America feels like Korea

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America feels like Korea

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Kathleen Stephens
The author was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2011. She is the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington, D.C.

As I walk Washington’s streets this March, marveling at the spring flowers pushing out of the still-frosty ground in the parks, the bright gold of forsythia shivering in the chilly wind, I vividly recall the intensity of Koreans’ joy at the early signs of spring, a joy I shared as a young woman in South Chungcheong decades ago.

But it’s more than nostalgia that makes life in the United States these days feel like Korea. Since the end of February, not a day has gone by that I have not had multiple discussions with Americans about what went wrong in Hanoi, Vietnam, where the special relationship — the “mysterious chemistry” — between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was not enough to consummate an agreement. In these circumstances, I tell my interlocutors, the ability of Washington and Seoul to work together is all the more important. “Easier said than done,” is sometimes the reply.

It was an entirely different matter, though, that has made me feel lately like I’m living in Korea again. A detailed story about corrupt U.S. university admissions in the United States captured the headlines and shocked Americans. The FBI issued indictments charging dozens of wealthy parents, including well-known entertainers and business figures, with paying millions of dollars in bribes to secure the admission of their children into elite U.S. universities. Stand-ins were paid to cheat on standardized tests, athletic accomplishments were faked, university coaches and administrations were paid to secure admission. Perhaps Koreans would not be so easily shocked by such news, but here in the United States, the news challenged our cherished notion of U.S. academia as a meritocracy, and fed into a burgeoning debate about the growing divides of class, wealth and privilege in the United States.

This is a debate painfully familiar to Koreans. Ten years ago, after Barack Obama’s first visit to Korea as president, the biggest quote from his trip was not about trade or security: it was about education. I recall how strongly Koreans reacted to President Obama’s praise of Korea’s zeal for education, scolding me that I should have explained to Obama that Korea’s educational system was broken and that “education-fever” had become “education-sickness.”

I eventually did have that conversation with President Obama, who understood the sentiment but retained his admiration (as do I) for Korea’s passion for education. Increasing numbers of Koreans were going to the United States for study — the highest ratio per capita of any country — and I encouraged Koreans to look beyond the traditionally elite institutions in the United States and to learn from the nation’s example greater diversity in educational options — fine liberal arts colleges, community colleges, vocational training — and our respect for a broader range of career paths, including entrepreneurial small businesses, as examples worthy of emulation.

At the same time, in university admissions Americans have accepted a less strict definition of “meritocracy” than in Korea. The longstanding U.S. practice of according “legacy applicants,” students whose parents are alumni, an advantage in admissions decisions is anathema in Korea. The idea that universities should “shape” their admissions to reflect goals ranging from racial and ethnic diversity to what sports they want to emphasize has allowed admissions officers flexibility unknown in the exam-focused Korean system. I recall the spark lit by the protests at Ewha Womans University over preferential admissions practices that grew into the Candlelight Revolution.

The current admissions crisis in the United States won’t spark that kind of movement, but the sight of wealthy and famous parents being arrested for going to unethical and criminal lengths to ensure their children’s access to elite university spots, and the corruption of some university officials in providing it, has hit another hard blow at Americans’ pride in being the “land of opportunity” where anyone can make it to the top through hard work. And it will contribute to resentment about the issues of equality and opportunity.

Economic inequality has widened in recent decades in the United States, as it has in South Korea and much of the developed world. Adding political potency is the perception, fueled by scandals like that surrounding university admissions, that the deck is stacked against those not born to wealth and privilege. The already-crowded field of contenders for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination are emphasizing this theme, and prescribing bold remedies that would have been considered fringe-radical in earlier years, including proposals to reduce the dominance of the United States’ largest technology giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook. The debate over the role of the chaebol is familiar in Korea — it is relatively new in the United States, but it is growing fast, as the very success of the innovative firms that grew out of the new digital economy now raise big questions.

The United States and Korea are bound by common values, including a passionate devotion to the ideals of equality, opportunity and upward mobility. Many in both our countries — particularly among the younger generation — are questioning whether our institutions have become dominated by a small elite. We are at a time of enormous challenge to our democracies: we need bold leaders and an engaged citizenry to create the new approaches that are badly needed.
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