[Roundtable]Taking a soft approach to national power

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[Roundtable]Taking a soft approach to national power

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Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, center, talks with Kim Young-hie, left, editor-at-large of the JoongAng Ilbo, and Yim Sung-joon, right, president of the Korea Foundation, Wednesday at the Plaza Hotel in Seoul. By Kim Sang-seon

The incoming administration needs to take advantage of Korea’s “soft power” -- its ample experience in promoting democracy and human rights and its cultural influence -- to draw North Korea closer to reunification, according to Joseph Nye, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Nye, who served as the United States assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs during the Bill Clinton administration, is a pioneer of the so-called soft power theory of international relations, which emphasizes the influence of culture and ideas rather than economic or military incentives.
Nye visited Seoul earlier this week to meet with Korea’s President-elect Lee Myung-bak and take part in seminars hosted by the Korea Foundation. At the end of his three-day visit, Nye sat with Kim Young-hie, a senior JoongAng Ilbo journalist, and Yim Sung-joon, the president of the Korea Foundation and a former ambassador.

Kim: President Roh Moo-hyun was elected five years ago partially due to a wave of anti-American sentiment. His government expectedly has pursued a nationalistic parity relationship with the United States, causing tensions between Seoul and Washington. What change do you expect in Korea-U.S. relations with the incoming government in Seoul?
Nye: My impression from meeting with President-elect Lee is that one of his priorities is to strengthen U.S.-Korea relations, and I think this will be very important because the common interests and common values shared by South Korea and the United States remain very strong. We have had difficulties in the past, but I had said even a few years ago when some people claimed that the U.S.-Korea alliance was finished that I did not believe it, because we have too much in common. Korea, for example, will always be caught between two giants ― China and Japan ― and it is very useful for Korea to have the ability to borrow the power of a country far away to seek local balance. In addition to that, Korea is a great success story in democracy and human rights. So I was very reassured by the statements of the president-elect that it is one of his priorities.
Kim: One vital step down the road to North Korea’s nuclear dismantlement is stalled by the thorny problem of Pyongyang’s declaration of its nuclear programs. Is President Bush so determined to gain a diplomatic point before the end of his term that he may compromise with the principle of complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programs, rewarding North Korea with normalized relations?
Nye: I don’t think President Bush will compromise unless he has agreements with other six-party talk nations. If Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing all agree on policies, Washington then will think it may make sense. That ultimate objective cannot be achieved immediately. What we need to keep in mind is to prevent North Korea from producing any more nuclear weapons, so there are a lot of tactical questions that have to be solved as we seek our ultimate objective. And the most important thing is to keep close coordination between those four capitals so that North Korea will not be able to play one against another. We have to coordinate our policies among the five countries of the six-party talks so we are saying the same thing, because in the past, Kim Jong-il has been able to play off one country against another.
Kim: In your lecture yesterday, you stated that soft power is not the solution to all problems; even though Kim Jong-il likes to watch Hollywood movies, that is unlikely to affect his nuclear weapons programs. You cited the case of Afghanistan where soft power got nowhere in attracting the Taliban government away from its support for Al Qaeda in the 1990s, which took hard military power to end. Are you saying that, applied to North Korea, final resolution of the nuclear issue requires a combination of carrots and sticks?
Nye: I think as immediate carrots, soft power would not help much because you are not going to attract Kim Jong-il. What will really make a difference in the short term is hard power, like economic sanctions. But in a long term, possibly in decades, I think that soft power ― China and South Korea showing a better way of life that attracts North Korean people ― will play a role. ...
Also, South Korea can supplement its hard power alliance by strengthening its soft power influence. You need a double strategy of hard power and soft power, like the Korean wave, Korea’s high-tech products, Korea’s success story in values and in building democracy, cultural and economic prosperity and government policies in official development assistance and [participation in] international peacekeeping operations.
Kim: The United States is a soft power as well as a hard power by virtue of [its cultural products] among others. These are areas where, theoretically, other countries such as China, India, Japan, Russia and several EU countries can catch up or even surpass the United States. But English as the language of 80 percent of all Web pages and as today’s lingua franca may be an important base of America’s soft power which cannot be obtained or copied by China, Japan, Russia or Korea. Doesn’t this mean America has unrivaled supreme soft power?
Nye: I tend to be optimistic about America’s soft power in the long run because soft power grows out of culture, values and politics. I think the reason for decline in America’s soft power these days is because of policies. But the good news is that policies can change. Cultures and values are much harder to change. I think fortunately America’s cultures and values are still attractive. The fact that the English language serves as the basis for that culture is important, but the essence is about good content. Language alone is not enough to create soft power.
For example, maybe someday in the future there will be more Web sites in Mandarin than in English. But the key question is what will be the contents? One of the problems China faces when it tries to increase soft power, as China’s leader Hu Jintao has urged, is can they liberalize enough to make good content to attract others? What’s interesting is that, India, which has no censorship in the film industry, has great success in volumes. But China, which has great producers, does not give enough freedom, and China has failed to gain dominance in the international film industry.
Kim: Ambassador Yim, in Korea today the government, parents and students are preoccupied by debates on how to better speak English. But isn’t the national language a destiny hard to change?
Yim: Certainly this is the global era so we need some language skills to communicate with the rest of the world. But I don’t think Korea can go perfectly bilingual with Korean and English for now, because the most important factor in whether we can improve Koreans’ English skills is dependent upon the Korean public’s mind for globalization rather than mere language-speaking ability.
In terms of globalization, I think Koreans are quite polarized. For instance, now we have 10 million people traveling abroad each year, who I think are quite globalized so they need some foreign language skills. But we still have more than 30 million people who have never been out of the country. So, we have to globalize Koreans first so that they will genuinely feel that they need to learn the language and communicate with people outside Korea.
Kim: If the government in the United States changes from Republican to Democratic, will its stance toward North Korea, particularly its approach to the nuclear issue, change?
Nye: I think that the North Korea’s nuclear issue is going to be very important no matter which party wins since the issue of nuclear proliferation is a major issue to the Democrats as well as Republicans. I think Obama and Clinton both feel very strongly on nuclear proliferation issues and their statements have been clear on that. So I think there probably won’t be that much difference on political parties.
Yim: I agree. But as Mr. Nye said candidates like John McCain or Barack Obama, or even Hillary Clinton, seem to be promoting diplomatic resolution, so it could be quite different from the first four years of President George W. Bush’s administration. I also believe that the current six-party talks will be maintained by the future U.S. administration under any party and efforts to resolve the nuclear problem will accelerate.


By Jung Ha-won JoongAng Ilbo [hawon@joongang.co.kr]
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