In the political jungle of Washington D.C. Steve Clemons is a unique political animal. Navigating between warring factions and ideological traditions that present no space for compromise, Clemons some how manages to maintain a broad range of associates and build bridges. Starting with the assumption that no matter how different perspectives may be, common ground can be found between groups concerned about international relations and security, Clemons never hesitates to jump into the fray.
He is an imposing figure who draws attention when he enters the room; Clemons speaks with authority and charisma. Nevertheless, he is also quite sensitive to everyone in the crowd, taking time out to converse with students and interns. He is a remarkable figure in that he is simultaneously an insider and an outsider in Washington D.C. His blog, “The Washington Note” is an excellent source for information about American politics and a tribute to the range of Clemons’ connections. Most importantly, of those who understand Washington from within, he is one of the very few who takes East Asia seriously.
This interview was conducted in Washington D.C. on September 8, 2006
How is the Republic of Korea perceived in the United States?
Korea is far more important to the United States than the attention it receives in Washington D.C. It is a mistake for Americans to define the Republic of Korea only in terms of the most recent North Korean crisis. The Republic of Korea is an important player in Northeast Asia both in security and economic terms, but we read very little about that aspect in our press. Sometimes it seems as if the North Korea crisis has become the prism through which Americans perceive the Korean Peninsula and the challenges posed by China. I am one who thinks that we should spend a lot more time focusing on Korea. I try to read as much Korean press as I possibly can to stay informed.
How specifically is Korea important to the United States?
I think that Korea plays an increasingly important role as an economic stabilizer in the region of Northeast Asia. One of the important things about Korea, for instance, is how it maintains a balanced current account profile. Korea serves as an example for the other Asian economies who somehow feel that it is part of their national identity to constantly strive to pile up mountains of dollars to protect themselves against future economic storms and suppress domestic consumption. Korea maintains a balance between production and export and healthy rate of consumption which is admirable. Why is that important in the region? It is important because that example is not followed by many other Asian nations, especially Southeast Asian nations who continue to grow and play important roles.
We may be entering a period of economic slowdown in the United States in 2007-2008, and that may be true for Europe as well. Products produced in Asia will have to find markets somewhere. If you wish to maintain a balanced regional dynamism, in consideration of China’s economic position, all of the nations of East Asia must begin to model themselves more on Korea and take note of what Korea is doing.
Let us look the Republic of Korea’s role relating to North Korea. North Korea has been a problem child for Northeast Asia for quite some time now. It is a failed Communist dictatorship that is struggling just to maintain the status quo. Kim Dae-Jung set the right course when he engaged North Korea and that President Roh has continued that general policy in an appropriate manner. What I find disheartening is how Korea sometimes becomes a diminished voice in the debates over what the right policy towards North Korea should be compared to China, Japan and the United States. Korea has a lot to say and contribute.
What can be done with regards to North Korea?
We need to avoid a predetermined military collision with North Korea that would disrupt the whole region. A smart move would be something along the lines of what President Richard Nixon achieved when he went to China. President Nixon embraced engagement and economic exchange.
If I were President Bush, I would be saying, “Let’s push capitalism in North Korea.” If someone asked why, I would say, “Because some people will want to get ahead. And those who want to get ahead, who have individual ambition-or collective ambition for their village or region-will automatically be at odds with the factions who do not want to follow that path.” Dividing up the society of North Korea and making it less monolithic while bringing the prosperity of economic trade to those who engage in capitalist enterprise is absolutely the best course for dealing with North Korea. That process might well prevent something like a violent meltdown or a nuclear or military collision.
How serious an issue do you think the recent missile launch by North Korea was?
The missile launch itself was a cry for attention, but also an indication of increasing sophistication on the part of the North Koreans. There is a risk that both sides will find themselves on a railroad track running in a dangerous direction.
The responses and recriminations on both sides could create a very nasty future for us. We should be working feverishly to propose an alternative future that is not dictated by North Korea. But unfortunately, this present administration in the United States tends to be ad hoc and reactive in its approach. There is no sense of long-term strategy and no concept of an endgame. We wait for crises; no nation in the region can figure out what our strategy towards North Korea is. The absence of strategy gives Pyongyang’s leadership the opportunity to trigger responses. That is their specialty.
What do you think about nature of the North Korean threat?
In terms of the American response, there is much to be desired. For example, for us to spend a trillion dollars on missile defense, which is what a fully deployed system would cost in total, is insane when you have other options for possibly engaging and defusing this crisis. This point is especially true when you take into account the fact that missile defense programs can be overwhelmed for relatively little money. Why not spend a trillion dollars, or maybe a lot less, figuring out ways to give incentives to the North Korean government to change their policies and give opportunities for its citizens to change its society. We should get North Korean on the right course and make unification look like an appealing goal for them. That would be far more effective in every respect, and would cost far less than a trillion dollars in any case.
There is no need to become a pacifist, or to drop one’s guard in the mean time. The U.S. has been drawing down the Pacific Fleet in ways that I think are quite dangerous, and our own engagements elsewhere are forcing hard choices in terms of what we can do in Asia. I would rather that the North Koreans had to worry about naval destroyers than missile defense-something that just is not appropriate to that theatre where the Republic of Korea and Japan are so vulnerable.
Koreans are concerned about the image of the Republic of Korea in the United States. Is the concern justified?
The Republic of Korea needs to do more to shake off the image that its political culture is still boss-driven and its bureaucrats do not know enough about policy. I say this fully aware that we have the same problems in our political culture. The difference is that despite all the problems the United States has-and they are serious-there tends to be a respect here for policy finesse and a respectable knowledge base that is not quite at the same level in Korea.
Koreans also cluster their relations with people they consider friends within the United States. This can result in Koreans interacting with a relatively small number of people here in the United States. There is a need to be more expansive in developing Korea’s ties here in the United States on all fronts. American society is highly fluid and diverse. There is an urgent need to maintain a variety of ties across the political spectrum. One must constantly be making a case, building relations everywhere.
I have found that specialists within the Federal government, in justice, intelligence, defense, and other fields, do have a profound respect for Korean expertise that is never reported in the newspapers. At a working level there are strong ties.
What suggestions might you have for improving relations?
There is great frustration in the Republic of Korea with the general policy of the Bush administration, which is on again off again and completely unpredictable with regards to North Korea. You basically want to ask, who has been inconsistent in this relationship. Is Kim Jung-Il truly inconsistent? Most inconsistency is found on the U.S. side. And we see that reflected in the frustrations suffered by American professionals who sincerely tried to lay down a constructive roadmap for a solution to the North Korean problem. Their work has been frustrated.
As for the Republic of Korea, Koreans need to forcefully draw attention to the manner in which Americans are not paying sufficient detail to the relationship. Korea should be aggressive in highlighting the role of Korea as a critical strategic ally in East Asia.
The relationship must break out of the “big brother/little brother” paradigm so that Korea is perceived as a vital part of America’s overall strategy. That will happen as Koreans become more expansive in the relationships they develop here in the United States.
North Korea forms one of the key global crises that could melt down into a terrible conflict if left unattended. For the United States to leave North Korea in a status quo position is crazy. And the Republic of Korea is our best ally in the process of turning that situation around. The Koreans must be bolder and more creative in interacting with not only American politicians, but with the American public as well.