Why Korea cannot put forth a Korean perspective?
July 22, 2017
One of the great mysteries about Korea is why it is that although Seoul is full of many extremely educated and capable people with degrees from Harvard, Yale and Stanford, people who are extremely knowledgeable about topics from mechanical engineering to public policy and diplomacy, Korea is virtually incapable of advancing a Korean vision or perspective on current affairs. Extremely well-educated Koreans struggle with all their might to absorb and interpret the writings about North Korea and East Asia put out by American experts like Michael Green at CSIS or John Ikenberry at Princeton even though they have far greater understanding of the issues than those experts do.
The problem is much more serious today than ever before for the simple reason that Washington D.C. is incapable of making policy anymore. Paralyzed between a cabal of billionaires and their loyal minions who see the office of the presidency as a means to make large amounts of money and a professional class of bureaucrats and politicians who work for investment banks rather than for the national interest, Washington D.C. cannot formulate any long-term plans for itself, let alone respond meaningfully to recent developments in Japan, China or North Korea. Currently, the tendency in the United States is to paper over the increasing authoritarianism of the Abe administration, to present a caricature of Kim Jung Eun taken from a B movie and to make dark insinuations about a rising China threat at every opportunity. All this effort is linked to a deep level of denial about institutional decay in the United States itself.
South Korea has a more legitimate president than just about any other country and it has the expertise and the know-how to formulate its own policy and to make proposals for the future of East Asia. But if it relies on the United States and Japan to give it guidance, it will find itself increasingly at sea.
Why is it that Koreans have become so dependent on Western, particularly American, perspectives on economics, governance, security and diplomacy when Korea is far better positioned to put forth new approaches and launch initiatives, than the United States is? If we look at the question of engagement with China, there are far more Koreans who speak Chinese, who understand Chinese politics and economics in depth and who have a high level of education. And now with an isolationist and radically anti-intellectual Trump administration installed in Washington D.C., it should be the Koreans who are giving advice to Washington D.C., not the other way around.
But that is not the case at all. If anything young professors at Korean universities trying to survive in a brutal system that forces them to write articles only for SSCI journals find that they must accept the flawed assumptions of American foreign policy, or risk losing their jobs. They must cite the articles written by American scholars who stress the North Korean threat but never mention the United States’ failure to abide by the Nonproliferation Treaty that it signed. They must accept nonsensical arguments such as that the United States can never recognize North Korea as a nuclear power even as it takes actions against North Korea based on the assumption that it is a nuclear power.
There is plenty of space for innovative and for creative approaches to security that might move us beyond an obsession with missiles and aircraft to a concern with climate change and other emerging threats. Koreans have more practical knowledge than Americans of how China, or Central Asia, or Southeast Asia works and they could write very innovative and ground-breaking articles. Yet, for some reason they cannot do so and so a sad passivity has swept over policy in Korea.
Of course the domination of media and of policy by a small number of so-called experts who are not particularly qualified but are promoted ad nausea is not a uniquely Korean phenomenon, but a global problem born of a decaying ideological system and the priority place on material consumption over intellectual inquiry in our society globally. But the problem is much more serious in Korea than elsewhere. The Philippines is a far poorer nation than Korea and has a far lower level of education. And yet it is able to deal quite frankly with the United States, even close down the Subic Bay base and have its president go to China and complain about American policy. None of these actions, although rather immature, ended the relationship with the United States.
One possible cause of the inability of Koreans to formulate their own positions is the long colonial history in Korea during which Korean intellectuals and government officials had their priorities and their assumptions dictated to them by Japanese authorities who hid an iron fist in a soft leather glove as part of their “governing through culture” strategy. Something of that undue reverence for culture and for direction from the United States remains in the Korean mentality an blocks a critical evaluation of the serious decline in the American intellectual class and the profound decay of American political culture.
We certainly can see a tremendous bias towards education in the United States. Relatively few Koreans attend graduate school in France, Germany, Japan Holland, Italy, Spain. In fact relatively few attend graduate school in Great Britain. But that colonial-type mentality is not sufficient to explain the difficulty that highly educated Koreans have in articulating their own position and the tremendous efforts that they make to conform with the ridiculous demands from the United States.
Some of that tradition of “sadae” (serving the powerful state) can be traced back to Korea’s traditional relations with China from traditional times when government officials were sent to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor. The Joseon Kings did not build their own temple to worship heaven because they accepted that only the Chinese emperor had that prerogative.
