[Viewpoint] Korea’s focus must be more worldly

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[Viewpoint] Korea’s focus must be more worldly

Korea’s relations with Africa and other underdeveloped regions have been in the news lately. Unfortunately, those ties have come under criticism for understandable reasons. Officials from the Korean Embassy in Tripoli have been expelled; the number of diplomatic missions on the continent has been reduced; and budget for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade remains pitifully low by standards of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Seoul’s approach to the outside world needs to be revamped.

As a traditional hermit kingdom fighting for survival among giant, hostile neighbors, Korea’s preoccupation with Northeast Asia has been logical. Japan’s defeat and the U.S. involvement in the Korean War as a subset of the Cold War necessitated concentrating on the peninsula. Industrialization, democratization and the post-Soviet world order led to the realization that opportunities and challenges await Korea beyond the three familiar areas of the globe. Those are, of course, Northeast Asia, Western Europe and Anglo-America (U.S. and Canada).

What about those other, mostly neglected parts of the world? They are Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and Australia.

Korea’s educational system has focused on mathematics, physical sciences and language (Korean and English) in K-12. The results have been impressive and helped bring the ROK into the ranks of advanced countries. The problem exists in the insufficient stress on world humanities and social sciences.

The other day, I spoke with one of my teaching assistants at Hanyang University and asked her how many global social studies courses she took as a high school student. In so many words, she indicated that they were offered, but few were required and seldom dealt with matters outside Korea. Similar difficulties prevail at post-secondary schools.

Hankuk University of Foreign Studies is considered the premier college-level institution for training specialists in global affairs. Although it covers the Eurasian landmass to a satisfactory degree, the university has no program for any African languages and virtually nothing for Latin American affairs. In this day and age, that’s quite a surprising and serious omission.

In terms of other universities and more general courses, a real lack of awareness is still widespread. At Hanyang, I teach one general education course titled “Global Affairs,” which mostly pertains to human geography (population, resource, cultural, economic and political).

The level of ignorance about the world can be rather dismaying at times. At the beginning of the semester, with a map of Latin America, boundaries drawn but without names of countries spelled out, some students could not even identify large countries such as Mexico, Brazil or Argentina.

With such a broad lack of basic understanding about the globe, it’s no wonder that the Foreign Ministry has difficulty attracting competent generalists, let alone specialists, who are vital for Korea to promote its interests abroad. The Foreign Ministry’s deficiencies are multiple.

According to a recent article in the JoongAng Daily, the Foreign Ministry budget is only 0.5 percent of all ROK expenditures within a given year. This allocation has actually gone down in recent years precisely at the time it should go up. This is far lower than most other countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Japan and China both expend a much greater share of their respective budgetary outlays for diplomatic missions, personnel and aid.

Korea’s diplomats out in the field do a reasonable job, given the resources at hand. However, almost all of them are generalists who are rotated within a few years. This is fine, provided there are also specialists who remain in the specific geographical areas developing expertise over several years and even decades. A balance of generalists and specialists, as well as length of experience, is truly necessary to conduct effective foreign policy in the 21st century.

Beyond that, Korea would like to be an effective bridge between the developed and developing world, culturally, economically and diplomatically.

So what’s to be done? First, in K-12 schools, excellence in world social sciences must be required as much as it is in math, physical sciences and language arts. That will need an innovative framework for recruiting qualified teachers, a revamp of curriculum, modification of testing procedures for graduation and clear communication with Korean parents about the advantages of this new arrangement. A minimum core knowledge about the outside world should be just as valued and mandatory as basic competency in the English language.

The educational transformations are going to take several years or more before noticeable improvements are made. Obviously, a broad spectrum of relevant parties needs to be involved (parents, teachers, students and administrative personnel) to carry out these scholastic reforms. A 10-year program for implementation appears realistic.

Fortunately, political changes might be brought about a bit more quickly if the will, effort and organized agenda are there. The future outlays for the Foreign Ministry will have to be doubled or perhaps tripled over the next decade to achieve the desired effects. Finding more qualified specialists, particularly in African and Latin American affairs, might take slightly more time.

With constructive input from academia and the business sector, the Lee Myung-bak administration and concerned National Assembly members should make these changes a top priority for the coming year. These might be big adjustments, but there needs to be follow-through on this soon if the ROK truly wishes to have harmonious, productive relations with the developing world.

*The writer is a professor of the graduate school of international studies at Hanyang University.

By Joseph Schouweiler
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