What SK President Lee should have said to the US Congress

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak Apologies PQZbJ4V5Fo8l

Regular readers will know that I like President Lee, even if he has a taste for hyper-presidentialization. On October 13 he spoke before the US Congress. It was a good speech that didn’t actually tell you much that you didn’t already know. Because Korea is asymmetrically dependent on the US for exports (Korea’s third biggest market) and for security (the US alliance), Lee couldn’t really level any necessary criticisms.

So here is the speech Lee should have given:

“Thank you for inviting me, but honestly how many of you congressmen know anything about my country? How many of you could name a city in Korea besides Seoul? How many of you recognize Kim Jong-Il’s name but not mine? How many of you think the Choseon Dynasty is the name of a Chinese restaurant in Union Station? So let’s drop the insipid, hollow bonhomie about how this ‘visit will also celebrate the strong bonds of friendship between the American and Korean people.’ Koreans most definitely want that, but for most of you untraveled, monolinguistic congressmen, this relationship is ideological more than real: SK confronts a stalinist rogue onto which Americans project an idealization of democracy vs. the axis of evil. But how many of you congressman have ever travelled to Asia (much less Korea), especially you neo-con hawks who want me to risk nuclear brinksmanship with the North? You’re too busy visiting Israel, and if you learn foreign languages, you bone-headed Americans still go for Spanish or French, because they’re easy with lots of cognates. We learn English like mad, but you couldn’t care less about our languageLots of Koreans resent your projection of the US values and foreign policy preferences onto a country you are startling ignorant about. We are just too polite to tell you, and we really need your markets and military help so we don’t say it.

Next, WTH is wrong with your political system? The world used to look at you as model. Remember the Washington Consensus? Now the rest of the world thinks you are bonkers. The Tea Party particularly has become a global embarrassment. The same Republicans in this chamber who so desperately want me to pick fight with North Korea also think your president is a Muslim socialist. You run a budget deficit in excess of 10% of GDP; your unemployment rate would generate street riots in my country, and the IMF thinks your debt-to-GDP ratio will top 100% by the end of the decade. Koreans are starting to realize that your politics are astonishingly dysfunctional and that we can’t count on you the way we used to. We want you to be an Asia-Pacific power, but we also know you are broke and that you lost your mind over Islamism in the last decade. Now we are all wondering if you are in decline or not. Just telling us that America is ‘exceptional,’ or that declinism is an overhyped myth is not enough. We live next to China (and Russia, and NK) not you. So get your act together, or we’ll start looking elsewhere soon, and if really pressed we might have to go nuclear.

Next, you better get used to Asia. The war on terror was a big mistake, even if a lot of Korean Christians supported if for the same tribal reasons the Tea party does. For a decade you chased around ghosts, built a fearsome national security state that makes it hard for my citizens to get visa into your country (even though the ‘American and South Korean peoples share deep ties rooted in history’), and convinced my fellow citizens that you are a global bully. Instead of focusing on China with a billion-plus people engaged in the fastest, widest modernization in history, you obsessed over the Middle East to the expense of other areas of interest. We even went to Iraq with you to show our goodwill and commitment.

But there’s no way my electorate will let us pull that stunt again. It’s time for you to think a lot more about how you really want to participate in the world’s fastest growing region. Remember, we Asians buy about half your Treasury bonds. You need us a lot more than you think. You think you have social discontent in the US now? Just wait until all those cheap Asian products your voters have come to expect in Walmart jump in price because you congressmen pick trade wars with a region you know almost nothing about. Bluster about ‘America is an Asian power’ is not enough. You people need to start learning Asian languages, sending your students here for junior years abroad, get your trade policy in order, and generally realize that trouble in places like Israel, NATO, and Pakistan pale in importance to the monumental rise of China and India. In security, the world may be unipolar, but in economics it is multipolar.

Finally, thank you for helping Korean security. Most Koreans are genuinely aware of the US commitment and are grateful for it. (We just wish you weren’t so d— arrogant and condescending about it.) Indeed, you should contrast us with your other allies. We are not insolent trouble-makers like Israel, Turkey, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, or Pakistan. Nor are gleefully exploitative free-riders like Germany, Japan, and Italy. We carry our weight pretty well. What other medium power allies went to Iraq or fights the Somali pirates?

So yes, we are grateful for the alliance. We like America generally, and we all learn English because of that. But we also wonder why you don’t seem to know anything about our country, even though we are 50 million people, in the G-20, and a far more capable yet loyal ally than almost any other you have. Israel has only 7 million people and they live in a lot less danger than we do, but you obsess about them in a way you never have about us. Given that Asia is rising, while the Middle East has a become a sink-hole of American power, we understand your disinterest in Asia even less. How many more books with titles like ‘when China rules the world’ do you need to read before you realize that your Middle East obsession is ridiculously overwrought? We look forward to the day your English teachers, soldiers, and other expats can speak a little Korean, behave better, and know what the Choseon Dynasty was.’

Filed under: Korea (North), Korea (South), United States

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University