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The breakdown of coherence in this moment of overwhelming change

I watched the movie Coherence (2013) tonight with tremendous interest. It relates the tale of four couples who find themselves in a cabin in the woods at the time that a comet passes nearby. The comet disrupts space-time, leading to the creation of multiple versions of each person. The different characters then mix with each other, creating tremendous chaos which only deepens with each moment of choice.

I think that the movie was effective because it was a good representation of the radical fragmentation that is taking place in our own society, and around the world, at the same time.

The results are a confusion about information, truth and falsehood. The results from the reproduction and manipulation of information. But not all of that is done by evil people, the shift is more fundamental.

But the confusion is also spiritual and it is also about identity. As things are reproduced so easily and images and words drop in value to be almost worthless, our own identity as humans is called into question. And that is not all. This confusion of replication is taking place precisely at the same time (by accident, or perhaps not) that technology is allowing us to reproduce ourselves and systems of supercomputers are essentially taking over the world.

Oddly, some still cling to this idea that we are looking at a new cold war, or a new world war, but what if it is a conflict between banks of supercomputers around the world, struggling with each other in obscure ways related to currency, current and identity.

We find ourselves in uncharted territory and if the question is what will happen to us, perhaps the most important question of all is: “what do you mean by ‘us?'”


Emanuel’s student ID from National Taiwan University

I studied at National Taiwan University 1985-1986 for my junior year abroad as an exchange student in the Department of Chinese. It was a turning point in my life. This is my student ID from that period. Not that only my Chinese name is featured and that I am a waijisheng 外籍生。





Emanuel on Xi’s speech at CPC

Interview with Emanuel Pastreich

Director of the Asia Institute

October 18, 2017

CGNT (China Global Network Television)

Asia Today


On the 19th Communist Party Congress and President Xi Jinping’s Speech



Mang Mang:

“Of course, Xi Jinping elaborated on Chinese foreign policy towards Asian neighbors. Which issues stood out most to you and do you have any fresh insights?”

Emanuel Pastreich:

“I can tell you what was most striking. President Xi did not criticize any other nations. He did not speak about wars, or even competition. He gave hope and an opportunity for cooperation. He suggested a new vision for the world, for Asia, starting from the One Belt; One Belt Initiative. His proposal was that the ultimate focus was on each nation’s potential

He said that China offered potential models in its past and in its present, but that each country had its unique qualities that also should be respected.


And I was most impressed when he said, “the political advancement of mankind,” which suggested an idealism that in many countries has been lost over the last few decades and it is very, very far from “America first.”

Finally I was impressed by his emphasis on science and on scientific inquiry, on addressing poverty and addressing climate change, and on global collaboration which was the original purpose of the World Bank and the United Nations, but we have sometimes lost our way.


Host Mang Mang:

“So in order to enhance collaboration there needs to be a decent level of integration. What more can you tell us about Chinese efforts to facilitate greater regional integration in Asia?


Emanuel Pastreich:

“Well, of course, China is active all over the place, and increasingly playing a vital role. But we have to see this in context. As an American, myself, originally, the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO, to reduce its participation in the United Nations, in diplomacy and in global governance, in poverty reduction, makes China now the major donor. We are going to see major shifts around the world. And it is inspiring to me, of course I am not a fortune teller and I do not know how things will play out, but this potential for a cooperative world not based on the threat of force or economic domination, in which the needs of poor people and developing countries are properly addressed, that this offers a real potential to us that can be inspiring and I think many people were hoping that he would make some statement like this to give us some sense that there is some potential in what is a very critical and critical and dangerous moment in human history.

Forced to embrace elements of Christian eschatology against my will!

There are two critical parts of Christian eschatology that I have been forced to accept, against my own will, over the last two decades.

First Christian eschatology assumes a moment of creation, a single instant in which the entire universe was created from nothing. I never liked this idea, and I preferred the more logical Buddhist concept of an eternal universe that is stable and cyclical. But the big bang theory, which holds that there was a single moment of creation, has become the dominant explanation for what we observe to day, and so completely upheld by observations that there really are no challenging theories.

The second assumption of the Christians is that there is an apocalypse, a moment when the world is destroyed and everyone is killed. The Christians suggest that the apocalypse is a result of our sins.

This idea also did not sit well with me. After all, humans have done terrible things to each other for thousands of years and God has never been able to completely wipe out humanity. Certainly what disasters have happened were not the result of our sins.

But that was before it became clear that radical climate change is our future, and it may well wipe us all out. I do not assume that those of faith will survive, but I am certain that climate change is a result of our sins, in a sense all of our sins, although some bear immense responsibly and others much less. The more aware I am made by shifting weather patterns of the final stages of climate change, the more I am certain that the apocalypse is upon us.

I do not, however, have much confidence that anyone will be saved by faith, however.



Korea Times “Xi Jinping and ecological civilization movement”

Korea Times

“Xi and ecological civilization movement”

October 10, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich


Koreans worry that the conflict between the United States and China will force them to choose between a military ally and their most important economic partner. Although this view of the current situation is accurate, it is only part of the problem. In fact, Korea is also faced with a profound choice about how it defines economics and the future of civilization itself.

The recent meeting between United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chinese President Xi Jinping was ostensibly about planning for the upcoming visit of President Donald Trump to Beijing and discussing how China can increase economic pressure on North Korea.

But these two individuals could not be more different in their motives and backgrounds. Rex Tillerson is an unprecedented secretary of state, someone with zero political, governmental, academic or diplomatic experience. As the former CEO of Exxon, Tillerson was directly involved in the cover-up of climate change and the pursuit of profits from petroleum regardless of its impact on the environment.

Since his appointment, he has been ruthless in gutting the State Department, removing any senior diplomats who might offer even the slightest resistance ― and many have quit of their own accord.

By contrast, Xi Jinping has spent his entire career in government and has an intimate understanding of policy and practice. Under his leadership, China has declared that healthcare is a human right and he has  spoken out about desertification. Read more of this post

Emanuel at Yale

Emanuel at Yale

Lowell High School is considered one of the best public high schools in the United States. Without any doubt it maintains that status because the large number of Asian Americans who study there. These students are the children of hard working Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese parents who came to the United States and put the highest value on education for their children. Those immigrants are now starting to send their children to schools like University of California, Berkeley, Stanford and increasingly (but not so much in 1983) to Yale, Harvard and Princeton.

I was a product of a previous generation. My father was the ambitious young man from a middle class Jewish family, his father was a pharmacist who was able to enter Yale through his remarkable academic ability. By the time I arrived at Yale, there were already plenty of people like me around with similar backgrounds. I was no longer the first generation to make the leap into the establishment. I was the second generation after that leap had been made.

At the same time, I was not old money. Yale’s core has been, and still is, WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) who have been at the center of power for the last two hundred years. Yale is a university with a strong orientation towards England. The museums at Yale focus primarily on English Art and the study of English history is most popular. The Yale Center for British Art is one of the great collections on campus. If not England, than France, Germany and Italy are of interest to Yale undergraduates and graduate students. Asia was very far away place from the Yale that I entered in 1983. There was a Yale in China program, but it was a novelty. Yale undergraduates saw learning about China an amusing aside in their education. Few indeed were serious about learning the language.

