H-Diplo Article Review 800 on Lyong Choi. “Human Rights, Popular Protest, and Jimmy Carter’s Plan to Withdraw U.S. Troops from South Korea.”

George Fujii's picture






Article Review

No. 800

9 October 2018




Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse

Web and Production Editor: George Fujii


Lyong Choi.  “Human Rights, Popular Protest, and Jimmy Carter’s Plan to Withdraw U.S. Troops from South Korea.”  Diplomatic History 41:5 (November 2017):  933-958. DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhx030.


URL: http://tiny.cc/AR800


Review by Jooyoung Lee, Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology

President Jimmy Carter’s diplomacy has always been a controversial topic. While his foreign policy has been widely criticized, recent studies provide a more balanced view by considering the complicated historical context of his time. Lyong Choi’s article is a welcome addition to this trend and goes even further, tracing the complex situation of counterpart countries and transnational activities. In doing so, Choi pays more attention to the process of how U.S. foreign policies were shaped and carried out than to their results. In particular, the article shows that not only were there various variables at work beyond the foreign policy-making circle, but also that America’s counterparts played an important role in it. With this broad perspective, the author investigates diverse actors involved in Carter’s troop withdrawal plan, including American congressmen and military leaders, as well as the South Korean President, Park Chung Hee, and opposition groups. Choi successfully demonstrates the complex process of U.S. foreign policy development and implementation that was a result of the intertwinement of different foreign policies, the effect of changing circumstances, and the influence of a wide range of actors within and without the United States.


The first half of the article traces how Carter failed to implement his promise to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea in his first year as president. After reviewing how Carter came to commit to the plan, Choi investigates various obstacles to its successful execution. Resistance from not only Park Chung Hee’s government but also the U.S. Congress and American army officers in South Korea frustrated Carter’s plan: secret alliances between Park and dissenting American military leaders successfully hindered progress. According to the author, however, changes in both American and South Korean circumstances and Carter’s strategy in 1978 altered the trajectory of the troop withdrawal plan. In South Korea, opposition to Park became more intensified after the rigged elections of 1978; meanwhile, in the United States, Carter changed his focus from troop withdrawal to human rights and, ironically, garnered support for the plan.


Delving further, the latter part traces how these changes created a favorable situation for Carter to execute his plans. The 1978 International Security Assistance Act provided U.S. military aid to South Korea in return for troop withdrawal. Park became anxious and desperate and requested a summit meeting in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough in (Republic of Korea) ROK-U.S. relations. The meeting was successful: Carter suspended the troop withdrawal plan and Park promised to release 180 political prisoners. However, events took an unexpected direction in South Korea as the agreement encouraged anti-Park protests that were suppressed, which led to another deterioration in ROK-U.S. relations. Furthermore, the leadership of South Korea was divided, and Park was assassinated.


Choi’s study reveals foreign relations to have been a ‘jigsaw puzzle’ by brilliantly capturing the disagreements and conflicts within both nations. U.S. members of Congress and military leaders did not support Carter’s troop withdrawal plan, which was further complicated by those American military leaders in South Korea forming an alliance with Park; this internal tension enabled Park to block Carter’s plan. On the other hand, criticism of Park’s dictatorial rule intensified after 1978, which, according to the author, reversed the situations in both countries, paving the way for Carter to execute his plan and Park’s regime to be destabilized and overthrown. While probing the complexity of the Carter-Park relationship, Choi further traces how it changed after the summit meeting. Worsening South Korean politics not only broke the alliance between Park and U.S. military leaders in South Korea but also affected U.S. policy. When Carter changed his strategy and used the troop withdrawal plan as leverage for the human rights agenda, he gained Congress’ support. These changes on both sides put colossal pressure on Park. It is the author’s transnational perspective that enables him to capture these complexities: instead of simply focusing on interstate relations, he also looks at dynamic relations among diverse actors across national boundaries.


This article engages in and contributes to some important discussions. By providing a new perspective on Carter’s policy, it helps to overcome the dichotomous approach to his foreign policy. In particular, it adds to recent scholarly efforts by historians of the “U.S. in the World” to broaden the scope of the field.[1] These scholars take foreign actors into serious consideration and investigate the crucial role they played in shaping and changing U.S. foreign policies. They are also interested in how counterpart countries responded to and implemented U.S. policies. This study is also consistent with recent studies on the Global Cold War, paying attention to the important role played by the Third World in the rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union after World War II.[2] Choi reveals how a Third World leader skillfully challenged one of the Cold War superpowers by utilizing its internal divisions and conflict. The alliance between Park and the U.S. military leaders in South Korea especially highlights the complicated role of the Third World during the Cold War.


This article also contributes to broadening the scope of modern Korean history. Since Korea was one of the crucial participants in the Global Cold War, its history cannot be fully understood without considering the international contexts. Choi’s research illustrates how Korean history was embroiled in international relations, especially with U.S. Cold War policy. Furthermore, it makes a meaningful contribution to the discussion on human rights agendas in international relations by demonstrating how the seemingly naïve notion of human rights had real influence on politics. Although human rights politics is not the main focus of this article, it proves that the ROK-U.S. relations during the Carter administration can form an interesting case study of the politics of global human rights.


