Wednesday, November 05, 2008

President Barack Obama Series: Korea's Reaction

Dear Korean,

What is the Korean news media saying about our new president-elect Barack Obama? My mom reports that according to some Korean radio program, an Obama administration would not be beneficial for South Korea. 진짜? Is that the consensus in S. Korea?


Dear Annalog,

First, a shout-out to your lovely blog.

For the ease of writing, “Koreans” in this post means “Koreans in Korea,” not “Korean Americans.”

There are mainly two reactions from Korea about the Obama administration: admiration for American democracy that enabled black presidency, and caution for his stance on free trade and U.S. military outside of America.

First, Koreans are genuinely impressed by the fact that America did elect a black president. Because there is so much publicity about the history of racism in America, Koreans have a perception that America is an extremely racist country. The fact that a black candidate won shatters that perception.

Certainly, there are some detractors. Some media outlets in Korea are noting that Obama is half-white, practically raised as a white child by his white mother and maternal grandparents in a relatively racism-free Hawaii, or that his father was not a descendant of a slave, but a well-off Kenyan elite. However, overwhelming majority of Korean newspapers are expressing nothing about admiration on this point, some using this opportunity to look back upon Korean people’s own (crappy) treatment of racial minorities in Korea.

However, Koreans are concerned about what Obama administration may bring to the U.S.-Korea relations based on Obama’s campaign stumps. Essentially, Korea needs two things from U.S.: trading in a preferred status, and military guarantee in case of a North Korean invasion. McCain administration would have guaranteed both. John McCain repeatedly asserted the virtue of free trade agreements, and no one would doubt that McCain would react swiftly and decisively if there were a North Korean invasion of South Korea.

On the other hand, the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the South Korean auto industry were two of Barack Obama’s favorite whipping boys during his campaign. Obama consistently stressed that KORUS FTA was not fair with respect to its auto industry arrangements, suggesting that he would renegotiate it.

Few Americans know about KORUS FTA, but all Koreans know what KORUS FTA does for Korea. Except for a small group of vocal minority (farmers who would lose business to cheap U.S. agricultural products,) everyone in Korea loves the FTA. Koreans realize that they must trade or perish, and they fully understand the benefits of KORUS FTA. Indeed, although the presidency of Roh Moo-Hyun, preceding the current president, is considered an unmitigated disaster, his success in negotiating KORUS FTA is considered a significant achievement.

So it does concern Koreans a great deal when Obama calls KORUS FTA “badly flawed”. In fact, how Obama presidency would affect the FTA is the dominating headline in Korean newspapers right now. This is probably where Annalog’s mother was coming from.

The Korean thinks Obama was not serious about these characterizations. Democrats need union voters, and union voters dislike free trade agreements. If you remember, one of the issues during the Democratic primary was whether Obama and Hillary Clinton opposed NAFTA strongly enough. Once past the primary, Obama could not turn around and say that he favored free trade agreements; he had to continue the same message, not in the least because he needed to differentiate himself from McCain, who is vocally pro-free trade agreements.

So the Korean personally thinks that Obama will not go as far as his rhetoric may have suggested. But truly, no one knows if Obama meant what he said, or was throwing out campaign-specific sugar words. If Obama seriously tries to significantly alter KORUS FTA, Korean people’s opinion of him will quickly turn.

Another possibility is more remote, but potentially much more disastrous for Korea. Before the economy dominated the headlines for the last month of the campaign, the war in Iraq was the top priority in the presidential campaign. And Obama’s stance was quite clear: Iraq war was a mistake, and the U.S. military will get out as soon as practicable.

This gave rise to a valid concern: is the United States heading toward more isolationism under Barack Obama? It would not be very surprising if it is – American people are tired of dealing with another country’s mess, especially when they have their own economic mess to deal with. Then, as a country that depends heavily upon the U.S. military for its security, Korea may be in a more precarious position that it was before.

Of course, North Korea is not Iraq. No one was thinking about preemptively attacking North Korea, and such attack definitely would not happen under Obama administration. Thus, Korean War II would only happen when North Korea, again, invades the South. The chance that U.S. would not assist South Korea in such case appears quite remote.

