Insights and Analysis

Former Korea Country Representative David Steinberg Reflects on A Nation in Transition

November 12, 2014

By David I. Steinberg

DavidSteinbergThe Asia Foundation marked its 60th anniversary with a special day-long event and gala on November 6 in Seoul, Korea, hosted by former Foreign Minister Han Sung-Joo, chair of JoongAng Media Network and former Korean ambassador to the U.S. Hong Seok-Hyun, and former Minister of Science and Technology Kim Jin-Hyun. The event, which began with the “America’s Role in Asia” Roundtable featuring Foundation Chairman of the Board, David Lampton, as the keynote speaker, included a panel discussion with five former Korea country representatives whose tenures ranged from 1963 to 2014. Below are panel remarks from David Steinberg who served as representative in Korea from 1963-1968 and again in 1995-1998.

As an eighteenth century philosopher said, “People will not look forward to posterity who never look back at their ancestors.” All of us may not wish to be considered as “ancestors,” but in some sense we all are. And our experiences have shaped and may influence future Asia Foundation activities in Korea. We have here an illustrious collection of former representatives of the Foundation in Korea, who will momentarily speak. But it would be remiss not to mention those who could not be here today: Scott Snyder, Chris Sigur, and Lindley Sloan. We should also remember those who have passed on:

Philip Rowe (the first representative, who is buried here in Seoul), Jack James, Larry Thompson, Mary Walker, Bill Eilers, Frank Dines, and John Bannigan. Each in their own way was important, as were the assistant representatives for much of that period.

The Foundation could not have operated in Korea without its dedicated staff who have often been with us for decades. I am sure that all of us here salute what you have done, for without you we would have been wandering in the proverbial intellectual deserts. Speaking for all of us, we thank you—both past and present.

I would like to go back half a century – when I first arrived in Korea in 1963. I had to relearn from my Asian experiences because I had been trained first in Chinese studies, and was in the last group of American undergraduates in China in 1948-49, and then in Burmese and Southeast Asian studies. Korea had been given short shrift in my Asian education, which was centered on a Sino-centric view of East Asian history. I first had to understand the uniqueness of the Korean experience that I had not fully recognized before I came to Seoul.

In the first weekends I sat in the office alone and read every program file from the opening of the office. These were difficult years – not only because of poverty and the aftermath of the Korean War, but also because of political and intellectual repression under both Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee. Although never articulated in the files, my general conclusion was that the function of the Foundation during those turbulent times was to keep the broad intellectual community alive by fostering their research, helping to build institutions that would provide their intellectual sustenance, and to put such Koreans in touch with professional communities abroad. Let us not forget that there was little available funding at that time that would support objective research internally, and almost no foreign exchange that would enable Koreans to meet professionally abroad. In spite of three years of U.S. military occupation and the Korean War, Korea was effectively unknown in the West. To make Korea better known and respected in those circles, and subject to international professional relationships that would improve the quality of these research efforts, the Foundation provided support. Foreign exchange was impossible to obtain to go to a professional meetings abroad, and even for the import of non-strategic materials. So the Foundation helped, and did so extensively.

A subsidiary aspect of this emphasis was to promote Korean culture. Other organizations supported knowledge of foreign cultures, especially the United States, but the Foundation concentrated on Korean culture. Those today who talk and write about Hallyu, or the Korean “wave,” or Hallyu in Korean foreign policy, may not understand that Koreans were terribly isolated. The Japanese occupation, the Korean War, and lack of financing all meant that few abroad knew about Korea and those in Korea had little contact abroad. The Asia Foundation was, I believe, the only resident foreign organization to assist Koreans develop an understanding and pride in their own culture, which had been suppressed for so long under the colonial occupation. And so it was that before my time, the Foundation imported paper, not readily available, to print the first Korean dictionary in the post-war period. We did the same for Sowon, the leading women’s magazine, and Sasangae, the liberal intellectual journal. We supported the printing of the guide to the National Museum, and helped artists, writers, researchers, and journalists internally and to study and travel abroad.

In the early 50s, The Asia Foundation provided support for Asian publishers, distributing newsprint in war-torn and newly independent countries like the Philippines, Myanmar, Malaysia, Pakistan, and, here, Korea, where it’ was used for textbooks.