Another critical issue in the culture of Seoul today is the division of the nation into two distinct political and ideological states. Although North Korea is pretty much invisible to the casual observer walking in downtown Seoul—very little is reported about what is happening in North Korea in the media and few people bring North Korea up in conversation–North Korea remains a major cultural presence. It is the unspoken and invisible other that defines Koreaness in a different manner and has a large number of Koreans under its control. It is present everywhere and subtly distorts the cultural fabric of South Korea and warps the thinking of South Koreans. As long as the nation is so unnaturally divided, and South Korea remains in denial about the existence of North Korea, such distortions will remain.
The mass denial of the existence of North Korea does not distract from the tragedy and the tremendous spiritual and psychological drain of being a divided nation. Few are even capable of articulating what is wrong, but something clearly is. South Koreans have difficulty pulling together their education, their economic strength and the full power of their long cultural tradition precisely because of this division at the core of the nation.
Koreans in their sixties and seventies relate a tale of Korea’s economic development which they hold up as their greatest achievement. The story goes like this: Korea was run by the impractical and autocratic yangban class who were obsessed by the abstractions of Confucianism. They failed to modernize Korea and the country fell helplessly behind. Fortunately, a group of capable men with vision and will brought Western technology to Korea and know-how. They motivated the people and made Korea modern and industrial from the 1960s.
This narrative completely ignores anything of quality in Korean culture and it needlessly glorifies politicians like Park Chung Hee as superman-like figures. The important point is that this narrative is essentially the same one that the Japanese employed during the colonial period to justify their rule. The only difference is that the myth has been modified. Japan’s effort to step in and “help modernize” Korea that was told in the 1930s and 1940s has been replaced by the tale of how Park Chung Hee and others of the 1960s and 1970s “helped modernize” Korea. The flawed history remains the same and the efforts of Koreans to improve the nation in the 17th and 18th centuries are left out of Korea’s history as it is presented to Koreans, and to foreigners.
That incompleteness in the Korean cultural tradition encourages an irrational glorification of Western culture and makes it impossible for Koreans to formulate their own ideas about city planning and design, let alone about development, diplomacy and security. The result is dozens of highly educated graduates of Seoul National University, Yonsei University and Korea University who write articles for newspapers and proposals for diplomatic and security policy based on the flawed assumptions put forth by American policy makers who are less capable and worse educated.
Finally, we need to consider the true nature of imperialism in the 19th century and its legacy for the current day. Korean ambitions about becoming a powerful nation are built on many assumptions that have roots in the imperialist model for nation building of the 19th century. The assumptions about the uses of industrial power and natural resources which remain convincing are rooted in that ruthless competition of imperial powers that brought us World War I. How those imperial dynamics are related to the increasing wars we see around the world today is essentially a taboo topic in contemporary South Korea.
And the nations that Korea sees as the competitors that it lags behind: the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and Japan, are precisely the nations who developed complex imperialist systems with such finesse in the last century. If the United States was more restrained in its imperial ambitions before the First World War, the opposite is the case today.
Empires, especially the possession of colonies, had a profound impact on the politics and economies of nations like France or Japan over the last 150 years. Because they had colonies, and far-flung national interests around the world, these nations developed complex bureaucracies to promote the value of their culture abroad and to persuade other countries, of the legitimacy of their various claims. They created vast libraries of books lauding the superiority of their country’s art, literature, philosophy, governance and history which were necessary for the education of the citizens of their colonies.
Korea was a victim of colonization. It had no tradition of aggressively introducing its culture abroad, or of creating appealing myths about Korean greatness to win over people from different traditions. It is one of the great strengths of Korea that it lacks the slick presentation of its culture that one finds in other countries. Yet the lack of that imperial tradition does put Korea at a disadvantage. Japan, France and Germany have over 140 years of practice editing sophisticated textbooks to instruct foreigners in their language and developing long-term plans for promoting domestic supporters of their country in other nations. They have mastered the politics of culture. Korea did not start to seriously promote Korean culture abroad until the 1990s and even today many of those efforts are quite lacking in substance.
It is the combination of these three factors that inhibits Koreans from presenting a Korean position on issues in international relations that is rooted in a distinct Korean perspective rooted in its culture and in its geopolitical position. That lack of a Korean position is becoming an increasingly serious problem as Japan and the United States spin completely out of control, unable to formulate anything but the most ruthless policies as small groups of warlords and billionaires struggle to defend their own interests and exclude the expert class from the decision-making process altogether in those two countries. Korea must address these profound issues seriously, and quickly.
Only when Korea can present a Korean perspective on security and diplomacy, grounded in Korea’s own historical and cultural experience, will it be able to present a powerful counterargument to the narratives being pushed by self-appointed “Korea experts” in Washington D.C. who cannot speak a word of Korean. It would be a tremendous comedy if it was not so tragic in its implications.