Is Korea well understood?

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Is Korea well understood?


There are a great deal of resources and attention given to the study of Korea inside the country. This makes perfect sense, because Koreans should know about their country. But there are two important aspects to Korean studies outside of the country. The first is the development of a foundation for the teaching, scholarship and research of Korea in places like North America or Europe. The second is the development of a well-informed and sophisticated level of public policy dialogue about Korea among opinion leaders, media and decision-makers in the advanced industrialized world.

In the first aspect, I don’t think there is a crisis in the study of Korea. Over the past two decades, there has been a concerted effort by foundations to lay the basis for the scholarly study of Korea. In the United States, for example, the Korea Foundation launched a campaign, modeled somewhat on a similar and earlier effort by the Japan Foundation, to create a series of professorships on Korean studies at major American universities. These faculty positions were created at top private universities, research universities and public universities.

This was a successful effort. Endowments for tenure-track or tenured lines were created (and matched by the respective university’s fundraising) which then allowed professors in disciplines ranging from history to anthropology to sociology to humanities to secure positions from which they could teach and do research in their discipline while also teaching and researching about Korea. These “Korea faculty lines” did not mean those professors would teach exclusively about Korea, or even teach positively about Korea. It meant that only the best faculty would be hired after competitive and open searches, that they would be independent in their views and their research. But their substantive interest in Korea would give them an advantage in securing the job.

Once the top faculty were hired, the number of courses available with Korean content started to grow on many campuses. Moreover, programs of public interest on Korea also started to grow. This was a natural phenomenon, not dictated by authorities in Seoul. The idea was that once you had scholars with an interest in Korea, the overall level of activity on Korea in a university’s Asia programs would grow to meet student interest and the general public’s interest.

Yet this has led to the second issue related to Korean Studies that is more concerning. That is, as Korea grew and succeeded on the world stage, this generated much more public interest in global media, business and government circles. This is certainly a welcome development. But there has been a slight mismatch of public interest in Korea and scholarly expertise that has developed over the past two decades. As I noted earlier, many of the established positions were not in contemporary social sciences like political science, international relations or economics. The reason for this had largely to do with the nature of academic interests in these fields, which value area studies or country-specific knowledge less, and instead value broader theoretical analysis or quantitative methods. So the type of scholars the departments wanted were not the types of faculty that might excel as a “Korea expert.” With a few exceptions, there were not many political scientists or economists that filled these Korean positions. Instead, what emerged were scholars of Korea in other disciplines.

The concern is that at the public policy level, the demand for Korea expertise is in areas like democratization, nuclear proliferation, economic growth and foreign policy, and not in areas where the academic expertise operates. Yet, if these are the only Korea experts in the vicinity, there will still be demand for “expert” commentary on the issue of the day. Some may say that offering opinions on policy is not hard if one reads the newspaper and keeps up with current events. But this displays a fundamental lack of understanding about public policy. It is not just about current events. It is a field of analysis that encompasses domestic politics, power, history, psychology, international institutions and a variety of other social sciences and practical decision-making experience. Most important, policy experts use these skills to shape public opinion and lead debates on issues of importance to Korea and the world.

The unfortunate result of this predicament is that the level of sophisticated public understanding about Korea is not much higher than it was before the creation of all of these positions. For example, in the United States, Americans still poll the same way about South Korea as they have in the past - that is, a generally positive feeling but with a very thin level of basic knowledge about the country. This positive but shallow understanding of Korea is dangerous from a policy maker’s perspective because it means that if something untoward happens in the relationship (e.g., beef protests), then American public opinion can shift dramatically in another direction.

Maybe the answer to this predicament is to try to train the next generation of Korea specialists outside of Korea to understand public policy better. A project that I undertook with David Kang at USC, Frank Januzzi and Gordon Flake at the Mansfield Foundation and Ambassador Kathy Stephens aimed to do just this. We selected a dozen of the top junior faculty working on Korea in the United States and brought them to Washington D.C. to meet with and learn from policy-makers, journalists, and think tank experts so that they could go back to their respective campuses and be more equipped to comment on policy issues when asked. This idea was based on a long-standing project that the Mansfield Foundation had been doing with young Japan scholars in North America.

But I know what the answer is not. It is not to rest on one’s laurels, comforted by the popularity of K-pop or TV dramas as evidence that the world thinks well of Korea. Or for legislators in Seoul to pinch pennies about any international public diplomacy project. One wants to promote a balanced, nuanced, and sophisticated understanding outside of the country. Japan learned this long ago.

Should Korea do less in this regard because it is a smaller country? No. On the contrary, precisely because Korea is not a hegemon, it must do more, not less, to promote its brand.

*The author is professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at CSIS in Washington D.C.

by Victor Cha



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