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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.