Kimchi is having a bit of a global moment. Of course, kimchi has been popular in Korea for thousands of years, but these days, the fermented cabbage stuff has come to adorn grilled cheese sandwiches, quesadillas, and practically every supermarket shelf in the US.
But most people don’t know that in the 1960s, kimchi had a significantly more important moment—as diplomatic leverage in the politics of the Vietnam War.
Although the United States had been providing strategic and financial support for South Vietnam since the beginning of the 1950s, troop numbers ramped up significantly throughout the first half of the 1960s. During that time, other foreign powers joined the fight, including South Korea in 1965. Largely at the behest of US president Lyndon B. Johnson, the South Koreans would eventually become the second-largest non-Vietnamese force in the war, behind the Americans.
The governments of the US and South Korea kept in close contact during the war. On March 14, 1967, the Prime Minister of South Korea, Chung Il-kwon, paid President Johnson a visit at the White House. Kwon brought with him a letter from South Korean president Park Chung-hee. Along with other imperative topics like the modernization of Korean military equipment, the letter raised what Park perceived to be a key issue hampering Korean participation in the war: the lack of kimchi.
Prime Minister Chung, reinforcing the president’s concern expressed in the letter, told Johnson that during his military training in the United States, he had missed kimchi more than his own wife. Without kimchi, he said, the Korean troops stationed in Vietnam were experiencing dangerously low morale. Park had paid out of his own pocket to send kimchi to the troops the previous Christmas, but he needed the help of the United States—a key source of weaponry and supplies—to create a sustainable infrastructure to provide fermented cabbage to the destitute Korean soldiers. The program, according to the Prime Minister, would cost three to four million dollars per year.
Ten days later, Johnson penned a letter in reply, saying:
“I fully understand the desire of your men in the field to enjoy familiar rations. That is the way it has always been with soldiers throughout history. Therefore, I have asked Secretary McNamara to work out with your officials a way to meet your request that the Korean forces be supplied with ‘kimchi.’”
Only after that did the letter turn to discussion of helicopters and guns. By May, the McNamara in question—Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—approved a program to provide Korean troops with kimchi and peppers once every day, at a cost of about two million dollars annually.
In December 1967, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared while swimming and was presumed dead. At the funeral in Canberra, Presidents Johnson and Park met and took the opportunity to discuss Vietnam; Park wasted no time in asking about the kimchi. According to notes of the conversation, Nixon said that the bureaucrats in Washington “gave him more hell about the kimchi than about the war in Vietnam, but he managed to get it.” The canning process had delayed the arrival, but the soldiers could expect their favorite food by the beginning of 1968.
Around this time, the war was not going smoothly for the coalition of South Vietnam, the United States, and their allies. To make things worse, public opinion in the United States had recently turned hard against the war; after all, this was just a few months after the Summer of Love, when the hippie movement somewhat formally consolidated, with opposition to the war as a central rallying point. Johnson felt he needed more troops on the ground, but knew it would be politically unwise to enlist more young Americans. The solution was to request reinforcements from ally nations, primarily South Korea. So the President took the opportunity of the conversation in Australia to press Park to send tens of thousands of additional troops—more than doubling the Korean military presence in Vietnam—and to send them soon.
Park demurred, explaining the significant legislative hurdles required to send the reinforcements. According to the official notes, Johnson replied, “It’s a president’s job to do the impossible.” For example, Johnson brought up the kimchi, which he had bent over backward to supply. Park said he’d see what he would do.
Over the ensuing weeks, it seemed almost certain that Park would send the reinforcements. But on January 21, shit hit the fan in Korea. A group of 31 highly trained North Korean agents snuck through a fence in the DMZ and made their way to the Blue House—the residence of the South Korean president and his family—in an attempt to decapitate President Park and kill his family and officials. Though the North Koreans failed to kill Park, when the smoke cleared, 79 people were dead.
In the wake of tensions with the North, South Korea lost its focus on Vietnam, and when negotiations eventually returned, a preoccupation with defending his own country led to a significant minimization of the number of soldiers Park was willing to send. It didn’t matter. Not Uncle Sam nor even the Koreans with bellies full of kimchi were able to defeat the Viet Cong. The war dragged on for a few more years, and on April 30, 1975, 43 years ago, the last Marines left Saigon in helicopters. We lost.
Though the use of kimchi as leverage in those Vietnam negotiations was a static historical event, Koreans’ need for kimchi in foreign places has not subsided. In 2008, when Ko San became the first South Korean to go to space, he brought kimchi with him; this kimchi had been specially engineered for space, where the bacteria normally involved in cabbage fermentation could possibly mutate and cause problems aboard a spacecraft. This time, the now economically robust Asian nation didn’t need the help of the US.
Some patriots might decry the lost dominance of the United States on the global stage, but in cases like this, that’s surely a good thing. The Koreans make better kimchi, anyway.