But while the chance may be remote, it did increase by a little bit by having Obama administration rather than McCain administration. For example, consider this scenario: around March 2009, Kim Jong-Il suddenly dies. The top two factions of North Korea began to commandeer their own section of the army and begin a civil war. One of the factions, sensing defeat, asks for Chinese intervention. Chinese army gathers by the Yalu River, and begins the march toward Pyongyang.

South Korean government, sensing once-in-a-century opportunity for reunification and a real danger of Chinese occupation of half of Korean Peninsula, decides to roll its military in a race toward Pyongyang. Of course, South Korean government does not realistically expect that it can win a war against China; it is counting on the fact that, if South Korea were ever seriously threatened, U.S. military would intervene. Meanwhile, the U.S. military is still mostly tied up in Iraq.

Everything above is a realistic scenario, and the question is – would the Obama administration provide military support? The Korean is inclined to say yes, if South Korea is seriously threatened. (U.S. may, however, let the South Korean army get destroyed in Pyongyang.) However, this is just an educated guess, and America, under President Obama, may as well say no. Then it would be a disaster scenario for South Korea.

So all in all, the future of Korea-U.S. relations under the Obama administration is not all sprinkles of flowers and candies. As an American, the Korean prefers Barack Obama. (Although, unlike other liberals, the Korean would not have minded John McCain presidency.) However, Korea just needs two things from the U.S.: trade and security. McCain would have guaranteed both. Whether Obama would provide those two things are not as certain. There is the source of Korean people’s concern over the coming Obama presidency.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Really, really well written. Very well put. A great read. Thanks for that. Well done!

  2. Excellent response. Thank you!

  3. When Greg Mankiw posted up some commentary by a Times India columnist bashing Obama on his trade related voting record, an immediate reaction I had was, if it's that bad for India, it's gotta be even worse for Korea.

    It sure is a hard truth to swallow for Korean Americans.

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  5. A small but important point (from a non-Obama supporter):

    While I'm sure The Korean's assessment of Korean public opinion is correct, that doesn't mean that KORUS FTA is actually good for the average Korean. That's just how they happen to perceive it, thanks to the efficacy of bought-and-paid-for politicians framing the public dialogue to their advantage.

    ("Free Trade Agreements" aren't necessary for free trade. Just because a politician opposes, say, NAFTA, doesn't mean that they're "isolationist" [a word The Korean probably chose flippantly, but regretfully]. These kinds of agreements exist because huge companies like General Electric or Citigroup or General Mills spend millions of dollars lobbying for them, ensuring that their own interests are protected by "free trade" policy. The rules created by NAFTA and CAFTA and other agreements generally don't help the little guy.)

    On the other hand, Obama doesn't want to get rid of KORUS FTA, but rather wants to "significantly alter" it. Which probably just means he is looking out for the interests of some huge companies that weren't considered by the framers of the original agreement.

    ...which is why Korean public opinion might be correct after all.

  6. I’m not Korean but I’ve been happily married to one for 27 years and with an extended Korean family living with me for the past 10 years. I'm a Black man with some Native American and some Caucasian ancestry. As a black man the Obama nomination was truly an amazing event that no black person ever thought would happen in our current life. Believe me, America still has allot of racism with allot of people who are blinded with old hate. Even though the majority of Americans are educated, fair thinking, and are not racist, in a country of 300 million, the 1-2% who are (backward), and who can't let go of the hateful past and thinking they were handed down is a BIG Problem. That’s allot of people for creating problems and confusion. Every minority who has come to this country to live, do business or even to merely vacation has benefitted from the struggles black people have fought and died for to make things change. Barack Obama is a direct result of this struggle and he knows it. His mothers mixed marriage would hardly been even a little bit accepted if not for the 1960’s Civil Rights “Fight”, and the opening of so many people’s minds. Barack Obama is a unique person, who in this countries environment (economic, discord in war, disunity in peoples, and race relationships) has come at the and only possible time. He would not have been possible in some other favorable time. Obama is very highly educated and knows to take the guidance of people who are in the know. By his own makeup and being he stands in the middle and is very aware of this. He is not the past. He will not deal with the issues through arrogance. His education allows him to know what he knows, and what he doesn’t. This is what President Clinton stated that he became aware of about him, why Collin Powel decided to support him, and even someone like Warren Buffet supported him. Korean’s do not have to worry about Barack Obama. The NAFTA deal may need to be looked at again. But that doesn’t mean anyone has to be a loser. As to the worry about North Korea and what America will do, everyone knows the issues there, and what it means to all of Asia if the situation there changes, and South Korea is threatened. South Korea to all Americans stands as an example for the success of Democracy, the Freedom of People, and a Free Economy. We all know this has to be supported at all cost, and the only way out is for North Korea to see the light. As I’ve been closely familiar with Koreans for so many years (nearly all my acquaintances as my wives friends are my friends, most all) I feel free to say this. Koreans are often a little too sensitive especially when it comes to their being Korean and their country. My suggestion is to fell positively for our new president. Work with him not from a defensive posture, but as a partner. Obama truly wants to and needs to find resolutions to these problems, and not create new ones.

