Better allies through knowledge“Americans don’t understand Korea.” That is often the refrain from Koreans about the United States, their closest ally for over 60 years. It’s not without some truth.
A 2015 Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found that 83 percent of Americans believe that relations with South Korea are important, and 62 percent support South Korea exerting strong leadership in world affairs. So, in general, Americans have a positive view of Korea.
However, the depth of understanding about Korea is fairly shallow. For example, a 2010 survey by the same think tank found that 40 percent of Americans did not think of Korea as a democracy, and only 19 percent of Americans identified Korea as a Christian country.
This is what I have referred to in the past as the “soft underbelly” of the U.S.-Korea relationship.
While American feelings about Korea are quite positive, the lack of depth to this positive feeling also means that views can shift suddenly in the opposing direction depending on events. A trade dispute, an attack against an American expatriate, a major court case pitting American against Korean interests, a disparaging statement by a politician - any one of these things can create major swings in public opinion precisely because there is no deep foundation of understanding about Korea.
So how does one rectify this? The South Korean government cannot effectively address this issue. Americans are not unlike citizens of any other country in the sense that they would not react well to an information campaign by a foreign government, and would see such messages at best as propaganda.
Some enhanced understanding may come from the private sector. As South Korean companies become global and as their products become ubiquitous in American society, this naturally affects views of the average American. These may initially start as a better recognition of Korea’s advanced industrial development, its cutting-edge technologies and its business acumen. The prominence and success of such products can also influence U.S. thinking in areas that go beyond the bounds of the material products. For example, Americans might associate Korea with dependability and ingenuity; or in a cultural context through music, media and Kakao platforms, with “coolness.” Big moves by companies like Hyundai and Kia to sponsor the National Football League and the National Basketball Association respectively help to weave Korea into the fabric of Americana.
However an important element is missing from this picture. More important to American understanding of Korea is not what Koreans say about Korea, but what Americans say about Korea.
Who are the future opinion leaders on Korea in the United States and the world? Who helps to shape how the global media think about Korean politics, economics and society? Junior professors at universities, researchers at think tanks, executives in business and journalists represent these future thought leaders.
We have been working on a project called “NextGen” to help develop the next generation of American and European opinion leaders on Korea. The professors, for example, mostly in their 30s, do not necessarily specialize in their research about U.S.-Korea policy issues. On the contrary, their scholarship and academic focus may be on premodern history, anthropology, architecture, biology, geography or linguistics. But when something happens in Korea, because they are the only acknowledged authority of Korea within 250 square miles of their university, they are looked to by local media, experts or officials for commentary on how to think about the latest breaking news on Korea.
Our program aims to introduce these junior scholars of Korea to policy discussions in Washington, D.C., with trips to the State Department, Defense Department, Congress and the White House. The purpose is not to get a scholar to advocate for a particular policy, or to skirt his or her responsibilities as an academic (tenure is, of course, the first priority); instead, it is simply to help them develop personal networks and to gain insight into some of the salient policy issues surrounding the Korean Peninsula so that the scholar feels better prepared to talk about these issues should they be called upon when they return home.
The group will also travel to Seoul in the summer for a similar purpose.
My partner in this endeavor, Dave Kang, professor at University of Southern California and director of the Korean Studies Institute, and I started this project motivated by the desire to help raise the level of educated policy discussion about Korea in the United States. No such thing existed when we were both junior scholars two decades ago. It is a good investment in helping Americans better understand Korea and Koreans.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 11, Page 32
*The author is a professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
by Victor Cha