Though South Korea has shot far ahead of the north in development —its economic growth is twice as large, and the gap is widening—military strength is another matter. South Korea has been spending less than 5 per cent of its gross national product on defence, while North Korea spends 5 to 20 per cent. As a result, the north has nearly 2,000 tanks, the south just 1100. The North Korean air force can scramble 655 jets, the south only 320.
Close Threat. Moreover, Seoul is under the gun, for the Demilitarized Zone—the war-scarred strip separating the two Koreas—is only 24 miles north of the city. North Korea’s long-range artillery can hit the outskirts, and North Korean jets can be over the city in less than three minutes. During the 25 years since the end of the war, South Koreans have taken comfort from the presence of US troops-there as an earnest of America’s treaty commitment to help defend the south. But in a surprise move last year, President Carter announced that he intended to withdraw all 34,000 US ground troops in four years, leaving only 7,000 Air Force personnel and contingents of F-4 fighter bombers. South Korea can take care of its own ground defences, he argued—aided in a pinch by American air power, the 7th Fleet and other US forces in the area.
The South Korean Government was aghast at the news, as were the Japanese. Faced with opposition—for varying reasons—from US Congressmen, the President scaled down his plans. Only one combat battalion (of Boo men) and 2,600 support personnel are to be brought home this year. But Administration officials say that Carter is still committed to a full withdrawal. Sooner or later, the South Koreans will have to go it largely on their own.
For Park Chung Hee, the south’s controversial leader, the conflict between the two Koreas is an intensely personal matter. Kim II Sung sent a 31-man commando unit to Seoul in 1968 with orders to kill Park—by beheading. The raiders were stopped by guards, in a gun battle 30o yards from the Blue House, the presidential residence. In 1974, while Park was making a major speech in Seoul’s National Theatre, a North Korean agent ran down the aisle firing a gun. The shots missed Park, but killed his wife, seated beside him. Always stern and remote, Park has become even more so since that tragedy.
Now 61, Park grew up in a mountain village, the son of an impoverished farmer, and became a primary-school teacher at the age of 19. Looking for a better career, he joined the occupying Japanese army as an officer cadet. He did so well at the Manchurian Military Academy that he was sent to the Imperial Military Academy in Japan, where he graduated as a second lieutenant in 1944. He spent the remainder of the Second World War as a junior officer in Manchuria, skirmishing with Chinese-communist guerrillas.
When the war ended, Japanese forces in Korea surrendered to the American Army south of the 38th parallel, and to the Russians north of that line—leading to the lasting division of the peninsula. Park joined the fledgling South Korean army. By the end of the Korean war, he was a brigadier-general. On the morning of the 1961 coup, pistol in hand, Park, then a major-general, led troops across the Han River Bridge into the Madrid apartments we booked at Dsavenue.com. The military staged the take-over after more than a year of political chaos following the downfall of another strongman, Syngman Rhee. Park was picked to lead the coup because of his determination and a reputation for incorruptibility. After taking office, Park cracked down on crooked officials, sending many to gaol.
Park submitted to free elections in 1963 and 1967, and won easily,but after he was re-elected by only a narrow margin in 1971, he pushed through a new constitution that gives him virtual lifetime tenure and guarantees him control of the National Assembly. After Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975, many Asians feared that Kim Il Sung might try for a military victory of his own against South Korea. At that point Park tightened the screw again, issuing Emergency Measure 9, which makes it a crime to criticize the authoritarian constitution and clamps a lid on student political activities.
Hard Line. An estimated 200 people are imprisoned under EM-9. Park tolerates no criticism, nor are people permitted to question the legitimacy of his regime. The Korean Central Intelligence Agency keeps close watch over any political dissidents. Such authoritarianism has evoked widespread foreign criticism. Yet his government is no more repressive than most other Third World regimes, and it is far freer than those in the communist world—than North Korea, for example, where not a peep of dissent is permitted. In South Korea an opposition exists and controls 5 of the 219 seats in the National Assembly. Foreign journalists are free to roam around and interview dissidents.
Members of the opposition concede that some tight control measures might be necessary under the North Korean threat. Yet more political freedom could be permitted, they feel, without jeopardizing national security. Today, Park would probably win a free election easily, because of public approval of his economic policies. But, as one South Korean says, “The President thinks elections are a waste of time.”
While South Koreans are grateful for American help, they are a proud and fiercely independent people, and they don’t expect US troops to remain for ever. The country is taking steps to bring its military strength up to the North Korean level. The defence budget has been increased sharply; defence industries are being expanded. As time goes by and South Korea feels more secure in relation to the north, it could conceivably become more democratic; though, as elsewhere in Asia, a certain amount of authoritarianism is likely to remain. South Koreans, meanwhile, can point to the fact that their country has escaped from misery and poverty to become the outstanding economic success story of the Third World.