What's a friend worth?
If we see in good faith how those relationships can be net-positive for all parties involved, perhaps we'll see the good that can come of choosing friendships over rivalries
Perhaps you didn't contribute any of the 4.1 billion views of "Gagnam Style" on YouTube. Maybe you've never touched a Samsung Galaxy phone. It could be that you don't know the difference between BTS and a BLT. But unless you've lived entirely under a rock for the last half-century (and completely missed the 2018 Winter Olympics), you're probably aware that South Korea is indisputably one of the most advanced rich countries in the world.
■ Per-capita GDP is in the same class as New Zealand, Italy, Israel, and Japan. Internet access is notoriously the world's fastest, with a push to get 100 Mbps service delivered to everyone in the country. An economy boasting global brand-name titans like Hyundai, LG, Kia, and Samsung. It's a country of economic prosperity, competitive elections, and broad civil liberties. It isn't a utopia, but it's hard to find a way in which South Korea doesn't compare well with other places.
■ The official residence of South Korea's president is about 23 miles from the border with North Korea. But in practical effect, the two countries seem like different planets. Nobody buys North Korean goods on the global market. The country treats the Internet mainly as a weapon. Per-capita GDP is about $1,800 a year. And the Covid-19 pandemic has only led to further repression and isolation.
■ Sometimes it's asked why the United States still has around 30,000 troops in South Korea, some 70 years after the war there cooled off. The answer, of course, is that there is mutual interest for both the United States and South Korea in having stability and deterrence on the peninsula. It's not a free arrangement, but aggression and war wouldn't be free, either.
■ Both Koreas started from the same place at the end of World War II. It wasn't an auspicious start, particularly given the costs and suffering imposed by the half-century Japanese occupation. But one Korea ultimately chose a path that sought to quash natural human liberties, while the other took a long and imperfect path towards freedom. One is a global pariah that uses weapons to extort others for the basics needed for survival, while the other is a good global neighbor that produces lots of things the rest of the world demands.
■ What's a friend worth? The United States has undoubtedly spent a great deal on its relationship with South Korea, but it's evolved into far better than a mere transactional relationship. It can demand time and patience to see why we consider other countries to be partners and allies. But if we see in good faith how those relationships can be net-positive for all parties involved, perhaps we'll see the good that can come of choosing friendships over rivalries.
■ The United States has a big role to play in the world, and that role sometimes (but not always) involves our use of armed forces. But the payoff to that participation looks like a peaceful and prosperous friend like South Korea.