My father had gone to Yale and I had a multi-generational relationship with that institution. Yet I was far from feeling at home in Yale culture for other reasons than the study of East Asia. Many of the students that I met were from established WASP families and they kept a certain distance from me. Part of the problem was perhaps that I was off the established track at Yale. I was not heading towards becoming a lawyer, or a banker or a doctor.

Yale is a smaller university than Harvard or Stanford, or even Princeton. Founded in 1701, it has concentrated on educating a small elite group of students. Graduates of Yale are often deeply committed to the institution. Yale is without any doubt the best undergraduate education in the United States. Yet it is not a broad education. I do not think I could have found a better environment anywhere else to learn how to think. Yale is famous for its drama school, its school of architecture and its school of Law. The sciences are well covered, but they are not an overwhelming power on campus, as was the case at University of Illinois. The attractive campus of Yale features gothic buildings covered with ivy and quiet courtyards that makes for a most enjoyable walk. Walking around campus and enjoying the changes in season was one of my great pleasures at Yale.

Each student at Yale is assigned a “residential college.” The residential dormitory is not simply a dormitory 기숙사 .The residential colleges have long histories dating back to the 1920s when they were established, modeled on the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. There are different personalities to the residential colleges and the designs and motifs of the buildings vary. If you meet a fellow 동창 the first thing you will ask is “which college were you in.” In fact most friends of mine at Yale were from Davenport College.

When my father went to Yale in 1955, most residential colleges were closed to all but the members of privileged families. In fact, when my father started in 1955, it was the first time in Yale University history that a lottery was used to assign some of the students from middle class families to the more elite residential colleges like Davenport College. My father as a middle class Jewish boy from Brooklyn was assigned to Davenport College randomly as part of the great post-war equalization of American society. The residential colleges have suites with multiple rooms. Now we have five roommates together, but originally those extra rooms were for the servants of student. A student like my father had never been assigned to Davenport College before, the most exclusive and WASP of the Yale Colleges. Both George W. Bush, President of the United States 2001-2009 and George H. W. Bush, President 1989-1993, were residents in Davenport College. And, because of the decision to assign students by lottery, my father Peter Pastreich entered Davenport College in 1955, and so did I in 1983.

Before I arrived at the campus, I spent a few days with my father’s family in New York City getting adjusted to the East Coast culture. I had a fascination with the East Coast in high school and had a map of Manhattan on the wall of my room. But I also made a special trip out to see my mother’s cousin, Uncle Charlie, who lived in New Jersey. Uncle Charlie worked at an engineer at Bell Labs at the height of their technological expertise worldwide. When I arrived at their neat house in suburban New Jersey, he showed me with great pride the trans-Atlantic cables he had designed in the 1960s. None of them are in use today. Like my mother, Uncle Charlie had come to the United States to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities that the country offered.

Uncle Charlie had a son also who was quite driven to succeed. That son had attended Yale and done well. But he had been involved in a gathering his freshman year at which he and friends consumed some drugs. Charlie’s son died as a result. Uncle Charlie never mentioned his son when I talked to him, but I could tell that there were volumes to be told about his son who went to Yale, but never graduated. The cost of going to Yale in terms of pressures and tension can be very high indeed.

I had five roommates at Yale my freshman year. Jason Reese, a future businessman who was best known as a lacrosse athlete. Steve Podos, a pre-med from New York, Kenneth Bernstein, a political science major who went on to play a major role in Los Angeles City policy and Jefferson Mays, a history major who has become an important professional actor.

We lived in a suite of rooms in the basement of the Davenport residential college. Jeff and I shared a room and the other students had their own, slightly smaller, rooms adjacent. Jeff and I were fast friends. I am not sure what bit of luck it was, but my best friend at Yale happened to be my roommate from the very first day. In fact I sat out in front of our dormitory the first day with Jeff and his family drinking lemonade and we were good friends. We are still quite close, although we do not see each other as much these days. Jeff was an extraordinary actor who would go on to win several awards as a professional actor. He loved to draw and write, and we were constantly making up stories to amuse each other and everyone else who was interested.

Early on in our time at Yale, Jeff and I broke into the Davies Mansion, an abandoned house far out to the West of Yale University. We climbed up to the top of its tower. We were gleefully watching the whole city when we saw a police car coming right down the street towards us. The police car was most likely out on a routine patrol, but we feared we would be arrested and ran away.

We also enjoyed wandering around in Yale’s massive Sterling Library, exploring every path and back hall of one of the world’s great libraries. One day, Jeff and I went down deeper and deeper in the basement, past rows of books and reading rooms. We came to a door that was blocked and we could not open. We pushed and pushed and pushed and at last it burst open. We found ourselves in the middle of the underground café of the library with the fire alarm blaring and a hundred students staring at us. We had burst through a secure fire door without knowing it. I said to Jeff in French “Qu’est que on va faire” (what are we going to do now), as if somehow speaking in French would reduce the humiliation because those watching us could not understand.

We climbed up in Battell Chapel, next to our dormitory. Battell Chapel had a substantial tower made of stone that looked out over the city of New Haven. We climbed that tower in secret through a door we had uncovered in our exploration of the campus. We lit candles, imagining we were exploring a haunted house. We made up our own rituals and created our own traditions. You see, at Yale there have been powerful secret clubs for a long time. We were obviously not members. But we did enjoy creating our own little secret club of two.

In the early morning on our first Yale autumn, we adventured out into the broad Hillhouse Avenue, and climbed over the wall into the Grove Street Cemetery. We admired the handsome brownstone graves and a delicate carved angel before hurrying along to have a cup of coffee at Yankee Doodle, a local café that has been there for many years. I came to enjoy meeting the local people of New Haven at the Yankee Doodle Café more and more.

Our roommate Ken could be rather difficult, whining at us all the time for making too much noise, and spending all his time studying without any social interaction with us. We played a series of little pranks on him to relax a bit. One day Ken announced to all of us that he had received a birthday cake from his parents that he was placing in the refrigerator. He told us that we were not to touch his birthday cake. Jeff and I immediately took the birthday cake and hid it in the refrigerator of a friend. We then bought some brownies at the local café and brought them back. I broke up the cookies, smeared them on the plates and left the plates littered around the room. Some of the cake’s silver wrapping was placed next to the empty box on the floor. Ken returned from his studies and was deeply shocked by this scene. He rushed around yelling at us, “I can’t believe you did that!”  We then revealed that in fact his precious cake was untouched. We all broke out laughing and sat down to enjoy the real cake together.

