South Korea Courts Foe, Spurns Friend

Visiting South Korea earlier this week, standing at the DMZ and peering into North Korea gave me the chills. But these days, it gives South Koreans the thrills.  

Amazingly, the nation the United States increasingly fears and loathes, South Koreans increasingly fete and like.

This despite the fact that, by objective measures, North Korea (search) is palpably the worst state on Earth:

Its troop stand poised at the DMZ (search), threatening the most militarized border in the world.

— It’s the first-ever communist dynasty, with a most dreadful dictatorship passed from the weird Kim Il-Sung (search), “The Great Leader,” to his weird son Kim Jong-Il (search), “The Dear Leader.”

— North Korea's withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (search), a few years back, was the first by any country in history, and foreshadowed the rise in its terrifying nuclear program.

— Just last week, evidence gained from Libya indicated that North Korea may have crossed the long-touted “red line” on the U.S. by selling its nuclear supplies to rogue regimes. 

The notion of North Korea having nuclear weapons is terrifying enough. The prospect of its selling nuclear material to god-awful entities, like Libya or even worse Al Qaeda, is beyond chilling. 

At least it is to us — but evidently not to South Koreans.

Foreign policy pundits may harp on the mystery of North Korea, with its bizarre leader and erratic foreign policy, yet the bigger mystery lies in South Korea.

Where’s the outrage in South Korea of one million, or even two million, fellow Koreans being starved to death by the North’s unbending brutal system? Where’s the outrage at the North’s extensive gulag, a series of Stalinist prison camps holding some 100,000 or more Koreans in subhuman subjugation? Or at the North having kidnapped foreigners visiting the peninsula decades ago, and still refusing to release some of them, and their offspring? 

Today, more outrage in the South seems to be directed at America. Its impeached-then-rehabilitated president, Roh Moo-hyun (search), ran on a platform of moral equivalence between his country’s protectors, the United States, and its aggressors, North Korea.

"There are always some people around," Winston Churchill once quipped, "who are content to remain neutral as between the fire brigade and the fire."

Last week, Americans were furious by the likelihood that North Korea sold its nuclear equipment, just as the rogue state previously sold its missile technology. But last week, South Koreans were excited by North Koreans meeting on maritime matters (though, of course, nothing came out of the general-level talks).

How can one explain the inexplicable? The sheer ingratitude of South Koreans for America having saved their country, sacrificing 33,642 American lives and untold treasure in that “forgotten war”? And of America still protecting South Korea's peace and prosperity, with some 37,000 troops around this DMZ, without much acknowledgment.

Ah, perhaps there’s the rub. More than 50 years of U.S. protection breeds not gratitude but griping. And the resentment stemming from dependency may be boosted by shame. For there’s no earthly reason why South Korea, with 25 times — or more! — the GDP of North Korea, cannot defend itself against that threat. No reason prosperous South Korea, with some 18 million people in its capital area some 40 miles from the DMZ, cannot allocate even 3 percent of its GDP to its own defense.

Long dependency leads to deep resentment. Twenty-five years ago, we should have set a deadline — say 1990, or even 2000 — for South Korea to come of age and our removing of all GIs. With sufficient warning, free citizens in the South could have decided whether the North threatened that freedom, or not. If so, then the South could have boosted its own defense. If not, then no problem with our departure. 

Now, after the dysfunctional relationship has gone on so long, South Koreans discount the threat and disparage the withdrawal of some of our troops. 

When I first visited the DMZ three decades ago, I found it inspiring how American troops helped protect the front line of freedom. When I last visited the DMZ, four days ago, I found it depressing how unappreciated American troops were there, on the front line of freedom.

Ken Adelman was a U.N. ambassador and arms-control director in the 1980s, accompanying President Reagan on his superpower summits with Mikhail Gorbachev. He now serves on the Defense Policy Board, and co-hosts