The Problem with how Korea is Perceived in the United States
November 17, 2012
I worked at the Korean embassy in Washington D.C. for two years from 2005-2007. During that time I served as the editor-in-chief for the official magazine of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs online newspaper “Dynamic Korea” and also as the director of a think tank in the Korean Embassy, known as the “KORUS House,” that ran a very successful lecture series for diplomats, reporters, scholars and businessmen. The experience was tremendously exciting and I much enjoyed the time I spent in that wonderful little room on the fourth floor of the Culture center. There was a small window with a delightful view out over Rock Creek. It was my first time working with Koreans in a serious manner. At the time I was determined to help in the effort to make Korea better understood among policy makers in Washington D.C.
But Washington D.C. was a desert when it came to understanding about Korea and the interest in Korea was limited to a few topics like North Korea and the KORUS Free Trade Agreement. I put forth suggestions to major think tanks for seminars on a range of other topics like the environment and the role of local government in international relations, but there was no substantial interest. Although Korea has great significance for the United States in terms of its economy, diplomacy and security, ignorance of Korea in Washington D.C. was overwhelming. The United States remained focused primarily on Europe and the Middle East, in that it impacted Israel. In that East Asia is recognized, it seen in terms of China. But although China is recognized as important country, that recognition comes not because of any cultural understanding of China, but rather because of China’s economic impact on the United States—money to be made. I doubt there was much deep intellectual discussion between the Chinese in Washington D.C. and their American colleagues.
In most cases Americans have too much trouble taking Chinese visitors seriously in an intellectual sense. In the cultural field, Japan has perhaps the highest profile among East Asian countries, and there is a substantial tradition of Japanese having deep political impact in the United States. Japan planted the cherry blossom trees found throughout Washington D.C. back in 1912 and the Japan-America Student Conference was started in 1934, leading to many close friendships. The latter has formed extremely close personal links between Americans and Japanese; the Korea-America Student Conference was launched only in 2008.
Sadly, many more people in Washington D.C. are North Korean experts than South Korean experts. This is the case at research institutes and in government. There is far more written about the political shifts in Pyongyang than those in Seoul in major journals. Although the situation has improved since 2007, the focus on Pyongyang remains—and for the most part that research is highly speculative and of dubious value. Many famed Korea experts like Peter Beck, Scott Schneider and Jack Pritchard spend far more time discussing what is happening in North Korea than what is happening in South Korea. The Korean name that is most familiar for Americans is Kim Jung Il. It is rare indeed to meet an American, even among Asia experts, with any sense of how the South Korean government and political system actually functions.
The surplus of North Korea experts in Washington D.C. is in part a result of the opportunities for funding. The Pentagon continues to supply substantial funding for research related to North Korea so the rewards for working on North Korea are substantial. When it comes to research about South Korea, however, the funding is extremely limited, and with regards to research in the humanities, that is even more the case. Therefore, it is natural that experts and policy makers prefer to conduct research about North Korean issues because that is the most promising topic for funding from government budgets. The growth of the national security economy in the United States has much reduced the funding for studies on places like South Korea which tend to be taken for granted.
As a result of this trend many Americans have considerable trouble distinguishing North and South Korea—and a Seoulite may well be greeted with the question, “Are you from North or South Korea?” when he or she arrives in the United States.
Although it is possible to blame such ignorance on Americans, and I have been very critical of the United States on this point in the past, I must say that I think Korea also shares a significant part of the responsibility. I care about Korea’s status in the world and feel that there is a desperate need for Korea to show true leadership beyond consumer goods. I feel compelled to speak honestly about what Korea can do to make a difference.