One day, bored with my studies, I wandered into the laundry room employed by all the students in Davenport College. There was a tremendous pile of clothes that had been abandoned there. I took all of them back with him to my room. Working together with Jeff, we built a person in 30 minutes. We sewed the pants together with a shirt and stuffed them with clothes. We added shoes and gloves, and put a white plastic bag on top for a head. We drew a face on the plastic bag and placed a hat on top. We then told everyone that we had a new roommate named “Howard.” We placed Howard in various places in our room, and throughout the dormitory over the next few days, and acted as if he were a real person.

One night, Ken was being particularly difficult. We seized the opportunity. Jeff dressed me up as Howard. I put on Howard’s clothes and even put a plastic bag over my head. Then I lay down on the floor in front of Ken’s room. Jeff knocked on the door and said to Ken, “Howard wants to talk to you.” Ken was just irritated. He came out of the room and looked with distain at the dummy lying on the ground. At that very moment, I jumped up and seized Ken. Ken was petrified for a moment as the dummy came to life. He soon recovered and we laughed about it. Slowly, through these pranks, we grew closer.

One day Jeff and I came home to find Ken on the couch acting very strangely. He talked in a manner that made no sense and he seemed to be deeply intoxicated. We had never seen Ken drink and we were deeply worried. We tried to get him to come with us to the hospital, but he fought us off. The whole situation seemed so terribly wrong that we grew quite worried. Then other students from Davenport College rushed into our dorm to get a glimpse. They smiled and giggled.  Jeff and I were angry that they could laugh about something so serious. And then we discovered what the other students knew all along. Ken was not drunk at all. He was pretending to be drunk and we had been completely fooled.

Jeff played pranks on me as well. One time, he made a long tape of about thirty minutes and surreptitiously placed it in my closet. The first fifteen minutes of the tape were blank, followed by a recording of malevolent whispers and laughter which built in frequency and volume. I was hard at work studying when this weird ghost in my closet started to make those strange sounds. It was a terrifying experience for me indeed.

Jeff and I also arranged several social gatherings for our friends to discuss current issues, literature and art. The meetings were always advertised in a rather unusual, even shocking manner. We had a meeting which we advertised as “The Lizard is your Friend” and another one “Emanuel says, ‘Help save me from my paranoid room.’” We would bring our friends for drinks, for conversations, and occasionally for little plays that Jeff and I had put together.


“Korea between Scylla and Charibdis”


괘물 사이 대한 민국.jpg气候变化.jpg

Emanuel’s Early Years


My early years:  

As I think back on the environment that I grew up in, and the people that I met, I think that I was most blessed. It might even be generally proposed that the key to educating children is to create environments in which children are exposed to thoughtful and intellectually challenging people. I had two extremely well educated people I acquired have much to do not only with who my parents were, but also with the specific environment I found myself in growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States. It was an age of remarkable openness in education, when many very idealistic people dedicated themselves to education with an enthusiasm that has been unmatched. Several of my teachers put a great emphasis on creativity and inventiveness, encouraging me to imagine the world for myself.

Let us start with my own family. My paternal grandfather Benjamin Pastreich was a pharmacist in New York’s Brooklyn district. He lived a relatively simple life of running his little pharmacy and taking care of his family. He also was quite dedicated to exercise. His family was from Central Europe: Poland and Hungary. They were hard working Jews who started with no money.

I do not think of my grandfather as an intellectual, but he did have an intellectual impact on me. I did not see him often, but we did communicate frequently. He constantly wrote me letters as a young child. I remember that when I collected stamps, he took a great interest in what I was doing and would send me stamps from around the world for my collection. He went out of his way to collect them and send them along to me. I would write back to my grandfather when I reached the age of 12 or 13, and we carried on a very active correspondence. That process of communication was quite important to me because someone much older than I took such an intimate interest in what I was doing. I think the experience allowed me later in life to tell people about my ideas with confidence, assuming that they would see my ideas as valuable.

There was another elder man, Mr. Helmholz who lived just down the street from me and loved to collect stamps. I went over to his house frequently and he would give me stamps from his collection, as did my grandfather, telling me about the history of what I saw. For example, there were stamps in his collection from Germany in the 1930s that were worth a thousand, ten thousand a million Mark. He explained to me the terrible inflation of the 1920s and 1930s, which he had experienced himself as a young man. The stamps made sense as part of a long historical tapestry and I felt a greater intimacy with those pieces of paper. They were traces of something larger. That interest in my work on the part of my grandfather and Mr. Helmholz inspired me to go forward with my learning. Close relations with much older men and women was critical to my intellectual development as a child, and I think is one element often lost for younger people today.

My paternal grandmother, Hortense Davis, had a college degree from City College of New York and was a tremendous reader. A very thoughtful person, but also very determined, she put a high value on the success of her family. She took a deep interest in what I was doing from a very early date. I remember that when I was about eight years old she sent a series of books to me for me to read. The books included Two Years before the Mast and other books that were far beyond me capability to read. She somehow expected that I would be able to do just about anything, and that expectation had a profound effect on me.

The tremendous expectations of my grandmother, even more than those of my parents, influenced me tremendously. I came to feel that it was not enough to be just an ordinary kid, playing. I was somehow supposed to do something greater and more significant. I felt a constant pressure to do something extraordinary that derived from the expectations that my grandmother had for me. She also engaged me in very real and complex conversations that forced me to think and to express myself. She took me seriously as a thinker even before I deserved to be taken so seriously.

My grandmother worked as a school teacher for many years. Public service was a critical part of her life. Later on, she went on to serve as a social worker in New York City, spending her days helping poor people in the city. My father’s family had a strong sense of public service and commitment to social service in various forms. For example, my father’s brother, my uncle, Billy dedicated his life to helping poor people and immigrants.

I never knew my maternal grandfather 외할아버지 Louis Rouff. I have a picture of him holding me as an infant of six months. That picture was taken when I visited Europe with my mother to meet my extended family. He died not too much after that, so I cannot describe him first hand. My mother’s family is from Luxembourg and were devout Catholics with a family tree stretching far back (unlike my father’s family which I cannot trace). My grandfather had first planned to become a Jesuit, and studied hard as a young man. He ended up working as a bureaucrat 공무원  in the 세무청 of Luxembourg. He rose to a high level. However, during the Second World War, he refused to enter the Nazi Party and was severely punished by the government for his actions. Germany took over Luxembourg and treated it as a province at the time. He could not work for five years and suffered any number of humiliations as he tried to feed five children. My grandfather was admitted back into government after the war and retired as a senior staff member of the tax department shortly before his son-in-law, Jean Olinger, became the Director of the Internal Revenue Service. As a child I knew nothing of my maternal grandfather, and had no real interest in him, but later in my life he became an important figure for me, a man who had strong beliefs and was willing to sacrifice himself for them.

My maternal grandmother Catherine von Roesgen I never met. An imaginative woman, who was not well educated, she devoted her time to creating a special environment in her home for her children. She loved gardening and creating a beautiful interior in her home. The von Roesgen were originally nobility, although they had fallen on hard times by the generation of my grandmother.

