. With this post, he is only providing a data point to consider.
Regardless, there are still lessons to be learned, because America’s nation building project in Korea was such a remarkable success. How did this happen? What are the lessons to be learned from America’s experience with Korea? The Korean will proceed by listing the eight important lessons to be gleaned from the American involvement in Korean history.
Lesson 1: America can indeed successfully engage a nation-building project.
As explained previously, Korea moved from a destitute, backwards monarchy to a prosperous democracy – indeed, one of the world’s leading countries – in a manner of a few decades. America deserves a huge credit for this development, because …
Lesson 2: America’s help is essential for a nascent democracy.
Despite what Korea’s nationalist historians would like to believe, South Korea would not exist without the United States of America. America removed the murderous Imperial Japan from Korea. America defended South Korea against communist North Korea’s invasion, at great cost to its economy and people. America implanted in Korea a tradition of constitution and democracy. America conferred enormous economic benefit to South Korea, allowing it to develop its economy. At times (but not always), America withdrew its support from dictators who threatened Korea’s democracy – most notably Syngman Rhee, Korea’s first president who was not above constitutional amendments to make himself the lifetime president, rigged elections and torturing/killing his political opponents.
Democracy is a precious weak flower to grow in a fledgling country. It is constantly imperiled by external and internal threats. America can play an indispensable role in removing those threats.
Lesson 3: Healthy economy is essential for democracy.
Having elections is a necessary condition for establishing democracy, but it is far from sufficient. Destitute people do not care who rules them. In fact, they are perfectly willing to sacrifice democracy and freedom if there is a promise that they will not go hungry. (This is exactly what happened in Korea during the reign of Park Chung-Hee.) Only after Korea settled on a relatively high economic ground in the 1980s did the democratization movement in Korea gain steam.
Healthy economy also assists democracy in a subtler and less visible way. In a destitute agrarian society, people rarely move from their place of birth. People’s interactions become high localized and tribal, and politics reflect that – Korean politics was no exception. Until very recently, political leaders always had to have a regional base from which they could count on 90 percent of votes coming their way. But in a prosperous industrialized society, people move and mingle with other people. The sense of nationhood emerges and takes priority over the parochial regionalism. This is essential for people to consider the fate of the nation as a whole, rather than the narrow interest of their own region.
Lesson 4: Understand the power of nationalism and use it toward establishing democracy.
America’s experience in Korea, while resulting in a great success, nonetheless had plenty of miscues that could have been avoided. One such mistake is that it never understood how important nationalism is in just about everywhere outside of America.
Because of America’s frequent mishandling of nationalistic issues backfired on America’s policies so many times, many Americans have a tendency to write off nationalism’s positive – indeed, essential – contribution toward democracy. This is a mistake. Like the Korean alluded previously, democracy only operates among people who agree that they share the same destiny as a single nation. People who do not have such agreement, when given democracy, vote themselves into secession and civil war.
Also recall that healthy economy is essential for democracy. Healthy economy fosters nationalism, but nationalism in turn fosters healthy economy as well. The surest way for a poor country to stabilize its economy is to exploit its cheap labor. The workers must be motivated to work harder, longer, in a poorer condition compared to their counterparts in richer countries. Nationalism provides this motivation. During its rapid economic growth, Korean government did everything it could to connect the power of nationalism with economic growth. Public campaigns emphasized that Korea was fighting an economic war, particularly against North Korea. Leading exporters were given medals from the president as if they won a military battle. To be sure, Korea was not the first country to use nationalism as a fuel for economic growth – but it may well be the most successful example. (Until, perhaps, China gets to where Korea is in the next 20 years or so.)
But when mishandled, nationalism backfires massively upon America, precisely because nationalism rejects undue influence from any other country, including (ironically) the country that enabled the nationalism to act in the first place. In order to avoid this, America must …
Lesson 5: Maintain unassailable moral authority
By invading a foreign country and trying to establish democracy, America is essentially playing a hero. Then America must look the part. America must constantly prove to the world that it indeed is the shining beacon of democracy that it claims itself to be. Would you respect Superman the same way if you knew that privately, he was a raging alcoholic who beat Lois Lane when drunk?
