Sung-Joo Han Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Diplomacy and International Politics: Conversation with Sung-Joo Han, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea; October 30, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

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South Korean Politics

What was your dissertation on?

I wrote my dissertation on the democratization process in Korea, with a focus on the student uprising in 1960, in which I participated. At that time I did participate in the demonstration, and when we went to the presidential palace or residence, the police began to shoot at us. Dozens of students were shot and killed on the spot. At that time, I had gotten some military training, so I crawled my way out of the milieu, but I tried to put it in what is generally known as political scientific context.

That must have been a searing experience on your politics, on your thinking about your country and so on.

Yes. The title of the book, which was published by the University of California Press, is The Failure of Democracy in South Korea. The theme was that even though it was not apparent at that time, there was a tremendous ideological cleavage in Korea. The cleavage was between the democratic forces and the authoritarian forces, the leftist forces and the rightist forces. For many years, in fact decades, the ideological conflict didn't become apparent, because we were in confrontation with North Korea. There was no room for leftism to be expressed, and everybody was fighting for democratic rights. So even though we had authoritarian politics, the ideal, of course, was democracy.

Today, we have tremendous ideological cleavage and conflict in Korea, which I hoped would heal and converge, but that convergence hasn't taken place. If anything, it has gotten worse. Sometimes it has been expressed in our relationship with other countries, such as our relationship with the United States, our relationship with North Korea.

We'll talk about that in a minute, but let's go back to this work. This ideological clash meant that there were different views about North Korea and about the United States by these two groups as they fought over the degree of democratization within Korea itself.

Yes. Most people were in favor of and fighting for democracy. Those who are on the right piggybacked on this democratic struggle to promote their ideology. Those on the left also piggybacked on the democratic struggle to promote theirs, and now we have not only the cleavage between the right and the left, but also in our approach toward North Korea and in our relationship with the United States.

Coming now to the present, you say that this conflict has never healed. Why has it never healed? Why has it never resolved itself? Because the country was never reunited?

That is a very important element. After the Second World War, there were several countries -- Germany, China, Vietnam, and Korea -- that were divided. China remains divided, but Korea is most conspicuously divided. When you look at the alliance with the United States, a great majority in an annual opinion survey, about 80 percent of the Koreans, will say, "We need the continued presence of American troops in Korea." And yet, when you ask people, "Do you like America?" the answer comes in a different way. In some ways, being familiar, being too close, and the sense of being too dependent on another country can make people resentful.

We're also witnessing now in your country a change of generations, because a big chunk of the population in Korea must have been born after the Korean War.

Of course. Even the president himself, although he was born after the [onset] of the Korean War, has no real memory of the war as such. Many people who are in government were born long after the end of the Korean War, so they don't understand the circumstances under which the American forces began to be present in Korea, much less remember what happened then. Also, they grew up during a period of relative prosperity and generally democratic politics. Although many of them had fought against [our own] authoritarian, military government, so they have the experience of fighting against authoritarian governments, they don't have much memory of economic hardship. They certainly don't feel, in their skins, [the fear] of the threat that did exist, and that it's still very much a part of our life coming from the outside.

Of course, Korea has done very well economically in the meantime -- with a little help from us, maybe, in the beginning, but since then its economy has really taken off. So there must be a kind of a social base for being more autonomous and not being dependent in the way the country was in the early phase of the Cold War.

Well, they certainly want to be more assertive. There is an urge to be even overly assertive. If you feel very sure of yourself, then even some impression of slight may be passed up as nothing very serious; but we are very conscious of how other people treat us. For example, a few weeks ago when President Bush went over to Bangkok to attend the APEC meeting, his plane needed to refuel somewhere, so they chose Tokyo to be the layover place, just one night. And people in Korea felt they were slighted, "How come he chose Japan and not us?" So regardless of whether they like the United States so or not, whether they like President Bush or not, the fact that they did not stop in Korea is seen as a slap on the face.

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