- Korea, A Century of Change
Reading Korea, A Century of Change I was struck by how Korea's fate over the last century has so often been the immediate result of shifty voting: the forced [End Page 146] "ratification" of treaties of protectorship and annexation, the 1948 South-only elections that hastened the momentum toward national division, the 1950 UN Security Council resolution approving armed intervention, the numerous extensions to Syngman Rhee's presidential terms, the passage of the National Security Law with the opposition locked in the National Assembly basement, the constitutional amendment allowing Park Chung Hee to continue running for president, and the list seems to go on. Nothing legitimizes like a vote. Despite such an objectionable, if colorful, "democratic" legacy, South Korea has made some remarkable political and economic progress, notably in the last twenty years. Korea, A Century of Change sets out to map that progress.
As Germany's deputy chief of mission and then ambassador to the Republic of Korea during some of the most momentous years of the latter half of the twentieth century (for both the world and Korea), Juergen Kleiner, now a professor of international relations at Boston University, seems particularly well placed to tell the story of Korea's troubled twentieth century. As Kleiner states in the introduction to this rather lengthy general history, his study is intended to provide "a comprehensive account of Korean politics during the last one hundred years" and "to enable the reader to study all important aspects of political developments on the peninsula and those surrounding the peninsula" (unfortunately, the grammatically awkward nature of this phrase is in keeping with the rest of the work).
The work is divided into six sections, dealing by turns with Korea's opening and colonization; national liberation, division and war; political and economic developments in the South from 1953 to the present; a brief overview of the emergence and development of North Korea; the foreign relations of South Korea; and finally, North-South relations. As one might expect, the strength of Kleiner's study lies in his intimate knowledge of diplomatic and political history, particularly for the periods during which he served in South Korea from the 1970s to the 1990s. This also goes far in explaining the inclusion of an entire hundred-page section on the foreign relations of South Korea, an area that might not seem so crucial to developments on the peninsula.
If there is one thing Kleiner is not, it is an apologist for South Korea's authoritarian presidents. This is certainly understandable, if not entirely fair. For example, at one point in the introduction I was struck by the fact that the author briefly sketches Syngman Rhee as an authoritarian, manipulative, and corrupt leader, whereas Kim Il Sung's rise to supreme leadership in the North is characterized by his successful confrontation with factionalism, the "worst of all Korean political diseases" (p. vi). But might not factionalism be another name for political plurality? The point being that Korea upon liberation was in no way prepared culturally, economically, politically, socially, or in any other way for democracy in the Western sense.
To Syngman Rhee, Kleiner gives no quarter. South Korea's first president [End Page 147] is described alternately as corrupt, violent, cunning, and ruthless. No doubt he was a little bit of all those things, and some more than others, but Rhee was also faced with a situation of extreme national peril. In many ways his appeal to a platform and a vision (i.e, anti-Communist and anti-Japan) "beyond party politics" helped ensure South Korean unity during a very precarious period (recalling that during at least the first decade of the two Koreas' existence, North Korea was clearly the greater power). As it was, Rhee too had to overcome that worst of all Korea political diseases. Though eventually Rhee's steadfast conviction that only he could safeguard the nation became detrimental, and even delusional, some credit should be given for his early efforts to keep South...