Is Korea well understood?
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.