The Asia Times
December 1, 2012
“A new kind of scholar breaks ground in Korea”
By Subadra Arvind
An American expat has found an odd niche in Seoul as a commentator on Korean culture, history and policy not for foreigners, but for Koreans. His name is Emanuel Pastreich, and he writes books in Korean and lectures to government and business leaders about how Korea can make full use of its remarkable assets from organic farming to traditional houses.
Pastreich is employed as a professor at Kyung Hee University and is the founder of The Asia Institute, a think tank based in Seoul. In his best-selling book, Scholars of the World Speak out about Korea, he interviewed leading intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama, Larry Wilkerson and Noam Chomsky, asking for their insights into the specific challenges facing Korea, from social welfare and trade to dealing with North Korea and competition in education. Pastreich conducted the interviews in his capacity asdirector of the Asia Institute, which is dedicated to unconventional approaches to contemporary problems from culture and international relations to technology, education and climate change.
While think tanks abound inside the Washington beltway, or in posh neighborhoods of Seoul or Tokyo, they tend to spout the same old story about the next six-party nuclear talks, or make predictions about the “secretive hermit kingdom” of North Korea. You would be hard-pressed to name one that focuses on the real issues of environment, of technology, and of the cultural and social factors that underlie rapid changes observed today.
The Asia Institute has written papers on how the exponential advancement of technology will impact human society – including one arguing that 50% of the military budgets of Asian nations should be dedicated to fighting climate change – and advocated for an eco-currency that will directly tie the amount of currency available to the state of the globe. Such pragmatic and maverick pronouncements are a breath of fresh air in a world of policy.
Pastreich did not start out as a policy wonk. He trained in Asian literature and has a BA in Chinese literature at Yale University, an MA in comparative culture at the University of Tokyo, and a PhD in East Asian languages and civilizations at Harvard University, he taught Japanese classics at University of Illinois for many years. The team at The Asia Institute is dedicated to present a vision of a new peaceful and integrated Asia which is visibly an emerging super power in today’s era.
It all began when Dr Pastreich was working at the Korean Embassy in Washington as the advisor to the Korean ambassador. He was asked by the embassy to be the director of a think tank called KORUS House they had created. He conducted a series of seminars related to Korea as part of that program. Once this assignment was over, he started teaching at Woosong University and immediately set out to form a think tank on his own.
“I have been in Japan for six years through my diplomatic career and as a researcher I know how important it is first to live in a foreign country for a long time and then to learn the language and culture and then adapt to it. So we have a person who not only can communicate and understand an Eastern language and culture, but also has native experience of the Western world. It is a unique combination”, he reiterates. “Comprehensive view, interdisciplinary effort, technology and economy, we try to combine all these in the seminars at The Asia Institute; it is not an easy task, but worth trying” he adds.
To the degree that The Asia Institute has been a voice in the wilderness, it has not had the same degree of media coverage as big players like Brookings Institution or the Heritage Foundation. But as Victor Hugo once said, “All the forces in the world are not as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”
There is something in the particular approach that The Asia Institute takes, focusing on the intersection of culture and technology, the environment and international relations that suggests a new path for analysis, for looking at policy and diplomacy, security and economics, that has a certain appeal. And the Asia Institute has focused on engaging young people as part of its mission.
Markku Heiskanen, the Finland – East Asia program director of The Asia Institute (political scientist and former senior diplomat) feels that the unique factor in the Asia Institute is the unusual skill set Pastreich brings to the table. Highly proficient in Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages, Pastreich is actively engaged throughout Asia.
The Asia Institute offers a neutral platform wherein leaders from various fields come together for meaningful discussions that bring out valuable solutions. And this quality is critical when it comes to discussing issues that may be sensitive between China, Japan and Korea. Here is a space that is not Korean, American, Chinese or Japanese.
The Asia Institute brought in the renowned Harvard English professor Marc Shell to talk about the relationship between money and literature. Professor Shell spoke about the ideological and cultural elements before a group of experts that included representatives of the Bank of Korea. By bringing a humanistic perspective to contemporary economic issues, Pastreich has opened up new vistas on contemporary affairs at a time most think tanks are increasingly uniform.
According to Stephan Mot, author and prolific writer associated with the Asia Institute, what makes it stand apart is that it is flexible and encompasses a large range of issues. The challenge is to keep to the focus, since it has a holistic approach and incorporates an array of topics, but this, he feels is good, as it is closer to the real world.
Arthur Michalak, who works at The Asia Institute explains its philosophy: “We are doing something unprecedented here in that we do not just conduct research and draft advocacy policies in broad areas of public concern like technological, economic, and social integration, but that we involve young people in these very topics in our meetings. We take seriously youth input and I think this is an innovative concept among think tanks the world over. The institute does not simply view younger participants as those who need to ‘learn’ from the experts. Instead, our philosophy is that the experts can come and learn something from the very generation shaping society’s public concerns.”
The Asia Institute’s key asset is the pool of talents of experts who come together to have solution-oriented debates that can help make the world a better place.
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