As a young girl she received a camera as a gift from her aunt and godmother and taught herself to become a skilled photographer. She and her brother built a darkroom where she developed her prints on glass plates. She gathered together family members and friends into ” tableaux vivants,” or dramatic scenes. She would have us dress up as gypsies, or create romantic or fantastic scenes at the farm. Other pictures that remain include family scenes such as picnic  outdoors, playing chess by the pond, or herding in the geese.  Her daughter, my aunt Jeanne Rouff, has the entire collection of prints and glass plates.  In 1997 my aunt arranged for a complete retrospective of my grandmother’s work at a gallery in Luxembourg.

She was the person who inspired my mother to become an artist later on, and my extension impacted my own intellectual and emotional growth.  My maternal grandmother grew her own food and believed strongly in nutrition. She also spent her days reading, creating her own little universe in Luxembourg, a nation of rain and clouds that was quite economically depressed in those days. She was stubborn in her ways and never adjusted herself to the modern world. She was killed by an automobile when she crossed the road without looking to see what was coming. That was her personality, still clinging to a world that had already past.

Obviously all of my family traditions were filtered down to me through my parents. My father, Peter Pastreich, had the most obvious impact on me growing up. He also had high expectations for me, like my grandmother. He never told me to study or to work hard. I just knew that is what was expected of me. He also held me up to a high standard as child. My father would sit me down and  read to me rather complex adult books with me long before I had the capability to understand them. But the books we read, like the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe and the Sherlock Holmes series of Arthur Conan Doyle were fascinating to me and I longed for a time I could read them myself. I was trying to read for myself novels from third grade, even if I could not fully understand the content.

My father was an exceptional student from a young age who excelled in both learning and his work. He studied at a public school in New York City and was admitted to both Harvard and Yale at the young age of 16. That was extremely difficult feat for someone who did not come from a traditional preparatory school at that time (1955). My father studied medicine, but was so capable that he was able to master French language as well. He took a year off to study in Paris, France, his third year, and he met my mother there. He then turned more to music and literature, eventually dropping out of medical school to pursue a career in music administration.

My father is both a well-read and thoughtful intellectual and at the same time a very effective administrator who reads broadly in the literature of business administration and lectures on non profit administration frequently. He can both write well and read carefully and administer organizations and respond to political and economic challenges.

My father served as the executive director of the Saint Louis Symphony (where I grew up) from 1966-1978 and the San Francisco Symphony from 1978-1999. He is now executive director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco, a smaller symphony dedicated to authentic reproduction of early classical music. I perceived my father as a remarkable figure in his work, doing things so much more effectively than I could do so that I doubted I could ever come close to what he had achieved. He thought me much and was the driving force, is the driving force, in my career. But he never told me to study and never put direct pressure on me. I just knew from how well he did his job that I was expected to do a similarly good job as well myself.

In terms of my early education, my father read with me, always a little higher than my own intellectual development. He took me to concerts and museums constantly to show me the full range of intellectual opportunities that lay before us. He also explained to me his work as a matter of fact. He assumed that I could understand the details of finance and marketing, administration and politics that went into running a complex organization, one that interacted with government, industry, research institutions, unions and wealthy donors. The stories he told me from his work helped me to comprehend the full complexity of human experience and I felt as if I could play a role in his work. He would ask me for my opinion and suggest that he would follow up on my suggestions. I am not sure, thinking back now, that he actually did anything based on the opinions of a ten year old, but I gained great confidence from the experience.

He never said that he wanted me to go to Yale University. I think that if there was any hint of his expectations, it came merely from the assumed level of education required to carry on a conversation with him. That was his strategy, I believe, to constantly demand of me through our conversations, and later our letters, a profound understanding of the world and its traditions that I had to live up to that expectation. I think the approach is the best way to teach, especially to teach one’s children. The important point is that such an approach to teaching requires one to hold oneself to a high standard. One cannot be lazy in teaching one’s children. Better for the father to read books constantly and never tell her children to study than for her to constantly to yell at them for not studying while she watches TV and gossips with his friends.

My mother, Marie Louise Rouff, is an extremely independent woman: extremely well read, creative, hard working, honest and imaginative. She is less of an administrator and more of a free spirit, but she is also quite capable of working together with a variety of people on projects. In my childhood she serves a traditional mother role and did not try to impress upon me her erudition or her talents. I think it was only much later that I noticed just how educated my mother really was, and for that lack of attention to herself I have great respect for my mother.

She created an environment for us, as children, that was unique. She told us stories, took us on trips and most importantly of all, described what is unique, beautiful and significant about our world. She taught us to see through her efforts. And she was always busy reading and later, painting. So she also taught us that it is not enough to just sit around and watch TV. One must do things and grow as an individual through that process.

My mother made Indian food for us as children. You see, she had married an Englishman and lived in India for five years when she was very young. That was the time that she first left Luxembourg and entered into the big world. She had little Indian statues of the elephant god Ganesh and other gods on her desk that I remember vividly. She was the creative figure in the family, leaving little signs, whether flowers cut from the garden or carefully arranged art in the living room, that this was not just any home.

My mother was working as a translator in Paris when she met my father there. She has a degree in translation from the Sorbonne for translation between French, German and English, and to this day has a remarkable command of all three languages. She also has an MA in French literature from Middlebury College, where I also studied Japanese and German over the summer.

Later on my mother became a full-time painter, working out of her studio day and night. She had not been trained as a painter at all, but she soon proved herself to have the determination to make something of herself. She has had many successful shows and now is quite well recognized. But in fact, she started as an artist when I was only about 10 years old. Before that, she had made our own family life a work of art.


Emanuel as a child:

I was born in Nashville Tennessee, a place best known for country music and beautiful wide roads lined with trees. I do not remember anything of that time of my life, as we moved to Kansas City, Missouri when I was about 10 months old.

My parents made me a traveler from an early age. At the age of 3 weeks they bundled me up and took me by plane to meet my grandmother Hortense. She was delighted to see me, but shocked that my parents would take a three-week old baby on the plane just to see her. At six months I was taken to Europe to see my mother’s family. And I took many other trips thereafter. In fact, often when my father went to New York City on business, he would take me with him. I would stay with my grandmother exploring New York City, while my father went to his meeting. But on occasion, I would come along with my father on his business meetings as well. My father always introduced me to the people he did business with as if I were an important person. That made a deep impression on me.

I am told that my aunt Marianne came from Luxembourg to take care of me when I was an infant. She insisted that I should become accustomed to the cold weather and would wrap me out and take me outside no matter how cold it was. She took me for long walks in the dead of winter. Perhaps for that reason, I have come to enjoy winter. It is perhaps my favorite season.

My mother tells me that when we drove from Nashville to Kansas City, for my father’s new job, I cheered them both up because I enjoyed the drive so much. It seems that travelling, watching the world go by, was fascinating to me at that age, and it still it. My parents rented a large house near Loose Park in Kansas City and my father worked for the Kansas City Symphony as an executive director. My mother taught French. When my mother came home, she took me to Loose Park when I enjoyed crawling on the grass next to the pond. I started to walk in that park on exactly my first birthday. I carefully balanced myself, walking slowly, quite delighted and clearly enjoying the astonishment and pleasure you saw on my mother’s face.

