I have been in Korea 6 months. I thought it wise to wait a bit before listing impressions. I will try to focus on politics, but inevitably personalisms will creep in.
1. Foreign Policy
a. Getting Used to North Korea
When I was in grad school (Ohio State), we focused on lot on North Korea as an interesting case for deterrence theories, prolieferation, terrorist support & other rogue state activities. But here you just don’t see that stress. As several of my colleagues put it, we have been living next to NK for so long, we just don’t pay that much attention any more. Even now, with all the recent threats of war and escalation. What a surprise that was when I came here. I thought NK was the most important issue in Korean politics – and it is at a macro/abstract level – but the average South Korean seems to know more about the iceskater Yuna Kim or some celebrity scandal that Kim Jong-Il.
I saw one of those joke emails – ‘you know you’ve been in Korea too long when…’ One of the responses was, when you have a strange, inexplicable loathing for Japan. The IR scholar in me sees Japan as a critical democratic bulwark for SK, given its difficult neighborhood: NK, Russia and China. Yet this argument does not seem to move my students or friends much. Of much greater interest is the territorial saquabble over the Dokdo islands, and more than one person here has told me with a straight face that Japan will probably invade Korea again sometime. I can’t help but think of postwar France – restoration of Alsace-Lorraine and nuclear weapons pointed as much at Germany as the Soviet Union. Until Japan really apologizes – like the Germans did – historical memory will play a poisonous role.
2. Domestic Politics:
a. Restrained Presidentialization
Korean politics seems far less focused on the person of the president than ours. Korea is a semi-presidential system, so perhaps that accounts for it somewhat. But conversely, the National Assembly is far weaker than the Congress. So insitutionally, Korea does not seem more or less presidentialized than the US, but the media scrutiny of the daily schedule of the president is far less. I find that nice actually. It reduces the celebrity-rock star factor that can make US politics a little silly sometimes.
b. Those Parliament Brawls
Asian parliaments are known in the West for their brawls, but I never realized how serious they can get. Wow. You Tube has some of these videos. Look for the recent ones involving fire extinguishers and the invasion of a committee room by physically removing the doors.
c. NK & the SK Right
NK really polarizes the domestic politics here. Conservative opinion particularly is staunchly anti-communist. It really does feel like a time warp back the first Reagan administration. The right is widely convinced that the Sunshine policy was a huge error. The right has also done a good job using North Korean human rights as a powerful political tool against the domestic left. In this the left is in a terrible quandry. Like Western European social democrats during the Cold War, the Korean left wants some kind of detente and Nordpolitik, but NK is simply so nasty to its people, it is hard to gain political traction. The right can easily attack the left for betraying the human rights of their ethnic brothers in the North.
Another lesson of grad school was how different Asian political economy was – particularly the role of the large conglomerates (kereitsu in Japan and chaebol in Korea). This is another one of those things I didn’t really grasp until I saw it. The logos of the largest chaebols are ubiquitous, and the western neoliberal will be disturbed to find a wide, seemingly unconnected horizontal integration. For example, SK, one the very biggest, is my cell phone provider, the owner of my apartment building, and a major gas station chain. Or Samsung – to Americans an electronics retailer. Yet here they are also in the grocery store business (?!), and they build cars as well. It is hard to imagine that successful cell phone providers somehow have a competitive advantage in gas stations too. Most western scholarship says this cross-sector agglormeration is politically protected, and when you see just how unrelated the sectors under the same logo are, its hard to disagree.
I must be a product of Walmart and Target. Where are rapcious, exploitative Chinese producers when you need them? So much that is cheap in the US is so expensive here. There is a very noticeable difference in the prices of imports here. In any large store, you will see the Korean brand item next to an import brand (frequently European or American), with a very noticeable price differential. A 6-pack of Miller Genuine Draft costs $10(!), and a regular dispenser and roll of Scotch tape costs $3.50. The protectionism is so obvious and expensive, I dearly hope the recently negotiated FTA gets through. And of course, the car industry is ridiculously protected. Korean cars account for the vast majority of cars driven. I don’t think I have seen a single Honda or Toyota yet. Yet Japanese cars are perfect for Korean streets – they are small, green, and fuel efficient.