Sunday, October 25, 2009

The kind of press South Koreans crave (mostly)

In the aftermath of the Korean War, over half a century ago, South Korea was a mess. Wholesale destruction everywhere, a large portion of its population killed off, its industrial capabilities all but absent (since factories and power plants had largely been built in what was now North Korea, though much of that was flattened by US bombing), and a belligerent neighbor that was still trying to take down the government and take over the country.

That Korea crawled its way from the ashes to not just get back on its feet, but to become an economic powerhouse, is an amazing success story. Yet to many outside South Korea, impressions of the country have long been based on images of that long-ago war, M*A*S*H, or violent crackdowns on a democracy movement that had its heyday two decades ago.

It is against that backdrop that so many South Koreans are so sensitive about depictions of Korea. Two things are at work: A desire for the recognition the South Korean people have collectively worked so hard to achieve, and a disdain for anachronistically obsolete depictions of South Korea that paints the modern ROK in an unfavorable light.

And that's why pieces like this op-ed in the New York Times will likely get play in the Korean media. South Korea is now prosperous, perhaps even a responsible neighbor, and an influential regional and global player, and it wants props and kudos for that. The NYT op-ed deals especially with the latter:
Seoul’s profile is being raised in many directions: A Korean is U.N. secretary general; Korea is the host of next year’s Group of 20 summit; it has signed a free-trade deal with the European Union; it is seeking a big increase in its voting power at the International Monetary Fund to reflect its role in global trade.

All this has helped shift the global focus on Korea away from the problems of the peninsula and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions toward South Korea’s role as a normal middle-ranking power.

Southeast Asia is a particularly fertile ground for enhancing Seoul’s influence. So it is not surprising that in Hanoi, Lee and his Vietnamese counterpart, President Nguyen Minh Triet, agreed to a “strategic cooperative partnership” between their countries.

The nature of this partnership may be fuzzy, but it speaks to Korea’s determination to keep a balance in its regional relations. This is a complex equation given Seoul’s security dependence on the United States, the importance of China — now its largest trade partner — and its crucial but troubled relationship with Japan. Adding friends in Southeast Asia expands its influence and fine tunes its balancing act.

As for the Asean states, they mostly welcome more outside players in the region, particularly at a time when some have been worrying that China is becoming too important for their long-term comfort.

Korea’s desire for influence in the region has also had a constructive impact on Asean itself by pushing trade and financial agreements between Asean and the three northeast Asian countries, which otherwise could well have foundered on Sino-Japanese rivalry.

Economically there is nothing new about the Korean presence in Asean. Its companies were among the first to set up export factories in Vietnam more than a decade ago. Korean manufacturing investment is found everywhere in Asean. Koreans have bought up golf courses and colonized the tourist districts of Manila and Cebu in the Philippines. Their appliance manufacturers outsell all others in much of the region and Korean TV dramas have a huge following elsewhere in Asia.
The op-ed goes on to point other things, among them that South Korea has been stepping up its own aid, but that its lack of focus on democracy or human rights outside South Korea appeals to the governments of many ASEAN members.

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