Category Archives: Today in Korea

“Call for bravery and real vision in face of reckless militarism” Aju Business Daily

Aju Business Daily

“Call for bravery and real vision in face of reckless militarism”

August 21, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich



China and Korea have seen a tremendous flowering of economic, cultural and educational exchange and cooperation since the normalization of relations on August 24, 1992. My students today include a new generation of young people from China and Korea who sincerely want the countries to work together closely and many of them have a command of Chinese language, or of Korean language, that goes beyond anything that could be found in the previous generation.

Also, my Korean and Chinese students have a global vision for what is possible in the region that is inspiring and suggests that they offer us tremendous potential. I am constantly impressed by their efforts and I hope that they can create a more secure, and a brighter, future for all of us. Read more of this post

Foreign Policy in Focus

“Missiles or the Environment: Korea’s True Security Challenges”

August 1, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich


The news in Seoul has been taken over by reports that North Korea has launched another missile into the ocean. Images of the missile launch were repeated over and over again followed by speculation that North Korea would use the missile to attack the East Coast of the United States. The reporting was pure hype without a single rational voice offering an opinion about the significance of one missile launch or the difficulties of assessing the possible payload for such a missile.

The timing of this news coverage with South Korea’s deployment of the THAAD missile defense system was too perfect. Missing from the discussion has been the real threats that South Korea faces and whether missile defense is effective. These two obvious questions were swept under the rug.

North Korea’s missile launches in fact were a response to a series of live ammunition drills off its coast by the United States, South Korea, and Japan that have been going on, more or less continuously for a year. To North Korea, these drills seems like a preparation for an invasion. Not only is it natural that North Korea would make some response, granted the United States penchant for illegal regime change, it is entirely legal to do so according to international law. The United Nations Security Council has condemned North Korea for missile launches and called for sanctions, but China’s suggestion that both sides freeze their military actions is far more rational and Pyongyang has indicated that it is open to such negotiations. Read more of this post

“Real reason Korea should fear China” ( The Korea Times July 25, 2017 )

The Korea Times

“Real reason Korea should fear China”

July 25, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich


The news that China will phase out all fossil-fuel taxis the near future plying the streets of Beijing, and that the government has approved plans for the massive implementation of electric cars across the country, has been buried under articles in Korea about Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and possible FTA (free trade agreement) re-negotiations.

I remember the single pathetic electric car parked for years in front of the president’s office at KAIST University. As it rusted away there proudly, no steps were taken to actually start using electric automobiles on a large scale in Daejeon, or Korea.

While Koreans were fretting about whether President Trump would be nice to President Moon Jae-in, China has committed $360 billion through 2020 to the development of renewable power and is well on its way to being the dominant power for the development and production of solar and wind power.

Perhaps Koreans are thinking that if they just make a few more smart phones, or sell a few more sleek automobiles overseas, the Korean economy will get back on its feet. Sadly, they have failed to grasp the monumental scale of the economic and technological shifts taking place today.

Let us look at the current economic shift from a historical perspective. China had the largest and most sophisticated economy in the world before it was displaced by Great Britain. China’s success drew on its high level of education and the lack of military conflicts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but above all it was China’s capacity for the production of food on a massive scale, with high efficiency, that was the key point.

Before the 1830s, energy took the form of human and animal labor. That is to say that energy could only be obtained from the sun via photosynthesis in agricultural production of food and them expressed through manual and animal labor.

China had a sophisticated long-term agricultural policy, the crowning glory of which was the expert administration of an advanced irrigation system covering the entire country.

But the British (and later the French and Germans) started a new economic system based on coal in the 19th century. Coal provided far more energy than wood, or than manual labor, and powered factories that produced goods on a massive scale. The Chinese system could not complete with this new economic process, and when coal power spilled over into military applications, China (and all of Asia) found themselves humiliated in the Opium Wars.