My mother tells me that from infancy I was a very outgoing child, curious about all things going on around me. She says that I would try just about any food offered, even if I did not end up liking it much. I would sit for thirty minutes to an hour just staring at a stone or an insect, she tells me. Even before the age of one I was so absorbed in my own world that there was no need to entertain or distract me for my mother.

My mother says there was considerable amount of independence on my part from a very early stage. She would come down the hall to my room in the morning and find that I had been up from early in the morning playing happily with my toys—I was happy to see my parents but did not call out or ask for their attention.

My mother spoke to me in only French for the first two years of my life. My first word was “fleur” (꽃). I was becoming quite fluent. But when we next moved to Saint Louis, none of my friends spoke French and the language seemed quite useless to me. I started answering my mother in English, and within a short period of time, I had forgotten how to speak that language. My mother gave up and spoke English with me.

Later I would greatly regret that I had not made more of an effort to learn French. I had that opportunity to be bilingual and I lost it. All further efforts to learn languages would be more painful. But as I would learn later in life from a medical test that I have in fact language on both the right and left side of the brain—no doubt a result of that early encounter with the French language.

I spent a lot of time with my mother from a very young age. She was not working and took me everywhere. My mother treated me not so much as a baby, but rather as her close friend. She tells me that she would take me out for long walks in the carriage, and she would talk to me constantly about just about any topic.

We lived in Saint Louis in a very attractive quiet neighborhood just across the boulevard from Washington University, a major Midwestern institution. The neighborhood was known as Parkview and was filled with a mixture of professors and professionals. There was a poet named Howard Nemerov who lived here, and his son Alex was a good friend of mine. Howard Nemerov was named Poet Laureate of the United States. He wrote a poem entitled “Walking Down Westgate Street in the Morning.” Our house was on Westgate Street. Stanley Elkin, a famed writer of novels, including such classics as “The Bailbondsman,” also lived on Westgate Street and his son Bernie was a close friend of my brother Michael.

The houses in Parkview were built in the 1920s and are surrounded by large sycamore trees and wide lawns. The neighborhood was full of children to play with. I tend to think it was an ideal environment to grow up in. The United States in the early seventies was in the midst of a great experiment. President Lyndon Johnson had declared a “War on Poverty” and there were many people dedicated to reducing the gaps between white people and black people, between rich and poor, in our country. In my school, Delmar-Harvard Elementary School, we had classes in which a remarkable balance between working class blacks and more educated whites from the university and other professions were maintained. University City was split between blacks and whites exactly 50/50.

When I started school it seemed as if we were all coming together as one society. That ideal would fall apart in the next decade and gaps would grow more significant. Today most everyone in the United States has given up on trying to bring together people from all walks of life to form a better society. And most students from wealthy families no longer attend Delmar Harvard Elementary School. In fact, the school will be closed in 2011.

The early 1970s was both an age of both disillusionment with the Vietnam War and of hope for what we could do to improve the world. Many of my elementary school teachers were deeply idealistic and wanted to make a real difference in the world through their teaching. They had a profound impact on who I have become. That link of education to a vision of a better society remains with me today. I have gone forward from that date with the assumption that I can contribute to society in a positive way through my actions. I always feel that there are little things that I can do to make the world a bit better for all of us. It never is acceptable for me to just resign myself to how things are, or to do things for my own self-interest.

Parkview was located in the development called University City which is adjacent to Washington University. University City was founded by Edward Gardner Lewis, an idealist who wished to create a utopia in Saint Louis. Some of those utopian ideas were still present for me as a child in the carefully designed city planning and the remarkable openness between people in University City. As children we would run from one house to another and learn from the parents of the children living there. For example, Dr. Coben, father of my friend Rachel Coben, who would join us, with his wife Sandy, when we came over to play, and tell us fascinating stories, or explain his work as a medical doctor. Dr. MacGavaran, father of my friend Jennifer MacGavaran, was also a doctor who had grown up in India and would care for our animals when they were sick. His wife Ursula, took us on field trips and made us feel at home in her home full of dogs, cats and even a peacock. Ursula was constantly making up stories for us and entertaining us and teaching us.

Next door to me was the home of the Dreshers. Their son, Parky, was a good friend of mine who introduced me to army men and war (my mother was a pacifist who wanted to keep toy guns away from me). Parky’s father was a lawyer who would sit out in the afternoon when he returned from work to tell us stories and about his work. There was a group of six or seven children who would run around together from house to house.  I think there was a culture then in which we could learn much from the previous generation, and a great openness of exchange.

I remember vividly Mr. Helmholz who lived at the end of Westgate Street. He was an older man who had emigrated from Germany in his youth and struggled to adjust to life in the United States. He took me down in his basement and showed me his stamp collection. I was an avid collector. He would offer me some of his stamps for my collection. They were stamps he had brought over from Germany. He explained to me the terrible inflation of that time when he showed me the stamps from Germany with denominations of 100,000, 1,000,000 and more Marks.

My father loved animals and bought any number of them for me. I think the first thing that I collected was animals. Along with my brother Michael, we had a dog, then two dogs. We had a series of cats, gerbils and hamsters. I also had a turtle and a beautiful sleek indigo snake that I kept in a long wooden cage with a Plexiglas window not far from my bed in my bedroom. I would pick up and play with the snake frequently, treating the snake as many children would treat a cat or dog. One day the indigo snake escaped. We could not find it anywhere. Eventually, my father found it in the attic of the house, and after much effort, captured it. He had to crawl up through a trap door in the top of a closet to catch the snake.

I would later have two other snakes, two iguanas and numerous fish. I also kept a crayfish as a pet. I had caught the crayfish out in the wilderness and was fascinated by its shape. It seemed like a robot. I went to the library next to my school and checked out books about crayfish and crabs and other 갑각류. When the first crayfish died, I was deeply traumatized. I caught another crayfish which was much larger the next time we went to the woods. One day that crayfish also disappeared. I did not know what happened to it. But when we moved many years later, we found its crushed shell under the rug spread under the dining room table. Animals were always trying to escape.

I caught the crayfish at Cardinal Acres. My parents rented a little cabin for our family in a small group of houses in the wilderness, a place called Cardinal Acres. We would go there, the four of us, for weekends, and for holidays like Thanksgiving. We also had some friends who joined us out there with their families. The cabin was located near a fresh flowing river called the Jack’s Fork River that teemed in the summer with fish, crayfish, turtles and snakes. Our family would ride canoes together and my brother and I would try to catch just about every animal we saw. Every time we saw a turtle on a log, we were after it. My father loved to catch animals in this manner and helped us. We would camp overnight, sleeping out under the stars. I also explored caves along the river with my father from time to time.

