For the past week, unnoticed by much of the American media, South Koreans have been battling in the port city of Inchon over an important American icon in East Asia — General Douglas MacArthur.
Inchon is the site of MacArthur’s greatest military masterpiece — a daring amphibious landing in 1950 that decisively turned the tide of the Korean War and almost won it, until Chinese communist forces intervened in massive numbers.
Despite tremendous natural obstacles, including tides over 30 feet, and the near unanimous objections from his subordinates, MacArthur pressed for “Operation Chromite,” a landing deep behind North Korean lines. The audacious attack succeeded spectacularly. North Korean forces, caught by complete surprise, disintegrated, and Seoul was re-captured in ten days.
In gratitude for their liberation from the communists, the citizens of Inchon erected a statue of MacArthur in 1957. Until recently, South Koreans had celebrated MacArthur as a great hero and savior of South Korea.
On September 11th — to coincide with both the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the 55th anniversary of the Inchon Landing on September 15th, 4,000 South Korean “progressive activists” launched a violent protest in Inchon, calling MacArthur a “war criminal” and demanding the statue be torn down. The protesters, armed with metal pipes, bamboo sticks and eggs, clashed with police and also demanded the withdrawal of American forces from South Korea, parroting North Korean rhetoric.
The leftist ruling Uri Party has been divided by the new “Battle of Inchon.” Some counseled moderation while others within the party lauded the protesters as showing a “deep ethnic purity” and denounced the opponents of the protest as “ultra-rightists.”
President Roh Moo-Hyun of South Korea, who came to power by pandering to momentary anti-Americanism in a close electoral contest, has tread carefully over the controversy. While criticizing the violent protesters as being “unhelpful” to the US-South Korea alliance, he has failed to condemn them unequivocally, likely in order not to hurt his standing among his leftist political base.
The controversy and the incumbent party’s mixed reactions have galvanized Roh’s political opponents, however, including the conservative Grand National Party, which urged the government to take strong measures against the illegal protest.
Now the US Congress has entered the fray in the Battle of Inchon. Alarmed by the news of the violence, the House Committee on International Relations, headed by chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL), sent a letter of concern to Roh, seeking a reassurance that the statue would not be harmed. Joining Hyde in signing the letter were representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Edward Royce (R-CA), Eni Faleomavaega (D-AS) and Joseph Crowley (D-NY).
Hailing MacArthur as a hero who liberated South Korea from Japanese colonization and repulsed North Korean communist aggression, the letter pointedly, if diplomatically, suggests that the statue be turned over to the United States should “the violent attempts to topple the statue continue.”
While some observers of the South Korean political scene have expressed fears that the congressional “intervention” may inflame more anti-Americanism, the letter struck a right note of American indignation and concern. With polls showing a substantial majority of South Korean public still favoring the presence of US forces in Korea and opposing the toppling of the statue, it appears the anti-American left in South Korea finally over-reached.
Roh and his allies, who have benefited from the tacit toleration, if not outright encouragement, of ugly and lawless acts of anti-American violence in recent years, have been put in a difficult position. The letter is a reminder that it may no longer be possible to play the two-faced game of inciting anti-Americanism for domestic political benefit while reassuring moderates, conservatives and the American audience that the US-South Korean relationship is on a sound footing.
Some American conservatives, justly outraged, may cite the Battle of Inchon as yet another reason why the US should withdraw completely from South Korea in an “amicable divorce.” While the sentiment is understandable, it should also be recognized that the Korean Peninsula sits at the confluence of China, Japan and Russia, and, as such, occupies an important strategic nexus from which the US should not disengage capriciously.
What the US must do, instead, is to confront publicly the politically opportunistic anti-Americanism among leftist South Korean leaders and remind the South Korean public that the US-South Korean relationship cannot be a one-sided affair, in which the US continues to provide protection, economic benefits and friendship while being maligned and harassed within South Korea.
Won Joon Choe, a commentator on Korean politics, points out that neither the anti-American nor the pro-China sentiment now ascendant in South Korea is inherent or permanent. In order to tackle the North Korean nuclear threat effectively and to help balance a rising China in the region, the US should work toward empowering a South Korean center-right coalition willing to engage in a genuinely friendly partnership with the US.
As Choe puts it, “the Bush administration should make regime change in Seoul its number one Korean policy priority.”