Korea can do quite a lot to improve awareness about Korea, in the world, and should do so. When I worked with the Korean embassy (2005-2007), I was struck by the low priority overall given to teaching Americans about Korea. Most diplomats felt that it was their primary goal to understand more about the United States, rather than to help Americans learn about Korea. In the conversations between Korean representatives and Americans, conversations were rarely about Korea’s culture and society, but rather about those aspects of America that were of interest to Koreans. The logic is natural, but it was a loss for Americans. There are so many innovative programs, government initiatives from technology to e-government and cultural activities that would be truly compelling to Americans. But they were not introduced. I think many Koreans just assumed that Americans would not be interested.
The Korean embassy did run a small Korean language program and culture events, but there was no concerted effort to argue for Korean studies as a whole. Moreover, most Korean language instruction in the United States supported by the Korean government is aimed at overseas Koreans. There has been very little effort to develop textbooks at the high school level for Korean instruction, or to encourage Americans who study Taekwondo to learn Korean language.
Most Koreans I met in Washington D.C. were interested in how they could benefit from sending their kids to American schools, or how they could develop relations with powerful people in Washington D.C but really none of them saw it as a priority to introduce Korean culture, history, literature and society to average Americans. The basic assumption was that Americans simply would not be interested in Korea.
And yet I think the assumption that Americans are not interested in Korea was fundamentally wrong. Many, many Americans have some sort of relationship with Korea, whether through the study of taekwondo, their Korean friends, or their interest in Korean technology. The only reason that Americans do not have a more profound interest in Korea is that they have simply not been exposed. It is tragic, granted Korea’s importance in the world, that there are so many Americans who are not aware of what country makes Samsung or Hyundai products. It is America’s weakness, but at the same time, Samsung and Hyundai promote only their brands, not Korean culture, in the United States. There has not been any focused effort to build up a solid positive image of South Korea in the United States as part of the marketing of Korean firms—sometimes is seems as if Koreans do not think it is a very important project.
I wonder whether Korea suffers precisely because it has no history as a colonial power. Nations like France, Germany and Japan have very sophisticated cultural programs to introduce their cultures abroad like the Alliance Française and the Goethe Institute, and in those programs it is clear that there is nothing more valuable or important than learning the French or German language, and enjoying those tremendous cultural traditions. But those countries did not just start these programs in the last few years. They are good at running them because they have been systematically introducing their cultures abroad for hundreds of years, to a large degree as part of their colonial policies. France, Germany and Japan had to promote their language and culture overseas in order to retain their dominance in their colonial empires. These countries, including the United States, saw, and continue to see, cultural influence as a very critical part of their political power. Koreans are only starting to see that value.
Ultimately, the weakness of understanding about Korea can be traced back to the lack of Korean experts at American universities to digest and transmit to Americans Korean culture and tradition. If there are no professors of Korean studies at universities, American students will not take classes about Korea and Korea will not be included in the syllabus for survey courses. As a result, future authors will not be exposed to Korea early in their career and future politicians will not develop a deep understanding of Korea’s cultural tradition. In a word, most people in Washington D.C. encounter Korea late in their career and have no personal connection with Korea. We must trace the problem back to the source in secondary education. There is almost nothing about Korea in high school education and that is because the people who make textbooks are not taught about Korea in the university.
So what is the state of Korean studies in the United States? Well, let us start with the status of Asian studies. The United States is having trouble keeping up with the geopolitical shift to Asia because education is so heavily weighted towards Europe, for historical and ethnic reasons. A large state school will have fifty professors in English studies, twenty five professors of Spanish studies, twenty professors of German studies, ten professors of Chinese studies, eight professors of Japanese studies and one or two professors of Korean studies. Those priorities were set in another age that has since past, but the chairs for professors take twenty or thirty years to change, or more, and it is very hard to take positions away from German studies and give them to Chinese studies. So at present, although there are German department and Spanish departments at almost every university, not a single university has a Chinese department, let alone a Korean department. There are only East Asian studies which contain Chinese studies, Japanese studies and maybe Korean and Vietnamese studies.