But that coal-based economy that drove the British Empire did not last forever. The United States moved quickly in the early twentieth century to build the infrastructure for an economy based on petroleum, a fossil fuel even more efficient than coal. The United States embraced this new petroleum-based economy quickly because it had the institutional flexibility to do so, and also because the American economy was not tied to coal to the degree that Britain’s was. The United States ended up at the center of an automobile-centered new global economy.

But the game was not over. China is challenging the world economic system, taking full advantage of recent efficiency breakthroughs in solar and wind power that make a fossil fuel-free economy possible. These breakthroughs form an exact parallel to the breakthroughs in steam engines early in the 19th century in Britain and Germany that turned the world economy upside down.

China is well on its way to dominating this new paradigm for energy production, one which may eliminate the need to import expensive fuels to power production ― not to mention reducing costly foreign wars to secure petroleum.

If China manages to dominate the technology for solar and wind energy production, control its manufacture it will thereby effect a fundamental shift in the global economy that will be the equivalent to the two previous turning points in world history. Parallel to China, Germany has also started to move towards renewable energy in full force.

And what about Korea?  If Korea cannot break with its current petroleum-dominated economy and it fails to make that fundamental leap in its thinking about the economy, what are its prospects? The future is grim for Korea if it   lacks the will to walk away from its addiction to Middle Eastern and American oil money? It could go down with the nations trapped in an outdated economic system, just like China did in the 19th century.

The changes that are required to adopt this new renewable energy paradigm are profound. One thing is certain. The time has come for Koreans to awaken from their dream of exporting their way to riches, and rather to take a hard look at the foundations of the Korean economy.

Korea’s True Security Challenges (Essay)

Korea’s True Security Challenges

 July 20, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich


Decay of the media and of the decision-making process

The Korean peninsula faces a daunting array of security problems that will require tremendous efforts over the long term to overcome.  But the most serious security risk of all is the complete inability of the Korean people to understand what the real threats are that they face. The media, the entertainment industry and a vast culture of denial has combined forces to distract and misdirect the Korean people away from the real dangers of this age.

Koreans are told over and over by their newspapers and TV news that the greatest risk is of a nuclear missile being launched from North Korea which will destroy Seoul. In fact, North Korea’s military posture is entirely defensive and there is no chance that they would launch a missile at South Korea except as a response to an attack.

By contrast, Koreans are all but unaware of the collapse of the ecosystem in Northeast Asia, the death of the seas (and the fish that they depend on for food) as a result of warming waters, the spread of deserts and shortage of water which threaten to engulf the Korean Peninsula in an enormous desert stretching into central Asia. They have not even started planning for the rising oceans, a massive infrastructure project that will leave Korea with no budget to pay for fighter planes, tanks or other outdated military equipment.

 As opposed to the highly unlikely attacks from North Korea that are hyped in the privatized media, the threats to the environment are essentially 100% guaranteed.  So any consideration of the issue of security on the Korean Peninsula should start out by noting that most people in South Korea are fed a diet of fictions that makes it far more difficult for them to grasp what the dangers are. They are often convinced that North Korea is about to rain down nuclear weapons on them even though that it almost impossibility.

Nor is the death of the ecosystem the only threat that the Korean Peninsula faces.

The rising inequality in Korean, and East Asian, society is tearing the fabric of society apart and will lead to serious conflicts domestically and internationally in the next fifteen years. The media covers North Korea in a less objective manner because it is controlled by concentrated capital that makes tremendous profits from military defense systems. Sources for unbiased information about how the world works like newspapers and universities are so deeply linked to the stock market and the secret world of capital investments that they are incapable of articulating an alternative viewpoint.

Although Koreans are aware that the concentration of wealth, and the death of a public sector in Korean society over the last thirty years has led to greater inequality, they do not understand exactly how and they are not encouraged to think deeply about this crisis. Even extremely liberal groups do not offer opinions on the profound contradictions of a decadent industrialized society. They do not advocate that banks or telecommunications companies should be highly regulated public monopolies. But that assumption was common sense to liberals and conservatives in the 1950s.

The death of sources of information independent from the stock market and foreign investment banks, the death of local community groups that gave meaning to the lives of ordinary people through regular meetings, cooperative efforts and mutual aid has left many Koreans exposed and profoundly lonely. We can see this fact evident in the high suicide rate for both youth and the elderly.