I formed a tooth club up in the attic of our garage on Westgate when I was about eight years old. Andy Fineberg, a friend from the end of the block whose father designed planes for MacDonald Douglass, and Jennifer MacGaveran, from next door, and a few other children joined. We made a rule that only those with plastic teeth (which you could only get by buying a certain kind a candy at the candy store) could enter the tooth club. We made up all sorts of other rules about who could and could not come up into the attic to play with us. We would climb up in great secrecy to discuss our plans.

I had a sandbox in the backyard where I would make tremendous castles and tunnels. It was my own special space for creation, although I shared it with my brother Michael from time to time. Sand, like Legos, is a wonderful tool to explore what is possible, to understand that we are only limited by our ability to imagine. Later, my mother built a tree house over the sandbox that we could climb up in. I spent several nights up there in the summer as an experiment. The early morning out there in the tree house, watching the cats come out and hearing the birds sing, had a magic quality for me that I remember to this day.

One of my teachers at Delmar Harvard stands out in my memory for his innovations in teaching and his commitment to his students. I often thought of that teacher I had for fourth and fifth grade, Mr. Pat Dugan, especially after I had become a teacher myself. He raised animals with us and taught us about the importance of nature. He made up special projects for us and constantly reinforced in us the sense that we had a responsibility as citizens of the world. We learned about magnetism and electricity through careful experiments that Mr. Dugan designed. Mr. Dugan had carefully planned everything out, but it felt to us always as if we were making up the projects ourselves. He had a genius for stimulating the curiosity of children.

Mr. Dugan kept all his students in one big room. It is amazing to me now to think that he managed to control both the fourth and fifth grades in this manner and inspire us to learn. Whether drawing pictures, observing animals or practicing mathmatics, we constantly were kept busy. Taking tests was part of the class, but I really do not think that tests were the focus of Mr. Dugan’s class. Learning was the focus of his class.

One of the projects I started in Mr. Dugan’s class was a series of plans, drawings and descriptions for what my friend David Soda and I called “Salmon City.” We started this project as a description of a special route by which Salmon could climb up and get around a dam through a series of water locks. But as we started writing, we started to imagine hotels for the salmon, restaurants for the salmon, movie theaters, police stations and a whole elaborate world to support the salmon. We wrote about Salmon City for weeks, coming up with hundreds of plots and drawings. It became our own world. Ultimately the theme we were being taught was the environment. Mr. Dugan taught us to teach ourselves through such games.

And another important influence on me as a child was my Aunt Jeanne, my mother’s older sister. Aunt Jeanne served in succession as the first woman lawyer, the first woman judge, and eventually the first woman member of the Supreme Court in Luxembourg. I went to visit her home on vacations over the summer, and my brother and I even stayed with her for a month on vacation. My aunt was a tremendous reader and thinker. Not only did she read voraciously, she was also deeply engaged in society. I remember distinctly how she sat down with me to explain extremely complex issues in a comprehensible and considerate manner. She seemed constantly to be seeking my opinion, even when I was ten years old. Only much later did it occur to me just how much she actually knew about the world. I still remember most vividly the walls of her office at home, covered with books on every topic and her neat and tidy office at the Supreme Court of Luxembourg.

My parents were divorced when I was in the fifth grade. I would not say that the divorce itself was traumatic for me, but it did introduce considerable instability into my life for a period of years. I have no regrets about the results. I have come to believe that it is healthy to have one’s life stirred up every so often and it is an essential part of learning and growing.

My mother decided to move into downtown Saint Louis, into a neighborhood called Benton Park that was somewhat run down and poorly maintained, but had many very attractive homes The homes were from the late 19th century, although in some cases even earlier, made of brick. The neighborhood had been settled by German people 150 years ago.

I think my mother was attracted to these old brick houses because they reminded her of the Europe she had left behind. She bought a much abused old house that she had a vision of restoring. It had been split up into little apartments and she wanted to make it a grand single-family home again. I became part of that great project. We opened up the fire places, make the third floor livable, uncovered and polished the hardwood floors and otherwise brought life back to this ruin of a house. It was an exciting experience for me as a child, and gave me some sense of how we can create something new just through our own creative actions.

My mother worked as a real estate agent during this period. But she also ran an art gallery called “Gallerie Rouff” in the fashionable West End neighborhood of Saint Louis. I met many artists through her events, just as I met many musicians through my father’s work. We would go to the openings, my brother and I, and serve wine to the guests who came. My mother was not a great businesswoman, but she kept trying and kept experimenting with art. My brother and I were sometimes frustrated by her efforts, but we were also impressed by her courage. That experience taught me that we can create our own world if we just have the will.

I saw myself as having a duty to help fix these broken down houses and tell the world about the beautiful past it was leaving behind in pursuit of the mindless modern. I felt so strongly about the value of these old homes that were run down and poorly maintained. So I started taking pictures of hundreds of those old houses so that there would be historical records of them. I also wanted to persuade people of their value by documenting them. I talked to many adults about the importance of historic preservation and made up my own arguments, even made my own materials, to persuade them. It was a mixture of certain idealism with a desire to know, to understand. That combination has always been at the core of my learning.

My mother also had the tremendous idea to launch something called “ART PARK,” a public event that brought together artists and non artists from the neighborhood to create inspiring temporary installations of art in parks throughout the city. The city of Saint Louis’s Arts and Humanities Commission supported the idea with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Community Development Agency to carry out the project, to great success. My mother eventually worked as the Director of Neighborhood Arts Councils for the city.

After my parents were divorced, I traveled with my mother and brother to Matinicus Island, Main for two summers. The island is far of the coast from the city of Rockland. It was a two-day car ride from our home in Saint Louis to Rockland. We had problems with the tires, which kept going flat, and Michael and I learned to roll out the spare tire quickly.   We jacked up the car, replaced the tire and were on our way again in a few minutes. It was a team effort. My mother tells me, “Looking back it was the first long trip with my children that I took alone and I was very much afraid and nervous about getting lost. Emanuel had the map and somehow we made it to Maine. Again there was something steady about Emanuel that gave me the confidence to strike out with you. I did rely on Emanuel perhaps more than his years warranted, but this may have given him early on a sense of competence.”

Once we were on the island, Michael went out to explore every inch of the place. We met the lobster fishermen and went out with them to pull up the lobster traps. We spent hours and hours on the rocks outside of our house looking for crabs and other sea creatures. It was a marvelous adventure. We collected mussels from the rocks, raspberries, blueberries and gooseberries from the meadows.

When we lived in the city, in a Benton Park, there was a young man named Timothy Lambert, probably about 27 at the time, who lived next door. Timothy worked fixing up the house next door, which had been bought by the Fineberg family—our neighbors in Parkview. He was a great scholar and a good friend to me. When he was not fixing the house, he was reading novels and histories, or preparing for his study group on Dante which he ran together with John Dobson. John Dobson was the head of the small firm that repaired homes. They had helped with our home as well. You could say they were repairmen philosophers. I spent every hour I could over with Timothy. He told me about every aspect of philosophy and literature that he studied. He explained to me concepts like “symbolism” and led me to look for symbols in the texts I read. He was a great fan of military history and taught me to play a variety of military games. We practiced playing out on boards famous battles of 18th century Europe and the American Civil War. Again, I learned by just being around him and listening to him talk as he plastered the walls. Much better than studying for tests, which we often forget quickly.