In the early 50s, The Asia Foundation provided support for Asian publishers, distributing newsprint in war-torn and newly independent countries like Korea, above, where it was used for textbooks.

We tried to help strengthen institutions – from the Graduate School of Law at Seoul National University to research at Korea University’s Asiatic Research Center, and English training at Yonsei, as well as selected provincial universities. The only inter-university research center in Korea, and the Foreign Service Institute, now IFANS, were supported by the Foundation; and the list could go on.

There is, however, a more basic point – a question asked at a pivotal moment in Korean history. I want to mention an incident that occurred that remains vivid in my memory partly because of the importance of the issue and when it took place. I was invited to present a paper at a conference in Seoul in June 1987. There had been massive demonstrations in the streets calling for democratic and constitutional changes and the direct election of the president, freeing Kim Dae Jung, and more freedoms of many sorts. The atmosphere was tense, and those of us at the conference expected blood in the streets the next day. But that evening, Roh Tae Woo, President Chun Doo Hwan’s choice to succeed him as president, went on television saying that effectively the government gave in to the people’s demands. This was the second in four people’s revolution in consecutive years in East Asia – the flower revolution in the Philippines in 1986, Korea in 1987, Burma in 1988, and Tiananmen in 1989; two succeeded and two failed. The next day there was a palpable sigh of relief. In the course of the conference, a younger Korean academic accused the Foundation of engaging in “social engineering” in Korea. This was, for its vagueness, a serious charge. I do not remember exactly how I responded, except to demur, but for a long period after I gave serious thought to that concept.

I believed, and still believe, it was an inaccurate charge. For the Foundation, in contrast to many foreign aid organizations public and private, came into Korea with no projects – no stipulated, preconceived agenda. The autonomy of the representative was remarkable. Those projects supported were Korean projects proposed to the Foundation as needs that could use foreign support and assistance – sometimes not even money but prestige and the aura of neutrality in a highly contentious and factionalized community. Yes, we picked support to what we though offered the best chance for Korea to accomplish positive ends that they themselves had chosen. So if “social engineering” had been done, it was by the Koreans themselves. What impressed me was the dedication of many of those we helped. They were determined to do something positive. We did not support the many Koreans at that time who approached foreign aid organizations, saying “Tell me what you want done and I will do it,” for that was opportunistic and destructive of the goal. So the question of social engineering was right, but our answer was, I believe, even more correct.

When I returned to Korea as representative in the 1990s, the scene had obviously profoundly changed. The Koreans had ample funds, and a number of Korean foundations supported appropriate projects – not necessarily innovative or as we say “cutting edge” ideas, but needed and safe projects – schools, hospitals, scholarships. The Asia Foundation’s role had changed. Our very modest funding was not needed, but our neutrality, objectivity, international contacts, auspices, and ability to take risks were still in demand. As Korea changed, so did the Foundation’s response.

On reflection, in the modern world we think of the future as before us and the past behind. But the ancient Greeks had a different notion. They thought that the past was in front of them because they knew what had happened, and it was the future that was behind them, because they could not see and anticipate what might come next. And so this panel essentially looks ahead based on the past. I don’t think Koreans or foreigners anticipated the spectacular rise of Korea and its contribution to its people and the world. Economic growth is most renowned but its political progress has been impressive, and the retirement of the military from the Korean political scene has been outstanding on any world-class measurement scale. And Korean culture has become appreciated worldwide, and not just the Kangnam style, of which, I must admit, I am not a fan. But looking backward toward the future, we can anticipate progress and continued appreciation of Korea’s contribution to the world scene.

Foreigners can take no credit for these past changes or indeed future progress, as much as we might like to do so. Wouldn’t it would be pretty to think so, to paraphrase the last line in a Hemingway novel, but it would be hubris to attribute progress to foreign sources. While those of us involved in Korea over the years can take satisfaction from what has happened here, but we cannot take credit. If we were not just the observers of the passing parade, as someone once said, we were on the sidelines cheering those who marched and offering some sustenance to those who often suffered for their just causes. And that is enough.

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus at Georgetown University, and Visiting Scholar at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, and author of 14 books and monographs. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.


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