Life has been taken over by a ruthless consumption- driven culture that holds up as the definition of “happiness” the immediate satisfaction of the individual through the eating, drinking or watching of things that give a short-term thrill. Even politics has been reduced to a popularity show with little interest in the details of policy, or long-term developments and overwhelming fascination with the latest statement on the social media.

Such an environment makes it impossible for citizens to even comprehend what “security” is about and the politicians have become babysitters who tell citizens what they want to hear. As the old saying goes, “the people do not want leaders, they want magicians.”

The careful analysis of social, environmental and economic factors that are destabilizing Northeast Asia has been replaced by sensationalism. The rise of the video game culture has played a role in this grotesque transformation of the public sphere. Many Koreans (and Japanese), including adults, spend their time playing video games that glorify ruthless military conflict and make it appear as if shooting guns and blowing people up is not only good fun, but solves all problems. This gaming culture makes so effort to explain how security has become a more complex problem, nor to draw attention to social inequity or the collapse of the ecosystem.  Video games suggest that it is split-second response that is critical for security. That myth is critical to the military industrial complex.

So the best business is pumping up the stock value of military contractors through articles that suggest that a new nuclear submarine, or THAAD anti-missile system will protect Korea even though there is no evidence that this is the case. The profits from building submarines or anti-missile systems are staggering  but there is no scientific evidence that they do anything but increase the risk of conflict. Sadly, Korea is being pulled in the direction of the United States economic system, a criminal state  in which a large percentage of wealth is siphoned off in the interests of “defense” to pay for useless weapons systems that make the rich richer. The media is happy to play its profitable role. IN fact, because the media in general offers so little of any use to ordinary citizens, this spinning of fantasies may be their only profitable role.

  Read more of this post

Why Korea cannot put forth a Korean perspective?

Why Korea cannot put forth a Korean perspective?

July 22, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich


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. Read more of this post

“The Empire of Mathematics” (JoongAng Daily June 26, 2017)

JoongAng Daily

June 26, 2017

“The Empire of Mathematics”

Emanuel Pastreich


I am deeply disturbed when I hear my students speak about their futures and relate worries about what they will do.

It is not simply that they are not certain that they can find good jobs. Rather they feel that there is some hidden force beneath the surface that keeps reaching up to grab their feet. Korean society does not want to recognize that they have an innate value in themselves as humans.

It seems to be an inviolable law that whatever Koreans do must be converted into numbers and then ranked before its significance can be appreciated. Moreover, the ranking must be based on some objective criterion out there that is far from daily experience.

We do not judge people based on how they interact with those around them, or by how they contribute to our culture and to organizations through their daily activities. Rather we use mathematical equations to determine value: number of widgets sold, number of SSCI articles published, number of automobiles serviced.

Mathematics has become the final arbiter of value in Korea and any contributions that cannot be assessed in terms of quantity cannot be appreciated or recognized.

I think my students are confused because there is a terrible violence in Korean society of which they are unaware. The full complexity of human experience, the nuanced and multidimensional nature of one’s interactions with family, community and the natural world is constantly rendered into two-dimensions as a ranking, a single number on a scale that represents the worth of the individual, or of the institution or of the nation.

The original source of this drive for an artificial mathematical rendering of value stems from concerns that if Koreans are left to judge other Koreans, that corruption will inevitably set in and therefore mathematical assessment will be more objective.

This two-dimensional approach to the human experience has flattened it and left us feeling empty. Read more of this post

“Moon’s Checklist” (Korea Times June 28, 2017)

Korea Times

June 28, 2017

“Moon’s Checklist”

Emanuel Pastreich


At this point, I fear that such a breakthrough is impossible. The United States military does not take orders from the inexperienced and self-centered Trump, but gives them to him. The military is itself in the midst of enormous internal conflicts concerning what the United States will do in the coming months against Iran and Russia.

