An ode to books

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An ode to books

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.

Kyobo Bookstore in Gwanghwamun is one of my favorite places in Seoul. I make a point of wandering through its massive subterranean maze whenever I visit Korea. I note what Korean readers, of varying generations, are drawn to. I see what foreign books have been translated into Korean, and what’s most prominently displayed, sometimes expected global bestsellers, sometime obscure foreign works enjoying surprising prominence in Korea.

It’s a comforting reminder that books still matter in a world where we all spend far too much time scrolling through our phones and calling it reading. Whether I’m riding the subway in Seoul or Washington, I’m always pleased to see the handful of outliers reading a book, not a mobile phone, on their commutes. I always try to sneak a look at what they are reading.

In that vein, when I was invited a few years ago to be on the book committee of the American Academy of Diplomacy, which gives a prize each year for a “book of distinction on the practice of American diplomacy,” I accepted immediately. I discovered that two of the previous prize winners were books about American diplomacy in Korea that deeply shaped my understanding of U.S.-Korean relations and negotiations with North Korea.

One was William Gleysteen’s painfully frank memoir of his time in Korea as American ambassador 1978-1981, “Massive Entanglement, Marginal Influence: Carter and Korea in Crisis,” which won the prize in 2000. The other was the 2005 prize winner, “Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis,” by Joel Wit, Daniel Poneman and Robert Galluci, which chronicled the events surrounding the first substantive U.S. diplomatic negotiation with North Korea since the 1953 Armistice, resulting in the Agreed Framework.

These prize winners, and the others over the years, confirmed that the Academy is not honoring books that ritualistically celebrate the success of American diplomacy or the brilliance of the diplomat-authors, but rather describe just how exacting and incomplete the practice of diplomacy can be, or, as the Academy puts it, books that “focus on the opportunities diplomacy offers as well as its limitations.”

This year there was no Korea or Asia-specific book in the running for the prize, but there was a rich selection to learn — and choose from. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch’s memoir “Lessons from the Edge” and National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill’s “There is Nothing for You Here” are extraordinary profiles in courage of professionalism and integrity during the Trump years, but both also are inspiring accounts of two brilliant women’s lives pre-Trump, which I recommend to aspiring diplomats and public servants, women and men. Our committee also read a terrific book on Henry Kissinger and Middle East diplomacy, and a provocative book, “Not One Inch” on German reunification and the Bush administration steps and missteps over the expansion of NATO.

But the book we chose for the 2022 prize was “Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control” by the late Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center. The book tells a remarkable story of high-wire acts of diplomacy, close calls, dogged persistence, and extraordinary success. It brings to life the pitched battles between arms controllers and advocates of nuclear deterrence, the ironic twists and turns and unexpected outcomes from Truman to Trump.

Is this relevant to North Korea? Yes and no. Some will read “arms control” and think, ah, that implies acceptance of North Korea’s status of possessing nuclear weapons. But the book is not about North Korea, or Iran. At the same time, it is highly relevant reading as we think about how to shape diplomacy viz a vis North Korea and its nuclear program.

Finally, in this ode to books, I mention two books not in the category of diplomacy but which deserve broader audiences. Despite the eclectic variety of titles in translation available at Kyobo, I’d like to see more Koreans reading books about politics and diplomacy without a specific Korean slant. One I am reading now is “The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats are reinventing Politics for the 21st Century” by former Venezuelan trade minister Moises Naim. At a time when the U.S.-Korea alliance is being highlighted as a “values alliance,” we have a common interest and need in addressing in our own countries as well as elsewhere what Naim describes as the “3Ps” of populism, polarization, and post-truth. These are shared challenges, and Naim’s provides thoughts on how to preserve our freedom.

The second book is one I am rereading as I return to Korea this week to visit the Kim Koo Museum & Library, where in 2009 his grandson Kim Shin presented me with a calligraphy written by Kim Koo that reads “U.S. Korean relations: friendship, equality, cooperation.” More than a decade later, that calligraphy still hangs in the American ambassador’s residence. And I am rereading “Pekpom Ilchi” and thinking about how, while this is not a diplomat’s memoir, it is a memoir of a Korean nationalist politician who, like Syngman Rhee, had to be a diplomat, too. And it is a vivid portrayal of the Korean experience in the turbulent years from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. I’d like to see more work in English reflecting on the turmoil, and the diplomacy of that period. It is essential to better politics, and better diplomacy, today.
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