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A KF Fellow’s Thoughts For Korea’s Quantum Leap Forward

Niv Farago, a Ph.D. candidate in politics and international studies of Cambridge University, visited Korea to conduct field research as a grantee of the Korea Foundation’s fellowship program. Farago said that during his eight-month stay, he was able to consolidate his fragmented knowledge about Korea and deepen his understanding of the country. He has provided his opinions on Korea’s current situation and the requirements to achieve its future goals.

Untapped Potential

In many respects, the last few decades have seen Korea turn into one of the more developed countries in the world. Those who have used the subway systems in London, Paris, and New York would probably agree that the Korean transportation system, both under and above ground, is cleaner, friendlier, cheaper, safer, and more efficient than its European and American equivalents. This is merely one infrastructural example, but many others come to mind relating to fields such as technology, medical services, construction, and education. Moreover, the high level of personal security that Korea’s large metropolitan cities offer cannot be matched by mega cities in Europe and America. As a result, it has become a magnet for foreign investors and entrepreneurs as well as for scholars and scientists. That said, it is still unclear whether the Republic of Korea is going to realize its potential to become the financial and technological hub of East Asia.
If Korea is to succeed in achieving the ambitious goal of climbing up the list of the leading economies in the world, at least two requirements should be met. First, Seoul should strive to reduce peninsular tension and thus to create a stable and welcoming environment for foreign investment. Second, Seoul should project enough soft power to allure innovative entrepreneurs and companies in fields such as bio-technology and software development to cooperate with their Korean counterparts. Apparently, there is still much to do to meet the aforementioned requirements.

국회도서 Peace and Stability
The failure of the 1994 Agreed Framework and of the February 2007 agreement to bring about North Korean nuclear disarmament might lead some to lose hope of achieving a peaceful and stable peninsular environment. Indeed, North Korea’s nuclear tests, the attack on the corvette Cheonan, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island have illustrated how fragile the situation on the peninsula is. Nevertheless, the reemerging tension on the peninsula is not merely the result of North Korean belligerence. One could argue that Washington’s failure to deliver on its promises, as stipulated in its 1994 and 2007 agreements with Pyongyang, while hoping and waiting for the regime in Pyongyang to collapse, eventually pushed North Korea to renege on its own promises and to increase tension in the region.
How do we then resuscitate engagement and proceed toward the goal of achieving peninsular stability? Realistically, a long process of rebuilding trust between Washington and Pyongyang, and between the two Koreas, is of the essence. In this regard, for a new roadmap of engagement with Pyongyang to succeed in bringing about regional stability, American and South Korean conciliatory actions and incentives should precede, and then reward, North Korean concessions, rather than to be so conditioned. As early as 1993, Robert Gallucci and other pragmatists in the Clinton administration understood that an approach demanding the North Koreans do everything upfront, while Washington does nothing, cannot work. Regrettably, the Bush and the Obama administrations’ attempts to challenge this conventional wisdom have so far resulted in a diplomatic impasse and continued regional tension.

Additionally, Washington and Seoul will have to understand that from Pyongyang’s perspective, “coming in from the cold” and normalizing relations with the United States and the international community has nothing to do with opening up to ideas, values, and institutions that constitute a Western democracy. It simply denotes a process leading to its acceptance as an equal member in the international community and to the removal of diplomatic and economic sanctions imposed on it. Absent sufficient American and South Korean leverage over North Korea, Washington’s and Seoul’s intransigence in conditioning engagement on the promotion of human rights, freedom of press, and similar traits that may serve as catalysts to transition into democracy in the North would actually sabotage any confidence-building process and negatively affect any long-term efforts to bring Pyongyang into compliance with non-proliferation regimes.

Projecting Korea’s Soft Power

The second requirement for making the most of Korea’s economic, scientific, and technological potential seems easier to meet, as projecting Korean soft power does not depend on the goodwill of other countries nor does it require their cooperation. It does, however, necessitate a deep understanding of the essence of soft power in order to maximize its impact on target audiences. This was, among others, the purpose of a December 2010 Korea Foundation Forum that was held at the Jeju Island Peace Institute and dealt with public diplomacy in Korea-U.S. relations. (I was fortunate enough to take part in the discussions.)

So, what are the refined assets of Korea’s soft power that can be found in its public diplomacy cartridge? During the discussions, three major assets were mentioned: the Korean cultural wave (also known as hallyu, 한류), the already highly developed Korean industry and infrastructure, and the fact that Korea is a democracy.I want to refer to the difference between the first asset, hallyu, and the third, democracy. To begin with, hallyu is a highly positive phenomenon that should be further encouraged and supported by the Korean government. Significantly, however, its target audience and hence its impact are limited. Regardless of the hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in revenue that Seoul rakes in annually for exporting Korean movies, dramas, and music, and despite the spread and growing popularity of Korean history and language studies, as well as of Korean food, the Korean cultural wave is merely an outer layer, a wrapping paper, of what is considered by many as the core of soft power – that is a state’s cultural and political ideas, heritage, and values as reflected by its various institutions, be it governmental, public, or private institutions. In this regard, much can still be done to improve Korea’s image as a democracy, so it will be able to persuade more easily hesitant innovative entrepreneurs to develop and share their technological or scientific vision with local partners.

Concretely, what do the aforementioned matters really mean? When foreign companies or entrepreneurs decide whether to invest in Korea, they do not consider whether the Wonder Girls hit the top 10 chart in the United States. They do take into consideration, for example, the availability of an impartial judicial system and their prospect of winning a lawsuit against one of the big conglomerates or other local partners in the event of property rights violations or other disputes that may erupt. The lower the level of confidence in receiving impartial treatment in a prospective host country, the greater the chances that foreign investors would refrain from realizing an ostensibly lucrative opportunity for doing business in that country. If the current Korean administration manages to promote its fairness policy initiative in governmental and public institutions, and thus increase the level of foreign investors’ and entrepreneurs’ confidence in these institutions, the country will most probably experience a quantum leap in the decades to come – one that would far exceed the miraculous leap forward that Korea had witnessed in recent decades.

Niv Farago, Ph.D. Candidate
Politics and International Studies
Cambridge University

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