Why Asian Relations Should Matter to Americans

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At “East Asia from a Korean Perspective,” part of the International Strategy Center’s Open Lecture series, journalist Nam, Moonhee explored the political background of Japan's involvement with North Korea. The event was a great opportunity for foreigners and Koreans to learn about international relations from a well-informed lecturer with English interpretation. On the day of the lecture, which was held near City Hall, people dressed in hanboks prepared to celebrate 70 years of independence from Japan while kites flew and musicians readied their drums. The day before, I heard about somber candlelight vigils and memorials in the U.S. and Japan remembering the people who died during World War II. The starkly different ways the day was marked stayed in my mind as I listened. I wondered why I had never heard about Koreans' celebration of the event when I was living in the U.S., and I realized how unaware we are of each other's point of view. I attended to learn more about the region that has been my home for four years. I was curious to find out how much I did not know about Korea and Japan and came away with more information than I expected.

I also attended the lecture because residents of a country have an obligation to their host country: They have a duty to learn about its culture and be a good representative of their own home countries. Becoming informed about international relations can make the average American better able to relate to people they meet.

An example of a topic that expats can become more informed about is Dokdo, which easily gets the average Korean fired-up. It is important to understand where they are coming from, and why they have such strong feelings towards it. After the ISC lecture, I asked Nam, Moonhee about the importance of the islets. I had heard many foreigners scoff at the idea that these islets mattered at all. They belittled Koreans' desire to maintain a territorial claim. Nam explained that Dokdo is strategically important for the military and drew parallels to China’s efforts to construct islands in the South China Sea using sand. Islands are never just rocks; they are important for staking maritime claims, which impact access to trade routes.

American policy makers need to listen to insiders from the region, or risk creating problems down the line due to their ignorance of the region's history and values. This is important as America continues to "pivot to Asia" and deploys more troops into the region, which may antagonize China. Rather than worrying that the U.S.is the only power strong enough to check China, we should consider whether or not China even needs to be checked. I refuse to engage in the cognitive dissonance that I've heard from other Americans: we're the world's police force and provide moral leadership, yet we've been more destructive than the ones we've tried to "check." We, in the US, are faced with two options: to act in our own interests, or to listen to others who know better; I prefer the path of listening and understanding.

With one of the main concerns in Asia being North Korea's development of a nuclear weapons program, Nam stressed the fact that South Korea is vitally important in understanding the North. Just recently we've seen that South Korea was able to talk the North down from the brink of war. Would outsider have been able to do the same?

Through interviews with North Korean defectors living in the south, South Koreans are privy to insider information about North Korea. After the lecture, it was interesting to listen to Nam's description of the growing North Korean economy gleaned from those interviews. From everything we are taught about North Korea, it is a communist country. But if one looks inside, the North Korean people are engaging in small-scale capitalism, producing everyday goods, such as toothpaste, which they can sell and invest the resulting profits into larger enterprises. Why had I not heard about this kind of entrepreneurism before? Perhaps Americans do not want to acknowledge that their sanctions against North Korea are ineffective? We also vilify North Korea's leaders and portray its people as helplessly starving. The reality is that due to relaxed regulations on farming and a blind eye to commercial endeavors, though not thriving, the North's economy seems to be doing better than expected. It was fascinating to get an inside look at how the Hermit Kingdom is developing.

American citizens can also use knowledge of Asian international relations to decide which policies to support and investigate where candidates stand on those issues. For example, Hillary Clinton was a leader of the pivot to Asia initiative, in which the US plans to gain a stronger military presence and more economic benefits from Asia. Voters should be aware of candidates’ stances on involvement in Asia, since US economic development seems to be heading in this direction in order to take advantage of billions of potential consumers in Asian markets. Voters should research what effects the Trans-Pacific Partnership would have on their nation's policy-making decisions. Since Korea has also expressed an interest in joining the agreement, I think it would be beneficial to have a dialogue about what the TPP could mean for both countries. Although the text of the TPP agreement is still being written, it is important to raise awareness about this deal so that when it is finally drafted, we can express our opinions before it becomes fixed in our foreign policy.

Finally, I’d like to reflect on the main topic of the lecture: Japan's relationship with Korea. The lecture focused on the possibility of Japan constructing an industrial complex in Wonsan, North Korea, which would take advantage of cheap labor and result in greater Japanese military presence. One of the main points of Nam's lecture was the importance of remaining wary of Japanese interests in the Korean peninsula.

Americans lack the anti-Japanese sentiment that is so deeply felt in Korea. Japan, as a bigger economic partner to the US than South Korea, is much better-known to the average American than South Korea. Japanese culture also enjoys a more influential presence in the US. To us, the Japanese are eccentric and interesting. To Koreans, as far as I can tell, they are bitter, unapologetic rivals. I think this colors how Japanese military action is seen differently by Americans and Koreans. Although the lecturer expressed distrust over Japanese motivations for a stronger military presence, the US seems to have put the events of the past behind it, probably because it had not suffered as much as Korea did: After all, Koreans were more deeply affected by years of Japanese colonial rule. So, while I cannot fully understand Koreans' distrust toward the Japanese, I think that it is important to acknowledge the Korean view on Asian relations. In the same way, Korea should be open to settling the Dokdo dispute and should not feel betrayed when the US takes a neutral stance in disputes between the two countries.

I thank the International Strategy Center for keeping its members informed of current political topics and creating a space for dialogue on these issues. I plan on attending more of their events and meet other well-informed lecturers and participants.

written by Andrea Schnitzer