The Korea Foundation has worked nobly to support Korean studies and to set up language programs and teaching positions in Korean studies, but the scale needs to be far larger because the consequences of American, or European, ignorance of Korea are so great. Having future presidents of the United States who learned about Korea as youth and developed a deep love for the language and the culture in their twenties can make an infinite difference for Korea. At present, the opportunities in high schools and universities in the United States to learn about Korea remain quite limited and the teaching of Korean in the United States continues to be primarily directed at overseas Koreans.
So what image do most Americans have of Korea? Well, for Americans of my generation, Americans in their forties and fifties, there is one common source for our earliest images of Korea: the television series MASH. MASH, which means “mobile army surgical hospital” was a TV drama that related the adventures of the surgeons and personnel who worked in an army hospital in Uijeongbu during the Korean War. MASH was aired from 1972 until 1983 and was one of the most popular television series of all time in the United States. The show relates the efforts of doctors and nurses to maintain their sanity and dedication to their duty in the face of the terrible ironies and tragedies of war. MASH was launched at the very end of the Vietnam War, so the content is actually more about Americans in Vietnam than about Americans in Korea. By displacing the story to Korea, the topics treated were made a bit sensitive.
The problem was that The Koreans who appeared in the show were for the most part poor farmers from the countryside who, although loveable and sincere, were generally depicted as ignorant, naïve and helpless. I cannot remember seeing a Korean intellectual in any episode of MASH. Although MASH as a whole shows considerable respect for Asian culture, as a whole it suggests that Korea was a very backward and rural country. Most Americans could not distinguish that Korea from the real Korea and in fact the images from MASH are stronger in the minds of many than any recent information about Korea.
Korea is a paradox for Americans. On the one hand Korea seems like it is not a particularly developed country for many Americans who have never been here. They imagine it to be a place where the taxis drive recklessly and the streets are cluttered in a manner reminiscent of Manila or Hanoi. Korea seems for many Americans to be a developing nation, an image reinforced by such historical oddities as the fact that Americans still adopt orphans. It appears that Korea is a bit more developed than Indonesia or Vietnam, but that it lacks the grace and the sort of cultural depth of an “advanced” nation like Japan or Germany.
Part of the problem is that many Americans believe that Korea was made up of just a bunch of ignorant farmers before the economic miracle of the 1980s. Ironically, this misleading perception has been reinforced by the story that Koreans tell foreigners frequently Koreans love to tell the myth of how Korea developed from a nation the equal of Somalia into an IT superpower in just fifty years, a story which sounds great but has rather ambiguous effects on the listeners. Foreigners who hear this story may think that the story is impressive, but they also come away with the impression that in 1952 Korea was the cultural and educational equivalent of Somalia. That part was never true. Korea succeeded because it had a long scholarly and artistic tradition, and in scholarship was in many respects ahead of Japan until the 1840s. Even during the worst periods of the Korean War, there were still a significant number of Koreans with advanced education.
But there have been many other misleading narratives about Korea over the years that have seriously biased Americans with regards to Korea. For example, in the Western media Korean politicians are portrayed as corrupt. There can be no doubt as to political corruption in Korea, but the level of institutional and political corruption in the United States has reached such levels it is hard to imagine that Korea is more corrupt. After all, Korean candidates cannot use use unlimited corporate funding in elections as their American counterparts do.
Korea is remembered as the country that was almost bankrupted by 1987 IMF crisis. It seen as a country whose currency is subject to wild fluctuations, as a nation always close to default. I cannot speak to this issue with any authority, but I can suggest that there are plenty of countries out there now on the edge of default and Korea is not most egregious case. Korea also perceived as a nation clinging to country of authoritarian policies left over from an age of dictators that has only recently emerged as a democracy. Yet such comparisons seem to compare Korea with a United States, Great Britain or Germany of twenty years ago.
