Office of the President

Complexity and Contradiction

Monday, Oct. 16, 2006

SEOUL —  As I prepared for this trip to Korea, more than a few friends asked, “You’re not really going to Korea right now, are you?”  Their concern was fueled, of course, by the nuclear test in North Korea and the rising tensions over it.  I replied that, as a student of public policy and politics, this seemed like a perfect time to visit. I was right, but not for the reasons I thought.
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It is easy to form an opinion of a new country after visiting for just a few days. That opinion is nearly always wrong — or at best incomplete.  Thus, my observations of Korea should be recognized for what they are — the first impressions of someone who benefits from traveling with wonderfully well informed faculty members and who are excited about the place.
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A most remarkable place

Korea strikes me as a most remarkable place, with a history to match. Standing in the midst of the neon, glass and stainless steel pastiche that is the central business district of Seoul, it is hard to fathom that within my lifetime South Korea has transformed itself from one of the poorest countries on earth to one of the wealthiest; that this nation’s businesses successfully compete head-to-head in the most technologically challenging industries (computing, consumer electronics, telecommunications, automobiles) when 30 years ago much of today’s Seoul was still rice paddies; that this vibrant city can seem completely focused on “business as usual” when kilometers away the DMZ still stands as a poignant reminder that armed conflict would bring immediate ruin to the city.
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My first impressions also make clear the great complexity and contradictions of this city.  Chatting with UW alumni reveals a clear generation gap when it comes to politics. The generation that remembers both the Korea of old and the Korean War tends to be conservative and staunchly pro-American. Young people much less so.

U.S.-Korean relationship is complicated

I asked individuals about a recent poll that suggested that the majority of Koreans felt that U.S. policies provoked the nuclear test in the North.  The replies — “Nonsense!” “Of course!” and “Maybe” — could be predicted by age as well as anything.

The relationship with the U.S. is complicated. There is still nothing as valuable in Korea as a degree from an American university. As a result, Korea leads all nations in sending students to the U.S., with increasing numbers coming for high school as well as college. Partnerships with American businesses and selling to American consumers are the greatest desires of many.  And people on the street are friendly and warm when dealing with us. On the other hand, there is great ambiguity about the American military presence and open concern about our foreign policy, including Iraq.  America and Americans are clearly held in high regard. American policies receive mixed, but strongly held, reviews.
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Serious study and partnership are crucial to understanding

This, my first trip to Korea, has already served as a powerful reminder of why universities need to be fully engaged in international study and exchanges. It is simply impossible to grasp the fullness of this culture and its people without serious study and partnership. A few years ago, many people might have asked, “Why on earth does the UW bother studying the Middle East and Islam?” Some months ago, the same might have been asked about Korea. Today we know. The complexity of the world around us cannot be understood without extended study and exchanges. If we, as a nation, are to be successfully connected to the world, we need to go live in it. Korea makes that abundantly clear.