Although this article displays sophistication in explaining the various and complex aspects of the troop withdrawal plan, some of the approaches are simplistic. For example, attributing the failure of the troop withdrawal plan to Carter’s inability to understand America’s complex strategic interests in East Asia is an oversimplification and at odds with the intricacy exhibited elsewhere. Carter may not have completely understood all of the complications of foreign relations in East Asia, but U.S. foreign policy in the late 1970s cannot be fully understood by focusing on Carter alone, as the author himself illustrates. Carter’s policy was not only based on morality but was also influenced by a variety of such contemporary factors as the emerging global human rights politics. Furthermore, Choi boldly and rashly concludes that the change in U.S. policy and growing opposition in South Korea resulted in Park’s assassination and the collapse of his regime. Focusing on the Park–Carter relationship portrays a simplistic perspective.


Moreover, the connection between the former and the latter parts of the article is awkward without an explanation of the subtle and paradoxical relations between the two important agendas. While providing some historical context behind Carter deciding to adopt the troop withdrawal plan, the author suggests no reason for Carter’s obsession with it or delay in linking it to the human rights issue until 1978. More questions then follow. Why did Carter change his strategy and use the troop withdrawal plan as leverage for the human rights agenda? Did this modification mean he had abandoned the former and decided to focus on the latter? If not, what was Carter’s real plan for troop withdrawal? What was his new ultimate goal with the two related issues?


Besides Carter’s goal, changes in the position of other actors are not fully explained in the second part of the article, leaving readers bewildered about the causes of such dramatic changes. For example, the author offers no suggestions as to why the alliance between Park and opposition groups in both countries was broken in 1978, or why opposition leaders in South Korea and in the U.S. Congress changed their opinion of their presidents. Furthermore, there is no explanation as to why Park, who had been well acquainted with the U.S. domestic situation in the early Carter era, was out of touch with the important fact that “Carter was unable to manage the retreat bill any longer” (954) just one year later. Such abrupt shifts in Carter’s policy and the attitudes of interested actors on both sides require a more convincing account. Although the author cites Carter’s policy changes and the intensifying criticism on both sides, he does not elaborate on the seriousness of that criticism and how it came to dramatically change the situations in both countries. Investigating these conclusions needs more in-depth and sophisticated study from various perspectives.


Considering the emerging global human rights politics may provide further details. Recent studies reveal that U.S. human rights politics should be understood in broader domestic and global contexts.[3] Viewed in this light, Carter’s human rights diplomacy was not a naïve and idealistic policy but a realistic response to national trauma and the rise of global human rights politics. Various human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) emerged in the United States and Europe during the 1970s, which, by forming transnational networks and alliances with Congress and the press, exerted influence on policymakers in the United States. Shaped by this historical context, Carter’s diplomacy put great pressure on the Park regime. However, in addition to Carter’s criticism of Park’s suppression of human rights in South Korea, criticism also came from various transnational human rights groups in the United States and Europe. Moreover, their support for South Korean pro-democracy and human rights activists helped the anti-Park movement become another effective source of pressure.


Failing to take into account emerging global human rights politics and the multidirectional pressures on the Park regime leads to an unconvincing explanation of the dramatic changes in the second part of the article. The changing attitudes of the key actors in the United States and South Korea and the division and collapse of the Park regime can only be fully understood in the context of the growing leverage exerted by human rights politics. Carter was only one of the key players; there was also the increasing influence of the anti-Park movement in South Korea. Despite these weaknesses, Choi’s article is a timely and significant contribution to studies of Carter’s diplomacy, ROK–U.S. relations, and the divisions in the Park regime. By considering the internal tensions of the United States and South Korea and tracing the formation of and changes in a transnational alliance between key actors in both nations, this article successfully analyzes the complexity of ROK–U.S. relations during the Carter administration.


Jooyoung Lee received his Ph.D. in history at Brown University in May 2012. He then spent one year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Korean Studies Institute of the University of Southern California. He is currently an assistant professor at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea. He has published an article in November 2015, “Forming a Democratic Society: South Korean Responses to U.S. Democracy Promotion, 1953-1960,” in Diplomatic History 39:5. His research interests focus on American diplomatic history, American foreign policy, and the history of U.S.-Korea relations. He is currently working on the rise of human rights in U.S. foreign relations during the 1970s and its implications for South Korean democracy, and has currently published two articles in Korean journals: “The Rise of Human Rights Politics in the 1970s United States” and “Global Human Rights Politics and A Crack in the Cold War: Role of Transnational Human Rights Activism.” The former was issued in November 2017 in The Korean Journal of American History 46 and the latter in December 2017 in The Western History Review 135. He is also preparing for publication of a book titled, Making Democracy Korean: American Ideals and South Korean State-Building, 1945-1980.


© 2018 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License




[1] Some of the notable works in this field are as follows: Andrew Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Daniel Immerwahr, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015); April Merleaux, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016); and David Hollinger, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[2] Odd Arne Westad is a leading scholar in this new trend who wrote The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) and The Cold War: A World History (New York: Basic Books, 2017).

[3] Mark Philip Bradley, The World Reimagined: Americans and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Barbara J. Keys, Reclaiming American Virtue (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); Sarah Snyder, Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).