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America's Rebellious Overseas Teens

Why are U.S. relations with Germany and Korea so strained all of a sudden?

May 13, 2003

Why are U.S. relations with Germany and Korea so strained all of a sudden?

Unlike conventional wars — which divide one nation from another — the battle lines of the Cold War used to cut directly across nations. Right after World War II, several nations found themselves split down the middle between the East and the West.

They included, most notably, Germany and Korea. West Germany and South Korea faced a direct threat from the Communist bloc.

In both cases — during the Berlin crisis in 1948-1949 and the Korean War in 1950-1953 — the pro-Western halves of the divided nations were saved from a Communist takeover by U.S. intervention.

The security of both countries was guaranteed by substantial U.S. troops stationed on their soil — and Americans are still guarding the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) between the northern and southern halves of the still-divided Korea.

Communist leaders in Moscow and Beijing were the main allies and financial backers of the governments of the German Democratic Republic and the Korean People's Democratic Republic. They understood this reality of U.S. stewardship only too well.

Whenever they had to resolve a German or Korean issue, they preferred to talk to Washington directly, going over the heads of the sovereign governments in Bonn and Seoul.

This dependence on this big and mighty brother made the Federal Republic of Germany and South Korea incomplete.

Even in their truncated state, they managed to prosper economically.

Germany became the leading economy in Europe — and South Korea emerged as the second-strongest economy in Asia after Japan, based on a number of indicators.

Yet, the two countries appeared to be like kids whenever grown-up nations were present. It took them a long time to join the community of nations and to obtain UN membership.

Although the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Korea — the pro-Western halves of the two countries — held regular democratic elections, their legitimacy as representatives of all Germans and all Koreans was always in doubt.

Not surprisingly, like kids who often defer to their parents or guardians, over the years West Germany and South Korea caused very few problems for U.S. policy makers. They usually just chose to go along with whatever decisions were made in Washington.

And just why did the "kids" so ardently obey their parents? Because as in child-rearing, the Americans could always issue easily understood warnings to the kids about the consequences of their behavior, in case they went errant.

For example, by telling them something like: "If you don't hold my hand when you cross the street, you may get run over by a car."

Vietnam, another nation that was divided by the Cold War, was such a cautionary example for Germany and Korea.

It showed what could happen to a pro-Western government when the United States suddenly lost the — will or the ability — to defend it from its communist brethren.

Finally, in 1990, Germany became reunified after 45 years of division. U.S. troops were largely withdrawn from its territory — and the Berlin Wall, the most potent symbol of the Cold War in Europe, was dismantled.

The Federal Republic of Germany became a fully sovereign nation. And, like any other sovereign nation, it promptly developed its own opinions.

Politicians in Berlin all of a sudden dared to criticize even the policies of the United States — for example, recently by proposing an alternative course of action in dealing with Iraq. Berlin's views were so pronounced that U.S.-German relations were severely strained.

Politicians in Seoul, on the other hand, appear to be quite precocious. After all, their country is still divided — which, as far as Washington is concerned, means that they are still in short trousers.

Yet, even they have had the temerity of advising Americans how to handle the nuclear crisis with North Korea — and even started their own dialogue with Pyongyang!

Of course, there are sound reasons why South Koreans would want to take their fate into their own hands. To start with, South Korea is now a democracy, and its new leaders have to reckon with domestic public opinion.

The new President — Roh Moo-hyun — is backed by the younger generation of Koreans. To their credit, they are less hung up about their country's past docility.

Second, Seoul is in the immediate vicinity of the DMZ, and if George W. Bush puts as much pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as he has on Iraq's Saddam Hussein, North Korean missiles might start raining on the South Korean capital.

Finally, South Koreans do not want Washington to negotiate a deal with the North over their heads, making them completely irrelevant.

The real surprising thing about the fact that Germany and Korea beg to differ is that this time it's the governments which speak up. Washington could so far afford the luxury to belittle anti-Americanism as mere street demonstrations.

After all, anti-American protests have had a long history in both nations. Just remember the demonstrations against re-armament in Germany in the 1980s.

Also, more recently, the first currency Koreans wanted to sell to support the crashing won in 1998 was the U.S. dollar. It does not only take incompetent pedestrian killing U.S. tank drivers to rouse the public mood.

You can't blame Washington for getting upset. After all, many parents face the same difficult adjustment.

Whenever their kids grow up and decide to live by their own wits, they may even go so far as to reject the way of life chosen by their parents.

From the point of view of the Bush Administration the new government in Seoul is now embarking on a dangerous course. It seems hell-bent to behave like so many Internet-savvy South Korean teenagers, who have recently saturated the Web with anti-American messages.

It seems that — for better or worse — both, the South Korean and the German governments are catching up with their respective people's sentiments.