The recent demands of Saudi Arabia, with encouragement from the United States, that Qatar essentially give up its political and economic independence and end its relations with Turkey and Iran, seems eerily like the demands made by Austria, with encouragement from Germany, that Serbia surrender its independence in 1914. Those events a century ago led to the First World War and we should not underestimate the current risks.President Moon Jae-in has a tremendous task ahead of him as he gears up to meet President Trump at one of the most dangerous moments in recent history. It would be great if the two could have an honest talk about their nations’ interests, find common ground somewhere and move forward in an effort to reduce the tensions in the region.

Koreans are focused on the THAAD issue and how Korea can somehow navigate its way between Chinese and American demands, but perhaps the greater issue will be how Korea can keep from being swept up in the most immediately dangerous conflict in the Middle East and show definitively that it will not support any military action against Iran. I fear this question may not even be on the list of those preparing for the summit.

Above all, Moon must start a broad dialogue with a large swath of Americans about how Korea and the United States can work together in many fields, from education and public policy, to their responses to climate change and the establishment of international norms. This move may seem off topic, but it is much more likely to gain lasting support for Korea in the United States, as opposed to agreements with Trump that can be overturned by a Tweet.

Korea is a nation that has been devoted to multilateralism and to the establishment of global norms since the time of King Gojong and that tradition should be reflected in the actions of President Moon. He should harken back to America’s obligations to international treaties and global norms at every moment, even if such words are irritating to the Trump administration, or even to many mainstream American politicians. Read more of this post

“Post-summit syndrome and road forward” (Korea Times July 4, 2017)

Korea Times

“Post-summit syndrome and road forward”

July 4, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich


Some Koreans are congratulating themselves that President Moon Jae-in had such pleasant meetings with President Donald Trump at the White House. Certainly the two leaders affirmed the importance of the Korea-US alliance and they claimed that they are working closely together to respond to the North Korean threat.

But when President Trump spoke of the “exemplary nature of the US-ROK Alliance” it seemed so distant from what he had said previously as to raise serious doubts about whether such pleasantries mean much at all. President Trump’s willingness to let South Korea play a “leading role” in setting the stage for the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula may only last until the next presidential Tweet. Read more of this post

Aju Business Daily “Korea faces daunting array of security problems” May 9, 2017

Aju Business Daily

“Korea faces daunting array of security problems”

May 9, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich


The Korean peninsula faces a daunting array of security problems that will require tremendous efforts, especially long term, to overcome. The primary problem is not the threats themselves, however, but rather the complete inability of Koreans to conceive of those threats, or to respond to them in any meaningful manner.

The problem is true for those of both progressive and conservative political orientations. There is a very little concept of how serious a security challenge the collapse of the ecosystem or the rising inequality in Korean, and East Asian, society is becoming. In fact, even extremely liberal groups do not offer any opinions on the problems of industrialized society or the privatization of banks — issues that would have been taken quite seriously by even conservatives back in the 1950s.

A consumption- driven culture has taken over Korea for the last twenty years, a culture in which the immediate satisfaction of the individual through the eating, drinking or watching of things that give a short-term thrill is held up as an ideal. The media in Korea is today run for profit and faithfully generates fantastic myths about what “security” means that have more to do with video games than reality. Read more of this post

“Moon’s agenda for summit meeting with Trump” (Aju Business Daily June 8, 2017)

Aju Business Daily

“Moon’s agenda for summit meeting with Trump”

June 8, 2017


Emanuel Pastreich



It is an incredibly difficult moment for a summit meeting between Korea and the United States and it is doubtful that any real breakthrough is possible, but if necessary there are ways to go forward.

The United States is in the midst of tremendous political turmoil and it is up to Korea, and not to the Trump administration to put forth a powerful vision for what is possible.

President Moon should be innovative. For example, he might bring along the presidents of major universities and research institutes as part of a major initiative to promote collaboration in science and technology with the United States. Korea seriously lags behind in international collaboration and this issue is serious, even if it has never been highlighted before. Moon can find a consensus and support far beyond his base if Korea declares that it will be a leader in academic collaboration. Read more of this post