When I moved out to California to live with my father in 1979, my interest in architecture grew even stronger. I wanted most desperately to be an architect who would restore the old houses, or at least build new houses that were as attractive as those of old. I still have hundreds of drawings and floor plans for traditional houses that I produced during that period. Most of the materials are not about existing houses, but rather imagined Victorian age mansions that I had designed myself. Designing for myself homes was a critical part of my experience of architecture. Only by creating my own houses could I be assured that I had internalized the concept. I learned about that time about a group of fantastic Victorian mansions that had long been destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and spent my time in San Francisco conducting research on them. There was a historical society about a thirty minute walk from my father’ house and I went almost every day during vacation to find pictures of the old, long vanished houses. I made floor plans for what I thought the houses must have looked like as part of the process and wrote a book about the ancient homes. I was set to be an architect.

My freshman year in high school I signed up for mechanical drawing as the first step towards becoming an architect. I had created so many drawings over the last few years that I was certain it would be a fun class. In the end I had to drop the class before I failed it completely. The mechanical drawing class was based on one’s ability to copy letters meticulously and to draw quickly the assigned forms without any smudges or crooked lines. I was almost incapable of doing so. I have terrible coordination and my writing, even today, is rather hard to read even for me. The experience of taking a class in mechanical drawing and having to drop it was rather traumatic for me. I did not draw much after that. I also assumed, mistakenly, that I could never become an architect.

Lowell High School was about 75% Asian. The largest group was Chinese American, and I had the most Chinese American friends. But there were also Japanese, Koreans, Philippians and Vietnamese. In a sense, my time at Lowell High School was the beginning of my study in Asia. I became accustomed to being the only Caucasian in the room from that time. In fact, I feel most comfortable working with Asians today because of that experience. Being the only Caucasian in a room full of Asians is my natural state. Asia was very far away from the European culture that I had been exposed to before that time, so the adjustment was large. My father was executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, so I was surrounded with French and German culture at home.

I was also blessed with a few extraordinary teachers in high school who helped me on my path towards greater things. For example Ms. Lee Anne Torlakson was my English teacher and a great inspiration. She is a woman who cares deeply about learning, and when I talked to her just recently on the phone, her enthusiasm remains unabated. She made such tremendous demands of me in terms of my writing and my interpretation of what I read. We were constantly given assignments to read literature, such as Shakespeare, and comment on what we wrote in detail. Ms. Torlakson then wrote extensive comments on our writings, explaining the aspects of the text we had not understood. She also graded us for content (our ideas) and style (the quality of our writing). We were forced to hold ourselves to a very high level in both through her instruction. Papers that were well written but had little content would have that weakness pointed out, as would papers that had fascinating content, but were poorly written.

Equally important for me in my education were the other students at Lowell High School. My close friend Michael Malione, who would eventually go to Harvard, often invited me over to his house. He also was a very driven student, but also interested in learning about the world. We did our own chemistry experiments together when no one was around, occasionally blowing things up. We made videos in which we explained the universe, as if we were running a science program for children. With the support of the chemistry teacher Mr. Briggs, we started the science club which gathered together capable students interested in science frequently to learn more about the world around us. Above all, we learned from each other.

Another friend, John McDonald, founded the astronomy club to promote the learning about the universe. We used his telescope to observe the planets and stars, and on occasion he gave short lectures for us on astronomy. John went on to be a professional astronomer. He now works at University of California, Berkeley, and I hear from him on occasion. I remember vividly walking along the beach with John in high school, talking about the world around us and imagining what we might do together in the future.

But perhaps our biggest success was the Philosophy Club, founded with the additional help of Emily Murase, a Japanese American who is now quite active in San Francisco education politics, and Steve Rothblatt, an advocate for human rights globally today. The Philosophy Club consisted of events for students to meet off campus and debate intellectual issues. We also had presentations by members and readings in works of history and literature. In some ways it approached a class in its own right, but one that was entirely voluntary. We joined Philosophy Club because we were interested and we worked hard at it because we believed in it.

Over time, my interests shifted away from architecture and towards literature. Perhaps it was my failure in mechanical drawing that made me doubt that I could pursue that career. My father even made a special effort to introduce me to successful architects, but it I did not shift away from my position. In fact, I would not take an interest in documenting and saving old buildings until 2010 when I started to think about how we could help to make the city of Daejeon into a more livable and culturally enjoyable city. At the time, the shift towards literature was critical for my intellectual development for it led me to think deeply about language, a step necessary to learn foreign languages.

I became a member of the Lowell High School literary magazine “The Myriad” my junior year of high school. A group of about ten students were members of this journal and met regularly to review the submissions of poetry and short stories that they received. It is remarkable now to think back on how many students at Lowell were active writing in high school. I enjoyed the debates over literature held there. In fact, only a few poems that I wrote were ever accepted. I think the other students simply did not like my style of writing. Even after I won a national prize for my poetry in my senior year the other students of Myriad did not pay much attention to my writings. I learned the literature is not a democratic thing. I have always been slightly different than the other students, but at the same time, I wanted always to be involved in student activities, to be a member of the team.

I spent the summer after my junior year in France, 1982,  working hard to master French. I had lost the invaluable opportunity to learn French as a child, and now I had decided I would not make the same mistake again. I was in Paris for six weeks hard at work at a language school studying French language. This time I took the grammar seriously. I lived with a French family so that I could speak French all day long, and I sought out every possible opportunity to learn more of the language. My father had given me a list of friends he had in Paris and I sought out every one of them. I even went to see the woman who had been my father’s home stay mother when he was in Paris in 1958. The thrill of living abroad was considerable and my ability in French improved notably. But at the same time, I found France a bit too familiar. My father and mother had lived in France. My parents were extremely fluent and well-read in French. No matter how hard I worked, I would not reach that level, I thought. I had to try something different.

I have not said anything about the application process to universities because in fact, although I did study a bit for the SATs and the AP tests (back in 1982) I do not have any particular unique skills to offer in terms of test taking. I did well on the tests, but I did not have perfect scores. Nor did I devote that much time to preparation for the tests. If anything, I would say that I did well because of the breadth of my interests and readings, my work in both literature and science, rather than any particular strategy for preparation. My father was most proud that I was admitted to Yale, but he did not at any time insist that I had to go to that school. The goal was a broad education, more than anything else.


My study of Asian Languages

There are not that many Americans who are highly fluent in an Asian language, many fewer who are fluent in two or more. When I was a professor in the United States, I was often irritated when people referred to me as the person who could speak Chinese, Japanese and Korean. I guess I thought that knowing those languages was not my greatest skill or accomplishment, but rather just one consequence of a specific plan that extended over thirty years.