But even as Americans hold these negative images of Korea, they are being forced to revise their view of Korea, almost against their own will. That country of poorly dressed people familiar to Americans through the dry cleaning stores that they frequent, or the family markets where the upper middle class in Manhattan buy their produce, has become mysteriously the source of the KIA and Hyundae cars that they drive. Americans use Samsung Galaxys and watch LG televisions. That Korea over there, which appears for many Americans to be poorly run, authoritarian, backwards and adverse to innovation just keeps getting stronger. All that is happening in spite of the financial downturns and North Korean provocations harped on in the American media. So oddly we have Ban Ki Moon as the Secretary General of the United Nations and Yong Kim as the President of the World Bank, but many American universities do not even have Korean studies programs.
I do not think that there is a simple solution to this complex problem. I would only suggest that the first step may be for Koreans to become aware of the need to properly introduce Korea to foreigners, American and otherwise, in a manner that takes into account the full complexity of the Korean intellectual, aesthetic and philosophical tradition. Such a promotion of Korea should not be limited to Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” a music song of extremely ambiguous value that despite its parodic nature, is essentially an ode to mindless consumerism.
So what might be the solution to this desperate need to raise awareness about Korea among Americans? Of course providing funding for new programs in Korean studies and for positions for Korean studies faculty at US universities could help. But there is an even more fundamental step that is required.
When In 1979, Harvard professor Ezra Vogel published the book Japan as Number One, he revolutionized the field of Asian studies and led to a new emphasis on Japanese studies, and a new respect for the achievements of that country. Suddenly, Americans were confronted with the full range of Japan’s accomplishments and were forced to reassess the achievements of a nation they had previously dismissed as the source for cheap toys.
But in fact there was another step in the process leading to Japan’s new recognition that came before Vogel’s book. In a sense, Japan had to become visible at a popular level first. Only then could average Americans start to focus on Japan’s outstanding practices in manufacturing and research. That first step towards mass appeal for Japan was the gripping popular novel Shōgun by James Clavell. When Shōgun became a national, and international, best seller 1975 it tremendously increased American awareness of Japan. it was the first popular novel that took the lives of Japan’s great military leaders as its plot, retelling the rise to power of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu through the eyes of the English sailor John Blackthorne.
Shōgun was remarkable in that it is an extremely engaging novel with love scenes, battles, adventures, plotting and exotic twists of fate which is extremely accessible, but it takes as its subject the Japanese past, and not just the electronics of today. Shōgun makes zen philosophy and the way of the samurai seem mysterious and intriguing for average Americans, suggesting another world to be explored equivalent to the Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Such a book gave the bits and pieces of Japan that were showing up in the United States in the form of automobiles and transistor radios a historical and philosophical background that engaged the imagination. Between Clavell’s book and Vogel’s book Japanese culture was brought out from the shadows into the mainstream.
Perhaps the next step for Korea is to produce a popular novel, or movie, that brings the fully glory, mystery and complexity of Korea’s past to life for those who are not Korean. This approach has largely been ignored in Korea because many Koreans simply assume that foreigners would not be interested in Korean culture. But I would argue that making traditional Korea both mysterious and accessible is essential to making Korea visible.
For example one could write a book featuring an Englishman or Frenchman who is washed ashore during the reign of King Sejong and witnesses firsthand the palace intrigues and the remarkable achievements of that age. Such a book would give a new depth to the American understanding of Korea, establishing in the American imagination a Korea from before the Japanese occupation. Up to this moment there is not a single icon of traditional Korea that is generally recognized by educated Americans. A novel called “Yangban,” or “Seonbi” set in King Sejong’s reign could revolutionize the perception of Korea in America and open up a space, for the first time, wherein Americans could imagine themselves in Korea’s enticing past.
Koreans have made efforts to present Korea’s culture overseas, and they do so with increasing sophistication. But for some reason it seems that Korea is presented only as a unique and fascinating country which can be observed by foreigners. Very little has been done to present Korea in a manner which would allow a foreigner to feel he or she was part of the story. In fact, I cannot think of a popular thriller novel in which a foreigner explores traditional Korea—although perhaps one exists. Perhaps, ultimately, that sort of novel, like Shōgun, has to be written by a foreigner.