Seoul — President Reagan has pledged not to withdraw the estimated 39,000 United States troops stationed in the Republic of Korea. That's good news for President Chun Doo Hwan's government and bad news for North Korea, which maintains a military machine large enough to cause concern that it aims to reunify the peninsula by force.
But the pledge will exacerbate a problem that successive administrations in Washington have chosen to ignore -- the fate of thousands of half-caste children fathered by US servicemen and abandoned in the back streets of Asia.
If Washington's past record is anything to go by, the military bureaucratic machine will continue to wash its hands of the problem. "What the men do in their free time -- as long as it does not infringe the law or military regulations -- is entirely their own concern" was how David Nelson, a former US Army officer now a banker in Seoul, summed up the military's attitude.
The losers are the children, most of whom grow up in poverty and are rejected by both continents. They are called "love babies" or "warriors' children" -- a sad irony, since most of them are born outside war zones, in times of peace. And in their making, love is rare -- at best temporary. The euphemisms offer an implied excuse, a suggestion that bearing these children is inevitable, a justification for not accepting responsibility.
Amerasians exist wherever US troops have been stationed, though civilians, too, bear some responsibility. John Shade, director of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation set up to find and help Amerasian children, has estimated that in the Philippines, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia there are between 76,000 and 136,000 half-American children -- and that is despite an infant-mortality rate of up to 50 percent in some areas.
The number of Amerasian children in South Korea is not so high as in vietnam and surrounding areas, but the situation is particularly acute because of the high degree of discrimination the children suffer and because of the continued presence of so many US troops.
Korea jealously guards its racial purity, and the long-entrenched Confucian ethic makes the father the key family figure; without him many doors are closed. A child may be born in Korea, with a Korean mother and a Korean name and speak only the Korean language, but skin that is too dark or light, hair that is blond or crinkly, round eyes or thick lips, make the child an immediate victim of cruel teasing in the school playground.
"My face today is scarred with the marks of other children's fingernails because I was always getting into fights," said one young Amerasian, recalling his primary school days. "I couldn't stand to hear the horrible names the other children or people called me."
This can be an ordeal for the mother, too, and when the teasing gets too much to take, mothers often tell the child, "You don't need to go to school here because you'll soon go to America," says Donald Haffner, director of the Buck Foundation in Korea. But missing out on education makes it even more difficult for the child to fit into either American or Korean society.
Those who persevere through school find adult life no easier, for few Koreans want to employ them.
A local English-language newspaper reported recently. "A dream has come true for five young American men." The five were Amerasians employed by a Korean company contracted for construction projects at a US military camp.
Sister Anna Marie of the Good Shepherd Sisters, who work with the Amerasians in Korea, said, "I haven't known any Amerasians who were allowed to go into the military, and that's a disgrace here."
Wherever there is a US Army camp, there is a nearby "ville," a red-light district offering a cure for loneliness and the excitement of the fabled Orient to the young GIs, many of whom are barely out of their teens and away from home for the first time.
Casual relationships sometimes blossom into love and even marriage, but when it is time to go home, the same sad story begins. "I'll be back soon," "I'll send you money soon," "I'll send for you and the baby soon." Sometimes the promises are kept; more often they are not.
Many of the mothers are prostitutes, perhaps Amerasians themselves, who, finding this the only profession easily open to them, are launching a second generation of Amerasians. Many others are just girls from the country or poor urban areas, drawn like moths to the neon lights of the "ville."
Despite evidence to the contrary, many of the women still believe that a half-American child will prove a passport to the great PX across the water. Mr. Haffner explained, "To a Korean woman, giving a child, preferably a son, to the man she loves is very important, almost a duty, and she never believes a father will abandon his child."
Korea's Amerasians are helped by organizations like the Buck Foundation, which seeks financial sponsors in America and provides on-the-spot counseling and aid; the International Human Assistance Program, which helps finance education; and the Holt Children's Services, which arranges overseas adoptions. A comparatively recent development is the voluntary Amerasian Children's Association within the military, which organizes recreational, educational, and foster-care programs as well as briefings for newly assigned soldiers.
But the problem is nowhere near a solution. When individuals and organizations try to help, there is often a massive tangle of red tape.
"Different organizations won't even agree to swap records," complains David Nelson, the banker quoted above, who was instrumental in trying to set up the Korean Amerasian Program to coordinate activities of various groups, to lobby, and to raise funds.
One problem is that there is little agreement on how many Amerasians there are in Korea. Estimates range from about 1,500 to as many as 10,000. Buck Foundation director Shade says there are about 6,000.
The only solution, in Mr. Shade's view, is Amerasian integration within Korean society. "If a child has problems in Korea, he'll also have them in America," says the foundation's Mr. Haffner. "Though adoption is sometimes the best thing for a baby, our basic philosophy is to help the children fit into Korean society."
But many of the voluntary groups look to the United States for a solution. "Amerasians can exist here, but they start at the bottom of society and rarely have the chance to move up," says Mr. Nelson. Many mothers and children have put their hopes in a bill before the US House of Representatives that would give preferential immigration status to children born since World War II who are able to prove that one parent was an American serviceman. This bill has been languishing in committee, however, and there is a chance it will die there.
If Amerasians are allowed to come to the US under a program of the type the bill proposes, there will undoubtedly still be difficult challenges for them and administrative problems for US officials. But many who are concerned about Amerasian children share the conviction of Maureen O'Keefe, who works with children: "These kids' problems can only be solved by the American Congress, and the thing that's holding them up is the immigration law.
"'I want to go to America' are words I hear more than any others," she says.
Mr. Nelson also criticizes the US military for shirking what he views as its partial responsibility for the problem. "When a soldier is reassigned, they make sure he clears his library books; no one asks him to clear his dependents," he says.
Col. John Fugh, special assistant for legal policy matters in the office of the secretary of defense, counters that the military is doing what it can to help. He says the military does exercise its influence over soldiers to get them to live up to court orders to pay child support.
"Dishonorable failure to pay just debts" is an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, he says, and in extreme situations can lead to a soldier's being drummed out of the Army.
But he stresses that if paternity is not legally established and there is no court order, there is really nothing the military can do if a soldier abandons a child. "We don't police people's morals in the military. . . . And what control do we have over someone when he's no longer a soldier -- when he's a mister?"