Korean Political Science Association 2009 Biannual Meeting: “American Dual Containment in Asia”


The KPSA had its biannual meeting from August 20 to 22. Unlike the APSA, the KPSA meets only every two years, because of its size. It was a pretty good conference, but the papers generally feel short of APSA standards. This is the first one I attended. A few thoughts:

1. Just about all the attendees – Korean and foreign – got their PhD in the US. The elite universities in Korea are filled with people who got their PhDs in the US. I rarely meet people who attended those schools, only people who work at them. This speaks volumes about the very high quality of US education vis-a-vis the rest of the world. It also suggests graduate education is a major export sector of the US economy, but no one ever seems to conceptualize it that way.

2. Most of the papers were heavily focused on policy analysis and the day-to-day of Korean and regional politics. In this way, it didn’t feel like political science often to me, but like public policy. I guess this is ok, but it allows a lot of room for sheer opinionating and bloviating. But then again, many have complained that US political science is so theoretical and methodological that regular people can’t access it, it has become irrelevant to politics, and it is just another academic world unto itself. That’s true too. My feelings on this are mixed.

3. IR was vastly overrepresented among the political science subfields (theory, comparative, domestic [Korean], IR). At APSA, US politics’ seminars outweigh all the other sections combined. Not here. I think IR was a majority of the panels. I bet this reflects, 1. the general stasis of Korean domestic politics (interrupted by outbursts of violence on the streets or in the National Assembly), and 2. the immense international pressures on a small country like Korea, especially one surrounded by such large powers. It is a luxury of US politics that our internal politics feels so autonomous. As a superpower with good geography, we don’t have to pay attention to foreign opinion much. (Obama’s use of external anti-Americanism as a campaign tool was quite extraordinary.) Korea does not have that luxury, and the PS reflects that.

4. The geographic focus was solely on NE Asia. I didn’t see a single paper about another area. I find this a growing and disturbing trend here, especially when the state slogans are Global Korea, Dynamic Korea, Korea Rising, etc. I almost never meet anyone who knows anything about the ME, Africa, Latin America, or South Asia. In the context of topics like terrorism, religion, or development, one would need some exposure to these areas. But then again, I almost never see work by Korean academics on topics that are not immediately germane to NE Asia. I suppose this East Asiacentrism is forgivable given how small Korea is, but it speaks poorly of Korea and Korean political science that it seems so disinterested in the rest of the world (US excepted). I have met Korean IR political scientists who didn’t know the capital of Canada or that Iran is Shiite. Yikes!

5. About 40% of the participants were foreign – mostly Chinese and Americans, plus a few Japanese and Europeans. This tells me two things. One, there just aren’t that many political scientists in Korea. Two, they believe in recruiting foreign participation, even if the work proffered is pretty poor, because it serves the larger goal of Korea promotion.

6. The Biannual Meeting was used as another venue to, well, propagandize the Korean miracle. Speaker after speaker, both in the panels and in the general sessions like the dinner speakers, told us again and again how Korea grew from nothing to become the world’s 13th largest economy and a global ‘player.’ (I am so sick of hearing that last word.) There were a few government officials invited to speak as well, and they too went through this. It almost feels like a requirement from any serious personage in Korea, particularly when they speak to foreigners. The English language press here is filled with this story too. This incessant Koreaphoria suggests two things to me. a) They are nervous that their gains are tenuous, because they were so rapid. So perhaps telling the tale again and again, and telling foreigners too, and then expecting the foreigners to echo back the same story (and we are expected to repeat this party line), psychologically reinforces the solidity of the miracle on the Han. b) Koreans are extreme nationalists. Such constant self-celebration eventual begins to suggest arrogance and egomania. I try to be tolerant and simply smile as I hear the story told a million different ways. I try to understand why the story is so often repeated (because it feels so unreal, especially after the first 3/4 of the 20th C was so hard on Korea). But at some point, you just have to give in and say it is an example of the intense nationalism so many scholars have noted to exist outside the West. I am unaccustomed to this. My own feelings about the US hardly mirror the intensity of Korean feelings for Korea. It makes me uncomfortable.

7. The panels were far too short and too crowded. I am not sure how to interpret this. A very cynical friend said the answer is the image-consciousness of Korea. It is more important to list the panel and be able to mention it on your CV or in an TV interview, than to actually have it be a substantive process. So you cram as many people into as many panels as possible. Inevitably the panels are too short (75 minutes) and too crowded (1 panel leader, 4 presenters, 2 discussants). This is certainly what happened to my panel. A 20 minute presentation was chopped in half, and I got no meaningful feedback or discussion.

8. My presentation, what there was of it, argued that the US will ally with India in the near future. India is the only country that is also facing China and Islamism, and is democratic too. Here is my abstract, and the relevant graph on US alliance picks:

US grand strategy after 9/11 has turned from post-containment drift to preemption. But the costs are high – suspicion of American power, hedging by traditional allies, expensive, go-it-alone ventures like Iraq. Tried-and-true containment better reflects American values. While forward in the world, containment is also defensive. It reassures skittish partners and reflects liberal, anti-imperial US preferences. In Asia, containment could hold the line against radical Islam and Chinese nationalism without encouraging a global backlash. Democratic India shares these same two challengers with the US; it is the likely pivot in a US-backed neo-containment architecture in Asia.

3 thoughts on “Korean Political Science Association 2009 Biannual Meeting: “American Dual Containment in Asia”

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

  2. Pingback: Six-Party Talks as a Game Theoretic ‘Stag-Hunt’ (1): N Korea is the Stag « Asian Security & US Foreign Relations Blog

  3. Pingback: Off to China… 1) The ‘China Threat’ Thesis « Asian Security & US Foreign Relations Blog

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