All kidding aside, it is imperative to America’s mission to demonstrate, time and again, that it genuinely cares about human rights and democracy, and it is not another imperial power that seeks to colonize the world. On this score with Korea, America had both spectacular success and spectacular failure. The good grace that U.S. military earned during Korean War is still extremely valuable. To this day, the easiest way for any homeless man in America to get $20 from the Korean Mother is to say, “I fought in the Korean War.” Koreans of the Korean War-generation essentially elevated America to the pedestal of sainthood, a country that is purely motivated by altruistic concerns that can do no wrong.
A Scene from Gwangju
On the other hand, America tolerated a number of dictators who did not give a rat’s ass about democracy as long as they were not communists. America stood pat during May 18 in Gwangju, when Korean paratroopers ended up killing hundreds of civilians. On a smaller scale, it did not help that American military stationed in Korea (particularly in the early days) sponsored rampant prostitution near the base or recklessly polluted the land on which their bases were built. It also does not help that American military and the State Department are appallingly incompetent in handling potential PR challenges.
(Big caveat here – The Korean is fully aware that U.S. military in Korea gets a completely bum rap from nationalistic Korean media that is willing to hype up any small wrong for which no attention is given when committed by a Korean person or entity. That is completely unfair. But that does not change the fact that Americans should not be fostering prostitution or causing pollution. Fairness has nothing to do with it – this is what must be done if America wants to build a democracy in a foreign country.)
This goes beyond the direct interaction between America and the occupied country. A nascent democracy will always, always, always look to America for examples of how a democracy would conduct itself – which means the imperative of maintaining moral authority reaches to domestic politics as well. For example, during Cold War, America did itself no favor by maintaining the system of racial segregation – the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. used very skillfully in the Civil Rights Movement.
Lesson 6: At the end of the day, the people must carry themselves to democracy
This is self-explanatory. Democracy necessarily means self-rule, involving the entire voting public. While America’s role is significant and indispensable, the best that America can do is to set the stage – the people must carry themselves over the finish line. This certainly happened in Korea, as it was the relentless protests for democracy that brought down the long chain of military dictatorship.
Lesson 7: It will take a while
Korea’s first democratic government started under America’s auspices in 1948. Korea was not fully democratic until 1993. While America made its share of mistakes that may have delayed the full democratization of Korea, it seems to safe to say that at least a generation is required before a semblance of real democracy takes root in a country that has no previous experience of democracy.
Lesson 8: The result might be worth the cost
Probably the most controversial point. Again, the Korean is not completely informed about the current Afghanistan situation (and welcomes education from better-informed readers.) On top of that, the Korean is very obviously biased, given that he is a beneficiary of American help.
But the Korean thinks that the current Afghanistan situation is not worse than Korean War. Recall that at the time of Korean War, half of Americans believed that this was the precursor to World War III. Their belief was not unfounded – Cold War was just beginning to take shape, and Korea was right in the thick of Russia and China, the leading communist powers at the time. One wrong move, and the war had a potential to escalate toward another global conflict. It was not a small conflict either – America committed 480,000 soldiers, and more than 36,000 died. The war lasted four years. The Afghan conflict is unlikely to escalate toward a world war. It has taken longer, but so far America only committed 68,000 soldiers. Around 1,000 died so far.
Of course, this is no simple mathematics. American tolerance for military casualty has become a lot lower, as the nation came to better understand the enormous human cost of any war. The characteristics of the warfare are also very different. Korea and Afghanistan have had very different history, culture, religion. There can be a million more caveats.
But if Afghanistan can become another Korea of the region, the potential reward for continued American presence can be extremely huge, and therefore must be taken into account. The most important takeaway from America's experience with Korea is this -- in 1953, upon looking at the smoldering rubble that was South Korea, nobody except the most ardent optimist (who must have appeared borderline delusional at the time) would have thought that Korea would be one of the world's leading countries within 50 years.
What if within 50 years, Afghanistan could turn into a top-25 economic power with stable democracy (albeit with occasional brawls in its legislature)? What if U.S. could gain a near-permanent ally in the region in which there is currently no single dominance by any of the world’s powers? What if Afghanistan pumped out annoying yet somehow irresistible soft culture that makes other countries in the region to aspire to be like Afghanistan? What if America can deliver peace, freedom, prosperity and democracy to the 33 million Afghans?
It is, in the very least, something to consider.
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