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Reflections on Korea in Washington: a personal perspective

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By David Steinberg

David Steinberg
David Steinberg
The Korean-American alliance may be strong ― as so many officials on both sides of the Pacific continually proclaim. Forged in blood is the normal trope. But as events during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics illustrate, they are not without real or potential friction. It has sometimes been called "The Enduring and Endured Relationship."

The alliance indeed has endured many disagreements on a variety of issues, and present concerns over the joint response to North Korea and on trade issues connected with the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement are only the latest in a long series of contentions.

Surely there will be more, and surely they will need careful review, dialogue, understanding and compromise.

The Korean establishment has tried over the years to educate the U.S. about Korea. This has been a multi-faceted, herculean effort over many decades. In addition to the official Korean Cultural Center and the government-sponsored Korea Foundation, Korea has supported through various state-sponsored auspices as well as through private efforts, the development of Korean studies at many prestigious universities in Washington and elsewhere.

The Washington think tank community has also benefited through dedicated programs supported from Seoul. And the Korea Economic Institute has also been a recipient of funding. All of these have been important efforts to educate the American elite.

Korean efforts to educate have not been limited to academic or quasi-academic enterprises. At a national and at a company level, lobbying to pursue national or institutional interests has been extensive, and in many cases essentially effective. Companies can achieve trust and support by building on their operations and attractiveness of their products, but nations have different problems.

And although alliances are built on a panoply of mutual, overlapping interests, nations have diverse needs often perceived by their partners as undercutting aspects of even important alliance relations, so potential tensions abound.

Nevertheless, I would argue that close Korean-U.S. relations are not only in the interests of both states, but are essential to stability in Northeast Asia.

One might argue that the Korean government has tried too hard to educate the policy community in Washington, and has perhaps expected unrealistic immediate, favorable results from such a comprehensive approach. But policy considerations are not automobiles or washing machines, and rarely can results be quantified.

There seems to be growing concern in Seoul, perhaps reflecting executive or legislative views, that Korea is not attaining the policy results in the relationship it had expected, and that more direct interventions in Washington might yield better consequences.

This may not be solely a Korean conundrum ― governments, including the American establishment, often face the same challenges. Now, at every critical moment in the alliance's history, some in Korea now seem to believe that it can develop more capacity to influence Washington through more intrusive endeavors in the capital. This assumption is highly questionable and quite probably wrong.

The panoply of Korean support encompasses all aspects of assistance within a sphere broadly considered educational. But profound differences exist. Universities teach, generally think tanks do not, but have the capacity and do conduct research and offer venues for dialogue.

Other groups offer grants (the Korea Foundation, the Asan Institute), and some such as the Korea Economic Institute neither teach nor have the internal capacity for research, but can offer an independent forum for informing the policy debate.

To conflate these together is to misjudge them all and expect more than what they can reasonably be expected to deliver. To destroy the perception of an independent venue is, effectively, to destroy the program. Once denigrated, it would be hard to restore the image of independence, and past investments will have been lost.

Great care is thus need in managing public diplomacy abroad and in sponsored independent venues for dialogue.

My Korean friends and colleagues tell me there is an implicit assumption in Seoul: if Korea pays for efforts, then it expects it should be able to define and determine tactics even when there is mutual understanding of strategic ends. Thus, money determines action. The US sometimes shares this misapprehension.

But in this case, there is no indication that Seoul is better equipped to comprehend the intricacies of U.S. power structures, the attitudes of key decision-makers, or the climate of opinion than those in Washington who have long gauged such issues and have often been directly involved in them.

The critical issue is not only whether Seoul has the capacity, but even more importantly the credibility to manage its foreign public diplomacy institutions. China's "Confucian Centers" around the world have been criticized because they blatantly pursue Chinese state interests. Decades ago, Japan was criticized in Washington for supporting Japanese educational programs at universities that seemed premised on supporting Japan's economic program.

For Seoul to demand, on the basis of past or future funding, a more intrusive role in Washington programs of any institution would be a blunder of major proportions. It would perhaps satisfy critics in Seoul, but undercut the integrity of U.S. institutions. Korean interests and the legitimate need for alliance collaboration would be diminished.

Trust is the basis of the alliance. It has in the past been subject to extreme pressures, but prudent management has enabled the alliance to continue. One element of that trust, the independent management of Korea-related institutions in Washington, could easily be undercut by short-term political or personal needs in Seoul.

Each of these institutions, each in its own way, will no doubt pursue intelligent approaches to the long-term needs of both societies and the region. There will be differences ― between them, and between them and Seoul, and some may be occasionally contentious, but because one of the foundations for the alliance, as both sides have noted on many occasions, is that of shared democratic values, certainly peer relations and discourse with mutual credibility are necessary.

Let Seoul engage in dialogue with supported institutions in Washington on all questions, but perceived undue influence, let alone control, would be more than unproductive. It would inflict major damage.

David Steinberg recently retired from the Board of Directors of the Korea Economic Institute, and is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies emeritus from Georgetown University.

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