I grew up in the Mid West, St. Louis, to be precise. There was not much of Asia around me then. Of course there was the Lantern House, the Chinese restaurant that we ate at on occasion. I enjoyed that food. And the owners, the Wongs, lived across the alley from us. And there were two adopted Korean kids who were in my class for two years in elementary school. But there was not much of Asia in my life.

I made the fateful decision to go and live with my father in San Francisco back in 1979 and ended up at Lowell High School. Lowell was an extremely competitive public school that placed many students in good colleges and my father thought it was the best place for me. I think his judgment was correct. Again, I did not take any Asian languages, although they were offered, and I had only the most vague interest in Asian culture. I did have many close Asian American friends and most importantly, I came to feel entirely natural and comfortable surrounded by Asians. There are plenty of reasons why I have felt lonely at times living in Japan, or China or Korea, but it was most definitely not because of some ethnic sense of belonging.

When I arrived at Yale, I took a course in French literature which turned out to be a bit more difficult than I had thought. I struggled to keep up, and I am sure that I would eventually have hit my pace, but the more profound truth was that I did not find it all that interesting. It was predictable for me to study French literature, just as my father and mother had done. I also felt that no matter how hard I tried, I would never learn it as well as a native speaker like my mother.

I decided to drop the course and started a list of promising courses from the course catalog. After reading over the descriptions, I decided to attend “Classical Chinese literature in translation.” The course was taught by Kang-I Sun, a very enthusiastic young women who had just finished her Ph.D. at Princeton University. She took me under her arm and encouraged me to take the course. She also took time to read with me ancient Chinese poems and discuss Chinese philosophy.

Yale at that time was a unique environment. There were few majors in Chinese literature and the faculty made a special effort to cultivate us. I was starting to see that somehow there was a future in the study of Chinese, and was even starting to feel a sense of mission. Read more of this post

A dangerous game: Losing the chain of accountability through Korea-US-Japan missile defense and intelligence integration

A dangerous game: Losing the chain of accountability through Korea-US-Japan missile defense and intelligence integration

Emanuel Pastreich

Circles and Squares

The THAAD anti-missile system deployment and the recent intelligence sharing program between Korea and Japan are often linked in people’s minds in the sense that they are major shifts in military policy, but the larger implications are lost.

To start with, the overwhelming drive behind these changes, and many other shifts in security and diplomatic policy, is an effort to build a solid alliance between the United States, South Korea and Japan as a response to threats from North Korea and to deter an increasingly aggressive China. Many experts believe that THAAD plays no role in deterring North Korea’s missiles but only serves as a serious irritant to China that will leave us one day quite nostalgic for the days when a peace loving China had under 300 nuclear weapons (as is the case now) rather than ten thousand or more. China is one sixth of the world’s population and so essential a part of the global economy that the very concept of containment suggests a deeply flawed understanding of the extremely limited scale of the American economy.

But we overlook the more serious problems that lurk behind these institutional changes. Our primary concern should be with accountability and transparency. The THAAD and overall the anti-missile system is reportedly about stopping nuclear missiles from coming in from North Korea to attack South Korea, Japan and the United States. But in fact the THAAD system, combined with other elements of a comprehensive missile defense system for the United States and military allies in Northeast Asia, and throughout the world, is first and foremost about identifying a missile launch and taking the first step launch a counter missile to shoot it down. Whether the counter missile works is not so important as the act of launching the missile to attack which is an act of war. In effect, the integrated missile defense system is the place at which hostile acts by other nations (North Korea, China and Russia are generally assumed to be those nations, although only North Korea is mentioned in the media) are identified as such and the first step towards war is taken.

What if the hostile act is in fact a mistake, or even an intentional misreading of the other nation’s actions?  This issue is extremely serious and should be at the center of the debate—yet all we get it an eerie silence.

Even more important is the question of how the decision is made to start hostile actions. The increasing integration of military activities between the United States, South Korea and Japan are establishing precedents for how an emergency would be handled. So far the prospects of avoiding a mistake are not good. To start with, how would a decision to engage in hostile actions start out? Well, in an ideal world, the information about an enemy launch from North Korea (or China) would be conveyed to the President of the United States (Trump) and he would confer with the heads of state of Japan and Korea and they would decide together.

I doubt anyone thinks this is what would happen. Increasingly it looks like the United States would make the decision, based on its own information without any review of that information by the Koreans or Japanese. But because it is missile defense, this decision would need to be made in minutes and there would be no possibility even for careful review within the United States. That is the real danger of the missile defense system: although it is not effective at stopping missiles, it makes it easy to quickly start a global war without proper consultation or accountability.

But let us go a bit further in this sticky matter. Would President Trump be the one to start military action? Well, according to the constitution he would be, but that document does not mean much in contemporary American politics. Now with Secretary of Defense Mattis openly defying him and large sections of the military in open revolt against his regime, it is not at all certain that the White House would be the one to determine whether the US goes to war.

I will not pretend to know how a supposed missile launch from North Korea or China would be interpreted as an act of war that merited hostile military action, but there is dangerous ambiguity that the decision would be made within the US military without any transparency or accountability to the people, or even the rulers, of the United States, Japan or South Korea.

We need to consider this issue in terms of the new agreements on intelligence sharing. Of course if there was a clear threat and the sharing of intelligence between the US and Japan, between the US and Korea and between Japan and Korea was a way for those working on the same problem to cooperate effectively in sharing information, then there would be a strong logic there. But is that what we are looking at? I doubt it.

To start with, the actual process of sharing intelligence is not at all transparent and we do not know from looking at the actual signed agreement what actually will be done. The concern for all of us should be rather that the United States, South Korea and Japan are passing over the process of deciding to take military action to an opaque and unaccountable system.

There are precedents for such behavior in the past. The First World War raged out of control at the start because a series of secret diplomatic agreements between the nations of Europe (which had never been revealed to the citizens of those nations) dictated the manner that Germany, France England Russia and Austro-Hungary should respond to the crisis. There was no space, no option for negotiations or even including experts in the decision-making process.

So are these intelligence-sharing agreements the equivalent of the secret diplomacy that dragged Europe into World War One? I fear that the parallels are significant. If intelligence is about a better understanding of the situation on the ground, then the process must be open. But from what I have been told (and I do not have any access to the actual classified agreements) it looks like each nation is being placed in a straightjacket whereby the decision to commence hostile actions is obscured and kept away not only from the people, but also from the leaders themselves.

Finally, we should not consider this situation to be merely a matter of bad policies. We are wrestling with technology itself. Increasingly these weapons systems have become automated, leaving humans out of the decision-making process altogether. It has been assumed that automation of the weapons system is a positive—but there is no evidence for that claim. As we know from the Cuban Missile crisis, what kept that incident from spinning out of control was the decisions of individual military officers in the United States and Russia. Such accountability is critical for our survival.

The media has spent endless hours hyping up the danger of a nuclear missile attack from North Korea, but passed over these extremely serious issues in complete silence. There is, in my opinion, a greater risk of a misinterpretation of some event as a hostile attack from North Korea leading to a global war than there is a risk of North Korea actually launching an attack.

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