  7. walker,

    If you read a little more closely, you would realize that "isolationism" has to do with military intervention, not with trade agreements. Do not quibble with the Korean's word choice -- it is a massive insult.


    The Korean would agree with everything you said, but whether or not America under Obama administration would do everything that Koreans want is definitely not a sure thing.

    And you are absolutely right, Koreans are pretty sensitive about these things. If your country was wiped out twice in the last 100 years, you would be pretty sensitive too.

  8. I am commenting on your article, "President Barack Obama Series:Korea's Reaction". It was very well-written and now I am reading other articles, such as America, The Least Racist Country in the World and Why Do Koreans Hate Japanese? I have been on your blog for quite some time today and will be sending others your way. Love your blog, seriously. By the way, I am African American and I googled in "Racists Reactions to Obama Presidency and your blog was first. I hope that is no indication of reality on your part.

  9. One more thing... most African Americans are of mixed ancestry, so I don't understand the reaction to Obama's mixed racial heritage. I am African, Cherokee-Lumbee Native American and English-Irish, that's all I know of. Obama appeals to many people on many different levels because of his mixed heritage and his diverse education and living situations. I think it is a great accomplishment for all the world.
    I'd also like to add your blog link to my blog, It could be interesting to people of colour to understand others' viewpoints. That's the beginning of understanding. Really, love your blog.

  10. Walker,
    I very well understand isolationism including America's position in Asia. I served 20 years in the military and retired after 20 years. Part of military training also includes our countries military history, and our military role & responsibility in the world. A good reading is "United States Naval Operations - Korea" by James A. Field. As I stated Barack Obama is also highly educated, and his position as president is to take guidance from the experts. Our country has been supporting Korea since 1950. I've been to Korea several times and only if you've been there could you understand our commitment. Our military support is more visible there than you could hardly imagine. Most Americans have never been any more close to our military than probably meeting a recruiter at a High School visit or on CNN, and have only a small idea of our countries military commitment and position in the world. It’s a lot greater than you can imagine. Yes Trade agreements and isolationism are 2 different subjects.
    As close as I am to the Korean community and the situation they face, I would never in any way think of insulting them. My wife has family living in Korea, and we are all very close. All I’m saying is NAFTA is one issue that may be on the table, and in the current economy, everything is on the table. However, Korea's security from what I know and have seen would never been compromised. To note; the Korean military support is still a United Nations item. The large base in Korea (not named) is still represented by each and every country (with national flags flying and a military contingent) that fought in the Korean War. Each country is represented by a ranking military officer, for the U.S. a Navy Admiral who regularly meets at the truce table located at the DMZ each month since I believe 1952-1953. The meetings are also accompanied by each countries ambassadors or rep and specialist teams. This has been going on regularly for more than 50 years. This is not something that is going to be deserted by a whim. The situation there is way too serious. I do understand the Korean concerns very well; I hear about it at home, but the change of our president (whoever) is not going to change the facts.

  11. The American military is over-extended in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military cannot respond to other threats or help American allies until that changes. Look at what happened to Georgia this summer. The Georgian president thought he was America's BFF (add little hearts around too) in the Caucasus. Then Russia rolls in, and the US can't do anything about it. Putin knows that Europe is still too jello (and too dependent on Russian gas and oil) and that the Americans couldn't do anything militarily: all the resources are being poured into Iraq, and the American public is tired of fighting, even fighting that would potentially be just. (It only matters a little that Georgia may have "provoked" it- invading other countries is still bad.) Anyway, if Obama manages to greatly reduce American military involvement in Iraq, it will open up resources so that America can fight in other theaters.

