Of lemons and lemonade

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Of lemons and lemonade

There is an American adage, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” What this means is that if you have the misfortune of being placed in a bad situation, try turning it into something good. In business, for example, if energy prices go up, rather than complaining about the higher cost, a company can use the high prices as an incentive to create more energy efficient production lines. At a university, we were once told by the administration not to create a new graduate degree and instead to apply for a federal teaching grant. We applied for the federal funding but included in the grant the creation of a new degree program as one of the key outcomes of the grant. We won the grant and the new degree program. Lemonade from a lemon.

In government, most of the time you are dealing with unexpected and disheartening developments. In 1994, for example, the United States told North Korea not to remove fuel from the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon because this would be the first step to extracting plutonium to make nuclear bombs. North Korea defied the United States and promptly began removing spent fuel rods from the reactor. The Clinton administration was in the midst of considering a military strike on Yongbyon when former President Jimmy Carter intervened and offered Kim Il Sung a deal over the heads of the Clinton administration. President Clinton was infuriated but Vice President Al Gore sought to figure out how to squeeze the lemon. The Clinton administration decided to offer the North the same deal that Carter did but to raise the price in terms of what the North needed to do in return for receiving benefits. This eventually led to the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Lemonade out of lemons is an apt description of the U.S.-ROK alliance. Now celebrating its 60th year, the alliance has been the subject of many tributes, but let me offer one that you have not heard: The alliance is great because it is a quintessential example of taking something bad and making something good out of it.

When the U.S. first came to Korea in September 1945, it had one objective: get out as fast as it could. It reluctantly administered a three-year occupation and then withdrew, only to be pulled back to the peninsula when the North Koreans invaded in 1950. The Americans knew nothing about Korea except that it was a common ally against communism.

But since then, military cooperation between the two countries has grown beyond anyone’s expectation. The interoperability of the two militaries on the peninsula today is better than almost any other relationship the United States military has around the world. Americans helped to secure Korea, but Koreans now help Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and in peacekeeping operations around the world.

Korea in the 1950s and 1960s was a poor, backward economy with little hope of a future. U.S. development experts predicted the South Korean economy would not amount to more than an agriculture and light-manufacturing based economy. Peace Corps volunteers came to the country to aid in development without any sense of what Korea’s future might be.

But 60 years later, Korea’s advanced industrialized economy has outperformed all expectations. Samsung Electronics has a higher net worth than the top five or six Japanese electronics companies combined. Moreover, Korea is the only country in modern history to have gone from net development aid recipient to OECD and net-donor status. It also has the second-largest group of Peace Corps-type volunteers in the world, only surpassed by the United States. That is taking a lemon and turning it into lemonade.

Young political officers in the U.S. embassy in the 1960s and 1970s were disillusioned by the military dictatorships that ruled Korea and disheartened by the toll that an anti-communist alliance could take on the human rights of a country. But many of them came back in the 1990s (in more senior positions) to see the most incredible peaceful democratic transformation in modern political history. Korea is now one of the role models cited by the Club of Democracies for other young countries to emulate.

While Koreans and Americans have been good at turning bad things into good, the biggest challenge in the future will be how to deal with unification. But given the history of this 60-year relationship, I have little doubt that everyone involved will turn this lemon into lemonade as well. This uncanny ability to turn bad into good will be among the many stories we shall discuss when CSIS celebrates 60 years of the alliance in Seoul on Oct. 17, 2013. In conjunction with the U.S. Embassy and the Korea Foundation, we will bring together all of the former ambassadors who have served in Seoul and Washington through the history of the alliance for an afternoon of celebration to remember the past, discuss the present and pontificate about the future.

* The author is D.S. Song-KF Professor at Georgetown University and Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

by Victor Cha
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