Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ask a Korean! News: Thoughts on Afghanistan

After having been outshined by Iraq for the last few years, Afghanistan is coming to the forefront of the news lately. There is much discussion on whether or not to increase troops there, whether or not to do something about the recent rigged election, etc.

The Korean does not nearly know enough about Afghanistan to offer any specific thoughts as to what to do with Afghanistan right now. But the Korean does know a good deal about America-led nation building, because he knows a lot about Korea. Recently, comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam has been in vogue. The Korean is certain that there are important lessons to be drawn from the Vietnam experience. But he also believes that America would be remiss to ignore the lesson from its Korea experience.

Why Korea? Because bar none, Korea has been the most successful America-led nation building attempt in history. For the last 100 years, America has invaded, occupied and established governments in a number of different countries, including Germany, Japan, the Philippines, Iraq, etc. After the Americans finished establishing the government and (more or less) left, each of these countries generally followed its pre-existing historical arc. Germany and Japan were world powers before World War II; after World War II, they resumed being world powers. The Philippines was not exactly a world power previous to American occupation, and it currently is not either.

Only Korea bucked this trend. Korea was in desperate poverty for centuries prior to the American occupation. Korea was never strong enough to influence its neighboring countries in any meaningful way. Korea never had any tradition of democracy. There is absolutely nothing in Korea’s history that suggested that within 50 years of American occupation, it would turn itself into its current incarnation.

Yet the current incarnation of Korea is magnificent, and completely unexpected. At this point, Korea is one of the wealthiest countries in the world; one of the most influential creators of soft culture, in the form of movies, dramas and the like; one of the soundest democracies in Asia, and a rising regional power.

Of course, a huge caveat must be attached: Korea is not, and never has been, Afghanistan. The two countries’ historical experiences have many significant differences, which must be taken into account in attempting to glean any lessons from the Korean experience and apply them to the Afghan situation of today. Again, because the Korean does not know much about Afghanistan, he is not giving an opinion about what America should do with Afghanistan today one way or the other. With this post, he is only providing a data point to consider.

Regardless, there are still lessons to be learned, because America’s nation building project in Korea was such a remarkable success. How did this happen? What are the lessons to be learned from America’s experience with Korea? The Korean will proceed by listing the eight important lessons to be gleaned from the American involvement in Korean history.

Lesson 1: America can indeed successfully engage a nation-building project.

As explained previously, Korea moved from a destitute, backwards monarchy to a prosperous democracy – indeed, one of the world’s leading countries – in a manner of a few decades. America deserves a huge credit for this development, because …

Lesson 2: America’s help is essential for a nascent democracy.

Despite what Korea’s nationalist historians would like to believe, South Korea would not exist without the United States of America. America removed the murderous Imperial Japan from Korea. America defended South Korea against communist North Korea’s invasion, at great cost to its economy and people. America implanted in Korea a tradition of constitution and democracy. America conferred enormous economic benefit to South Korea, allowing it to develop its economy. At times (but not always), America withdrew its support from dictators who threatened Korea’s democracy – most notably Syngman Rhee, Korea’s first president who was not above constitutional amendments to make himself the lifetime president, rigged elections and torturing/killing his political opponents.

Democracy is a precious weak flower to grow in a fledgling country. It is constantly imperiled by external and internal threats. America can play an indispensable role in removing those threats.

Lesson 3: Healthy economy is essential for democracy.

Having elections is a necessary condition for establishing democracy, but it is far from sufficient. Destitute people do not care who rules them. In fact, they are perfectly willing to sacrifice democracy and freedom if there is a promise that they will not go hungry. (This is exactly what happened in Korea during the reign of Park Chung-Hee.) Only after Korea settled on a relatively high economic ground in the 1980s did the democratization movement in Korea gain steam.

Healthy economy also assists democracy in a subtler and less visible way. In a destitute agrarian society, people rarely move from their place of birth. People’s interactions become high localized and tribal, and politics reflect that – Korean politics was no exception. Until very recently, political leaders always had to have a regional base from which they could count on 90 percent of votes coming their way. But in a prosperous industrialized society, people move and mingle with other people. The sense of nationhood emerges and takes priority over the parochial regionalism. This is essential for people to consider the fate of the nation as a whole, rather than the narrow interest of their own region.

