Is Korea well un­der­stood?

JoongAng Daily - - Front Page -

you had schol­ars with an in­ter­est in Korea, the over­all level of ac­tiv­ity on Korea in a univer­sity’s Asia pro­grams would grow to meet stu­dent in­ter­est and the gen­eral pub­lic’s in­ter­est.

Yet this has led to the sec­ond is­sue re­lated to Korean Stud­ies that is more con­cern­ing. That is, as Korea grew and suc­ceeded on the world stage, this gen­er­ated much more pub­lic in­ter­est in global me­dia, business and gov­ern­ment cir­cles. This is cer­tainly a wel­come de­vel­op­ment. But there has been a slight mis­match of pub­lic in­ter­est in Korea and schol­arly ex­per­tise that has de­vel­oped over the past two decades. As I noted ear­lier, many of the es­tab­lished po­si­tions were not in con­tem­po­rary so­cial sciences like po­lit­i­cal sci­ence, in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions or eco­nomics. The rea­son for this had largely to do with the na­ture of aca­demic in­ter­ests in th­ese fields, which value area stud­ies en­com­passes do­mes­tic pol­i­tics, power, his­tory, psy­chol­ogy, in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions and a va­ri­ety of other so­cial sciences and prac­ti­cal decision-mak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Most im­por­tant, pol­icy ex­perts use th­ese skills to shape pub­lic opin­ion and lead de­bates on is­sues of im­por­tance to Korea and the world.

The un­for­tu­nate re­sult of this predica­ment is that the level of so­phis­ti­cated pub­lic un­der­stand­ing about Korea is not much higher than it was be­fore the cre­ation of all of th­ese po­si­tions. For ex­am­ple, in the United States, Americans still poll the same way about South Korea as they have in the past — that is, a gen­er­ally pos­i­tive feel­ing but with a very thin level of ba­sic knowl­edge about the coun­try. This pos­i­tive but shal­low un­der­stand­ing of Korea is dan­ger­ous from a pol­icy maker’s per­spec­tive be­cause it means that if some­thing un­to­ward hap­pens in the re­la­tion­ship (e.g., beef protests), then Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion can shift dra­mat­i­cally in another di­rec­tion.

Maybe the an­swer to this predica­ment is to try to train the next gen­er­a­tion of Korea spe­cial­ists out­side of Korea to un­der­stand pub­lic pol­icy bet­ter. A project that I un­der­took with David Kang at USC, Frank Januzzi and Gor­don Flake at the Mans­field Foun­da­tion and Am­bas­sador Kathy Stephens aimed to do just this. We se­lected a dozen of the top ju­nior fac­ulty work­ing on Korea in the United States and brought them to Wash­ing­ton D.C. to meet with and learn from pol­icy-mak­ers, jour­nal­ists, and think tank ex­perts so that they could go back to their re­spec­tive cam­puses and be more equipped to com­ment on pol­icy is­sues when asked. This idea was based on a long-stand­ing project that the Mans­field Foun­da­tion had been do­ing with young Ja­pan schol­ars in North Amer­ica.

But I know what the an­swer is not. It is not to rest on one’s lau­rels, com­forted by the pop­u­lar­ity of K-pop or TV dra­mas as ev­i­dence that the world thinks well of Korea. Or for legislators in Seoul to pinch pen­nies about any in­ter­na­tional pub­lic diplo­macy project. One wants to pro­mote a bal­anced, nu­anced, and so­phis­ti­cated un­der­stand­ing out­side of the coun­try. Ja­pan learned this long ago.

Should Korea do less in this re­gard be­cause it is a smaller coun­try? No. On the con­trary, pre­cisely be­cause Korea is not a hege­mon, it must do more, not less, to pro­mote its brand.

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