Can Seoul be a Mecca for think tanks?

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Can Seoul be a Mecca for think tanks?

Think tanks have emerged as a critical space for the discussion of policy around the world. Think tanks allow experts, representatives of government and the private sector and ordinary citizens to discuss recent social and economic developments and to formulate effective responses. Think tanks in Washington, D.C., such as Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation have a long tradition of playing a role in the policy debate. But it is only recently that Seoul has developed several major think tanks such as the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and the East Asia Institute, as well as a variety of smaller think tanks - including some established by foreigners.

Granted that Korea is increasingly being benchmarked by developing nations for its outstanding infrastructure, its manufacturing know-how, its capacity in e-government, and its world-class research institutes, could it be that cluster of think tanks in Seoul will eventually make the city a center for policy and innovation in governance? Certainly the potential is there, especially in light of Korea’s global role in business and education. Nevertheless, there are a few important steps that would have to be taken first to realize such a vision.

First and foremost, Seoul’s think tanks will have to address the concerns of young people in a serious manner. I have discovered at many think tank events that I attended that there were no participants under forty, and in many cases the speakers were in their sixties and seventies. If you find youth at a think tank event, they are likely serving as interns learning about the process in the hope of finding a job later. They play no role in the discussions. Overlooking the needs of youth is a serious mistake.

Also, the makeup of think tanks in Korea must be international and global in every sense. Holding occasional seminars in English does not make a think tank global. Its research teams must include non-Koreans, women and, above all, representatives of multicultural Korea. Like Brookings or the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Korean think tanks must hire foreigners as senior fellows. Moreover, although Korea has politicians like Jasmine Lee who represent multicultural Korea, I do not know of any think tank that employs researchers who are half Vietnamese or half Mongolian.

The next generation of think tanks must address issues that are critical to our age. Climate change should be the primary topic for discussion at think tanks, bringing together all stakeholders to prepare for the response. Such seminars should not be entertaining and there should be no anticipation of some special privilege for the presenters. They should be brutally honest, even frightening, confrontations with the serious dangers that we face.

So also the impact of technological change on our society should be an important topic. Although we are unaware of this fact, technology is fragmenting our society and undermining our ability to focus on the problems in our society. The role of the think tank is to draw attention to serious problems that are otherwise invisible to ordinary people. To merely repeat accepted platitudes for the audience as a ritual defeats the purpose of the think tanks; Think tanks must guard against becoming symbols of authority and legitimacy. Think tanks should promote a broad dialog, and should never promote the narrow agenda of an interest group.

The work of Korean think tanks must be truly multilingual in response to Korea’s new role in the world. Although English is clearly the dominant international language, Korean think tanks will need to conduct seminars and produce reports in Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, and in languages such as Indonesian and Vietnamese in the future. Moreover, in order for reports and policy suggestions to be effective, they must be written in a language which matches with that used by government officials in each country so that the suggestions can be rapidly and easily be adopted as policy.

Ultimately, the success of Seoul as a center for think tanks with global reach will come down to the ability of Koreans to innovate, not simply to imitate famous think tanks in Washington. We need new networks that integrate the research and the debate taking place at Korean think tanks with that which it taking place at peer organizations around the world. That network can serve not only to promote a broad discussion, but also to coordinate implementation of new policy around the world. Overwhelming complex subjects like climate change and the future of cyberspace demand such careful coordination of policy and we will need to find ways to divide up and share massive projects between think tanks around the world.

So also we need to promote cooperation between large think tanks and small think tanks in Seoul. Large think tanks have substantial budgets and access to world-class experts, but smaller think tanks, by contrast, have greater flexibility in their approach and a better awareness of the actual needs of ordinary people. If Seoul can articulate and implement new strategies to encourage the sharing of resources and specialized knowledge between think tanks at all levels domestically, it can create an ecosystem that will foster innovation.

Sadly, although liberal think tanks in Seoul offer critical perspectives on contemporary policy, they fail to present an argument that will appeal to an international audience. The materials they produce are rarely available in English, or in other languages, and they have few international partners. By contrast, conservative think tanks dwell on topics in international finance and security that are far removed from the concerns and needs of average people in Korea or around the world, such as jobs for youth, the destruction of the environment and gap between rich and poor.

Finally, Korean think tanks will be most effective when they emphasize a distinctly Korean perspective. Paradoxically, as Korean think tanks become truly global, they will need to present a distinctly Korean perspective that is founded in Korea’s own intellectual tradition. Korean think tanks are not imitations of think tanks found elsewhere, but rather must have their integrity and internal logic.

To start with, Korea’s greatest strength comes from its position as a nation with global reach that is not marred by an imperial tradition of domination. Korea is committed to international relations that are balanced and assume reciprocal relations. For this reason Korean think tanks can be open platforms for debate such as many in advanced nations are not.

Moreover, Korea has a long tradition of good governance, of maintaining a balance of power within government, as well as of the embrace of sustainable development, that dates back to the Joseon period and could be the basis for new Korean innovations in policy with global implications. The degree to which Korean think tanks contemplate not only recent manufacturing successes of Korea, but also Korea’s institutional innovations of the 14th century, or of the 18th century, a more profoundly Korean approach with global appeal can be developed.

One way to lay the foundations for a Korea’s future think tanks is to draw on the legacy of Korea’s greatest think tank of the past: The Hall of Worthies (Jiphyeonjeon). The Hall of Worthies was a think tank that functioned as a central part of the policy debate within government, but retained its autonomy at its zenith under the rule of King Sejong.

The scholar assigned to the Hall of Worthies was permitted tremendous freedom to pursue his intellectual concerns and was provided with the materials for conducting research aimed at encouraging moral governance. The research produced many essential texts on the principles of good governance with concrete examples. The perspective adopted at the Hall of Worthies was always long-term and time was granted to scholars to carefully consider Chinese and Korean precedents for ethical governance.

The scholars in the Hall of Worthies constantly referred back to the ethical texts of the Confucian tradition when evaluating contemporary policy, but at the same time the approach to policy was extremely practical, seeking always for the effective application of ethical principles to specific contemporary situations. Finally, the Hall of Worthies collected historical and philosophical materials that supported the reforms undertaken by Sejong aimed at creating a more equitable society.

Could the next generation of Korean think tanks take the Hall of Worthies model of long-term ethical consideration of past policy and make it a new model for think thanks around the world? Granted how few think tanks today consider policies for agriculture and trade, diplomacy and security from before the 20th century, there is tremendous potential in such a historical perspective.

*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.

by Emanuel Pastreich
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