- Eye on Korea: An Insider Account of Korean-American Relations
Korea remains at the center of security concerns in Northeast Asia more than a decade after the Cold War ended. Since October 2002, President George W. Bush's provocative attempts to compel North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program have revived international concern about this divided nation. James T. Young's account has value in helping readers understand the current crisis because of his personal involvement in recent Korean-American relations. His memoir provides insights from someone who advised top U.S. policymakers during the 1970s and 1980s about events in the Republic of Korea (ROK) at a transitional point in its history. Though unstated, Young's main thesis contends that after the Korean War, the United States "put stability ahead of democracy and became a hostage of [its] own Korea policy" (p. 112). He points specifically to Washington's obsession with the threat from North Korea following the 1979 assassination of Park Chung Hee as a major factor leaving it unprepared to take steps that might have averted Chun Du-hwan's coup later that year. Editorial advice from William Stueck, a respected Korean War historian, adds authority to this study. In his introduction, he accurately commends Young for showing "a keen appreciation of the importance of personalities, bureaucratic [End Page 157] politics, and country expertise (or the absence thereof) in influencing outcomes" (p. x).
Young's recollections have special significance because he was "the U.S. Army's first fully trained and experienced Korea specialist" (p. vii). Much more impressive, however, is the depth of his familiarity with and understanding of Korea and its people. In 1963, Young was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and his first assignment was a two-year stint in Korea. Service followed in the United States and briefly in the Vietnam War before he decided to enter an experimental army program to train "officers for duty that required close and continuous contact with foreign countries and their military" (p. 8). Learning the "nightmare" (p. 9) of the Korean language prepared him for his remarkable personal one-year trek through South Korea's countryside. He gained a clear understanding of Korean regionalism and conveys the powerful impact of this critical factor on the rok's recent history. Young also developed sensitivity regarding the interests of the Korean people that is uncommon in first-hand American accounts about Korea. A good example is his acknowledgement that it would be reasonable to perceive U.S. actions to persuade Park not to develop nuclear weapons as "unfair and bullying" (p. 21). His honesty deserves praise, admitting, for example, that North Korea had a legitimate complaint when a U.S. helicopter entered its airspace in 1976 after the axe-murder incident.
Eye on Korea presents revealing descriptions of the U.S. policymaking process in Korea. For example, Young shows how subordinates implemented a strategy of "delay and further study" (p. 48) to scuttle President Jimmy Carter's plans for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the rok. He also complains that his superiors at times ignored his advice to the detriment of U.S. policy objectives, such as not establishing contacts with General Chung Sung-hwa, the martial law commander late in 1979, to deter Chun from seizing power in the "12/12" coup. Another strength is Young's insightful discussion of the South Korean military, especially how differences in age and regional connections influenced political alignments. Furthermore, he explains the importance of membership in different graduation classes of the Korean Military Academy. Like other fine memoirs, this one contains unique and interesting anecdotal information. In a terrific example, Young relates how General Richard Stilwell physically resisted Ambassador Richard Sneider's effort to take a telephone from him during the 1976 axe-murder crisis. Another is Young's comment that widespread disdain for No Tae-u motivated rok officers to refer to him as "'Sergeant' Rho" (p. 64). Readers...