  12. Constance, It wasn't so much a statement to his mixed heritage, but towards the change in attitudes to race mixing in our country prior to the sixties. The civil rights movement and young people of all types caused many to open their eyes. That's all. My feeling is Barack is a product of those times.

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  14. Your a literary genius! I love your shit!!

    I am going on record here to say that I did vote for Obama, despite the negative consequences it may have to my motherlanders!!

    Clearly, Obama being elected will have tranformation activities through out the world. Of the many affects, South Korea will be largely impacted due the recently signed Korea-USA FTA's.

    No one cant argue against that the Korea-USA FTA significantly favors Korea than America. As noted by The Korean, South Korea is a export-driven economy. Hence Obama's negative views on Korea-USA FTA will not only impact South Korea's economy but it will also bring tremendous amount of political uncertainty to South Korea and US relation -- one of my favorite quote of all time: You fck with my money, your fking with my emotions --(Big Worm from the movie Friday) And Koreans defnitely dont like being fked with their money or pride; the former of which is most important.

    However, I really think a fair, balanced trade policies will favor South Korea in the long run. Despite my overwhelming pride of being Korean, no Koreans cant argue that South Korean auto industry is not on par with Japan, Europe, and America. The only approach to improve the Korean auto industry is to allow foreign competitions to enter the our market, which then will force Koreans carmakers to innovate and produce better automobiles. As of now, this is non-existant in Korea.

    I am still taken away by all of this. Although the election was over a few days ago, I am awed by Obama being elected as the President U.S.A -- the most powerful nation on earth. This has changed all of us, and having an African American blogger post here clearly validates the transformation activities that are taking place in the world. Obama's historical election will resonate globally, not just countries that have political and economic ties to the U.S.

  15. jc536,

    I live in Korea.

    The Korean,

    Noted. You are correct. I am embarrased. What has my life come to? Am I a troll?? Oh God WHO AM I?!??!??

  16. constance,

    Thank you for the kind words. Also, the mixed heritage part comes from Korean media, not from the Korean. Most Koreans do not know that most African Americans are in fact mixed heritage.


    Put it this way -- if McCain presidency's chance of not help Korea militarily is at .5 percent, Obama presidency's chance of the same is probably around 3 percent. Not very significant, but still an increase.


    Glad to see you have a sense of humor about it :)

  17. I doubt any American president would risk American troops going into battle against Chinese troops. There is little American interest in whether South Korea or China takes over what is now North Korea. And considering that, unification rhetoric to the contrary, South Korea has done little to counter China's buy-up of economic influence in the North or to make military plans to ensure the Chinese stay out in the event of regime change or collapse, I am going to have to say South Korea has made its own bed and can damn well lie in it.

  18. Nathan, You’re wrong about America’s support for South Korea in case they were invaded. The US in this U.N conflict has been providing the major support to S. Korea since 1950. The largest number of U.S. Marines is stationed outside the U.S. is in Asia including several Aircraft Carriers, and not to mention U.S. Army stationed in Korea primarily because of the N. Korea problem. The Marine contingent was just slightly reduced because of Iraq. Japan who knows full well the repercussion if N. Korea starts a war, and how they would be drawn into it (probably also attacked by N. Korea). Japan pays the Bill for all the U.S. bases in their country including the salaries for all Japanese employees who support the bases, I believe the same in Korea. The entire of the East Asia continent would suffer from another Korean war. The disruption to their political environments, economies, people’s lives, and food supplies would all be interrupted. The war would have to be fought and ended quickly. These problems would also be experienced by the Chinese and the Russians alike. Just look at the problems created when Rice farming several years was interrupted by weather. There was a fear of famine. A war in Asia is a serious problem. The middle east produces only one thing, “Oil”. The primary fear in the Middle East is a similar disruption that would cause worldwide repercussions. War is bad, and truly no one wins except for those who feel they have nothing to lose (i.e. Alkaida).


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