“The Obama Administration’s Policy toward the Korean Peninsula”


On April 21, the Korean Association International Studies held this conference in Seoul. I was a discussant on a panel entitled “The Strategic Mindset of the Obama Administration and Its Policy toward Northeast Asia.” The conference was pretty good – a mix of academics and public policy types. IR academics from Korean universities mixed with a few parliamentarians, staff from the foreign ministry, and US embassy staff. I found this a nice change from APSA and ISA conferences.

1. I got into a minor flap over the ‘criticality’ of South Korea, and of East Asia in general, to the US. I argued that SK is tied as an ally with Turkey behind: 1. Canada, 2. Great Britain, 3. Israel, 4. Japan, 5. Mexico, 6. Germany. I also argued the most critical regions for the US before East Asia are: 1. North America, 2. Western Europe, 3. the Middle East. Ranking is a contentious but useful exercise. Pleasantly, the audience of almost all Asians did not respond with resentment, although most seemed unhappy. Most seemed to accept that North America and Western Europe outranked Asia; the ME was more contested. But very revealing was the desire for SK to be high up on the list of US allies/interests. That bespoke the enormous prestige of the US as the G-1 and the craving others have for US recognition. Should it really make a difference to South Koreans how Washington ranks it? Does SK worry where Kenya or Brazil ranks it? The difference is that US can bestow status on middle powers. Even NK craves that recognition by its avowed enemy.

Briefly, I think there is little doubt that the most important region for the US must be North America. This is basic geography. Canada has been the most important US ally for a century for obvious reasons. And despite cultural distance from and an awkward history with Mexico, the US clearly needs it to be stable, if not democratic. Two years ago, no one thought the US would worry about a semi-failed narco-state emerging in Mexico, and now we might have to send troops to the border. Europe too is no brainer. US cultural, religious, linguistic, military, and ethnic links vastly outweigh the bilateralism we pursue in Asia. Americans learn European languages when they learn them at all, and go on vacations and junior years abroad in Europe. By contrast Asian languages with their culturally distant alphabets and pronunciations are just too uncomfortable for Americas. Asian food is challenging to the American palette. And non-theistic Asian religions are too different. Finally, the Middle East is of greater importance, not just because of current crises, but for structural reasons too. Oil and Israel are long-term US interests, and the post-1967 Islamic revival, the extreme edge of which lead to 9/11, will be with us for generations. Regardless of the success of the Iraq war, the neo-con argument that the ME’s dysfunction has become a major threat to the US and will require a long-term commitment to fix is accurate. We fear the radicalization of moderate Muslim opinion far more than NK stalinism or even Chinese nationalism.

2. I think expectations of Obama are wildly out of proportion to his personal time and energy, his ability to impact foreigners’ preferences, and the domestic constraints he faces in Congress, from interest groups, etc. I find myself repeating all the time that Obama is not Jesus or a magician or something. He can’t simply solve NK, or fix the financial crisis.  Like Walt in Singapore, I found at this conference what seemed to me an excessive hope that the great O could simply make things go back they way they were before the financial crisis or breakthrough long standing problems like NK. The big IR problems are deeply entrenched, and Obama, like all presidents, faces enormous bureaucratic-congressional inertia at home. US consumers and the government are tapped out right now, and a return to the US as importer of last resort is unlikely for awhile and probably not very healthy for the global economy anyway. Asian exporters are going to have to focus on difficult reform (cleaning up the SOEs in China, chaebol in Korea, kereitsu in Japan, eg) and domestic demand. And this will be good for them, as simply exporting to the West has sustained political and economic oligarchs around the region for too long

Foreigners’ expectations are enormous, and I think very misplaced. The US consul in Busan told me that he finds himself telling Koreans that he is our president, and that you should expect him to defend the US national interest. This is obviously so, but that it needs to be repeated at all, speaks enormously of just how much the rest of the world hopes Obama can transform almost everything. Eg, what I really learned in listening to Korean high hopes for Obama at this conference was the deep, deep exasperation with NK. You could see in the hope for Obama just how much South Koreans would like the endless NK game to finally stop so that Korea could be a more normal country.

Much of this is fantasy I fear – like that woman who said that Obama will pay her rent. I want Obama to succeed too, but most of the long-standing problems in IR will not succumb to his charisma.  The structures of IR change very slowly. Darfur, Iran, Russia, NK, Palestine – all these may change a bit at the margins due to his personality, but I doubt Obama will achieve major breakthroughs without the long patient work of diplomacy that most US presidents have pursued. But this presidency is a good test of the levels of analysis theory in IR. Maybe Obama can overcome the domestic, state-level impediments and international-level structures that usually dictate IR outcomes.

3. Korean IR, like Latin American IR, seems pretty focused on practical applications and policy. All the conference papers were policy-relevant, and much of the discussion was as well. I attended another conference in November last year and am participating in another on regional order in East Asia tomorrow. Those talks were/are all policy relevant as well. And the Korean IR journal literature is heavily focused immediate issues, such as NK, democratization, Asian growth models, and the character of leadership in Asia. In this way it feels more like International Security than ISQ.

I imagine this focus on policy stems from the huge challenge of the DPRK to the South. IR is an existential issue for the ROK. Theory probably seems like a luxury. Similarly, SK only got wealthy in the last few decades. The practical needs of interaction with the global economy probably trumped model-building or formalism in Korean IPE. All this is relevant to the debate in IR since the end of the Cold War about whether IR is too eurocentric. ISR (10/4, Dec. 2008) had a good symposium on this question. A good addition would be a discussion of Korean IR.

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3 thoughts on ““The Obama Administration’s Policy toward the Korean Peninsula”

  1. Pingback: A ‘Confucian Long Peace’ among East Asian States (1): Does Shared Culture Stop War? « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

  2. Pingback: China Keeping North Korea Afloat…Again « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

  3. Pingback: What the Yeonpyeong Shelling Taught Us « Asian Security Blog

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