Insights and Analysis

Q&A: New Korea Representative Peter Beck Discusses Challenges Facing the Peninsula

January 18, 2012

Peter BeckWeeks into his new post, In Asia editor Alma Freeman spoke with The Asia Foundation’s new Korea country representative, Peter Beck, from Seoul for his insight on South Korea’s domestic politics, North Korea’s transition, Seoul’s new mayor, the contentious National Security Law, and more.

You have lived and worked extensively in South Korea, and you’re an expert on issues related to the region, particularly North Korea. How did you first become interested in Korea?

When I was a college student, my mother worked for United Airlines and I was lucky enough to spend my summers traveling. In the spring of 1987, I visited Seoul on the very eve of Korea’s democratization. Right outside my humble inn I could see students fighting for the freedoms I had been born with. This made a lasting impression on me. I also became fascinated by Korea’s rapid economic development. How did one of the poorest countries in the world develop so quickly?  For me, a dynamic country with friendly people was an unbeatable combination. So, when I got back to college, I immediately started studying Korean and changed my major to Asian Studies.

What do you see as the most critical issues facing the Korean peninsula now?

South Koreans are watching the transition in North Korea closely. The vast majority hope the transition will be smooth and stable. Almost no one here wants a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime.

Domestic politics is also in a state of flux. There is going to be a presidential election here in December and, true to the nature of democracy, it’s too hard to tell who is even in the lead right now. Meanwhile, voting irregularities in the Seoul mayoral election and a still unfolding bribery scandal are rocking the ruling Grand National Party.

In terms of Korean society, the issue that is getting the most attention right now is the education system and in particular the problem with bullying and suicides among students. There is growing public awareness that even though Korean students are some of the best test-takers in the world, more attention needs to be paid to developing students’ social skills and civic values.

On the economic front, Koreans are very anxious about the world economy. Korea is heavily dependent on trade. If Europe goes back into recession and China slows down, that could have a serious impact on the Korean economy.

I’ve heard that Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon, who was just elected a few months ago, is one of the most important figures in Korea.

That’s true. Since almost half of all Koreans live in or around Seoul, the mayor of Seoul is one of the most influential positions in the country. People are paying close attention to how the new mayor performs and how that could impact the upcoming presidential election. In some ways, the election of the mayor and National Assembly elections to be held in April act like America’s primaries in that that they will shape the presidential election.

Can you talk about South Korea’s role as a donor (and host of the recent High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF4) in Busan), and how its history as the first country to have transformed itself from an aid recipient to donor may provide lessons for other countries and their leaders?

Korea’s economic transformation is nothing short of remarkable. That a country that was among the poorest in the world 50 years ago could be a major aid donor today is really quite amazing. Korea’s overseas development assistance (ODA) agency was only created 20 years ago. And, President Lee Myung-bak has promised to double South Korea’s per capita GDP spending on ODA by 2015. He faced considerable opposition within his own government for making this such a high priority. The HLF4 in Busan was really a coming out party not just for South Korea but for other emerging aid donors and civil society. This was the first time that the High Level Forum had a significant role for non-governmental organizations. Korea doesn’t have much of a philanthropy culture – so this is a very new phenomenon.

Yet surveys show that the Korean public is aware of the critical role that aid played in their own success, and widely supports Korea’s role in assisting the development of other countries in Asia. What do think of this?

Koreans over the age of 50 can still remember receiving assistance from the United States, so that has made a big impact on the public’s psyche. Korea has developed the Korea Overseas Volunteer Corps, Korea’s own vibrant version of the Peace Corps. It has already grown to be the third largest overseas volunteer group in the world. A dozen graduate schools in Korea now offer degrees in English in international relations and development studies, so I think it is fair to say that Koreans are becoming even more aware of the importance of helping developing countries follow in Korea’s path.

Sometimes on the streets of Seoul, older Koreans will stop me and say, “Thank you for the cornbread that your government [the U.S.] provided when I was a student.” There’s also a growing recognition that it’s in Korea’s national interest to promote the prosperity of the region and the world – as countries develop, they become better trade partners.

What are your thoughts so far on North Korean leadership of Kim Jong-un?

Well, pessimists argue that Kim Jong-un is too young, the transition happened too suddenly, and the North doesn’t have experience with collective leadership. Thus, succession is unlikely to proceed smoothly or go well. While I’m reluctant to call myself an optimist, I’ve said from the start that I expected the transition to go smoothly. It is true that we don’t even know how old Kim Jong-un is; only that he is in his late 20s. He is quite young, and an untested leader. It will take time before he is able to demonstrate his leadership skills and win the allegiance of the key generals around him. But the elder Kim chose his brother-in-law and his most trusted general to serve as protectors for his young son. I think this was an insurance policy so that if he did die suddenly, there would be a succession plan in place.

North Korea’s per capita income is less than 5 percent of the South’s. What kind of issues does this raise on the Korean Peninsula and what can be done to improve this situation?

It is quite amazing that South Korea grows by the size of the North’s entire economy each year. What that means is that the gap between North and South Korea is only growing. In fact, North Korea’s population is actually growing faster than South Korea’s and that also adds to the burden. So, while I don’t think reunification is just around the corner, given that it will be a decades-long task that will cost trillions of dollars, I think it’s wise for South Korea to begin planning for reunification now by preparing the funds that will be needed once the process begins.

Some Korea-watchers criticize South Korea’s National Security Law, saying it restricts freedom of expression for a democratic nation. What are people saying in Seoul about this?  

There’s no question that the National Security Law is an infringement on freedom of expression in South Korea. But, it’s really not unlike laws that were passed in the United States after 9/11. A strong majority of the Korean public supports the National Security Law in some form. The question is, how restrictive should the law be? For example, as the law stands it is illegal to access websites that are pro-North Korea. It’s very difficult for me to read the North Korean media because most web sites are blocked. Despite that, most South Koreans recognize the need for some restrictions because the threat from North Korea is unfortunately still very real.

Peter Beck is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Korea. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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