Lesson 4: Understand the power of nationalism and use it toward establishing democracy.

America’s experience in Korea, while resulting in a great success, nonetheless had plenty of miscues that could have been avoided. One such mistake is that it never understood how important nationalism is in just about everywhere outside of America.

Because of America’s frequent mishandling of nationalistic issues backfired on America’s policies so many times, many Americans have a tendency to write off nationalism’s positive – indeed, essential – contribution toward democracy. This is a mistake. Like the Korean alluded previously, democracy only operates among people who agree that they share the same destiny as a single nation. People who do not have such agreement, when given democracy, vote themselves into secession and civil war.

Also recall that healthy economy is essential for democracy. Healthy economy fosters nationalism, but nationalism in turn fosters healthy economy as well. The surest way for a poor country to stabilize its economy is to exploit its cheap labor. The workers must be motivated to work harder, longer, in a poorer condition compared to their counterparts in richer countries. Nationalism provides this motivation. During its rapid economic growth, Korean government did everything it could to connect the power of nationalism with economic growth. Public campaigns emphasized that Korea was fighting an economic war, particularly against North Korea. Leading exporters were given medals from the president as if they won a military battle. To be sure, Korea was not the first country to use nationalism as a fuel for economic growth – but it may well be the most successful example. (Until, perhaps, China gets to where Korea is in the next 20 years or so.)

But when mishandled, nationalism backfires massively upon America, precisely because nationalism rejects undue influence from any other country, including (ironically) the country that enabled the nationalism to act in the first place. In order to avoid this, America must …

Lesson 5: Maintain unassailable moral authority

By invading a foreign country and trying to establish democracy, America is essentially playing a hero. Then America must look the part. America must constantly prove to the world that it indeed is the shining beacon of democracy that it claims itself to be. Would you respect Superman the same way if you knew that privately, he was a raging alcoholic who beat Lois Lane when drunk?

All kidding aside, it is imperative to America’s mission to demonstrate, time and again, that it genuinely cares about human rights and democracy, and it is not another imperial power that seeks to colonize the world. On this score with Korea, America had both spectacular success and spectacular failure. The good grace that U.S. military earned during Korean War is still extremely valuable. To this day, the easiest way for any homeless man in America to get $20 from the Korean Mother is to say, “I fought in the Korean War.” Koreans of the Korean War-generation essentially elevated America to the pedestal of sainthood, a country that is purely motivated by altruistic concerns that can do no wrong.

A Scene from Gwangju

On the other hand, America tolerated a number of dictators who did not give a rat’s ass about democracy as long as they were not communists. America stood pat during May 18 in Gwangju, when Korean paratroopers ended up killing hundreds of civilians. On a smaller scale, it did not help that American military stationed in Korea (particularly in the early days) sponsored rampant prostitution near the base or recklessly polluted the land on which their bases were built. It also does not help that American military and the State Department are appallingly incompetent in handling potential PR challenges.

(Big caveat here – The Korean is fully aware that U.S. military in Korea gets a completely bum rap from nationalistic Korean media that is willing to hype up any small wrong for which no attention is given when committed by a Korean person or entity. That is completely unfair. But that does not change the fact that Americans should not be fostering prostitution or causing pollution. Fairness has nothing to do with it – this is what must be done if America wants to build a democracy in a foreign country.)

This goes beyond the direct interaction between America and the occupied country. A nascent democracy will always, always, always look to America for examples of how a democracy would conduct itself – which means the imperative of maintaining moral authority reaches to domestic politics as well. For example, during Cold War, America did itself no favor by maintaining the system of racial segregation – the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. used very skillfully in the Civil Rights Movement.

Lesson 6: At the end of the day, the people must carry themselves to democracy

This is self-explanatory. Democracy necessarily means self-rule, involving the entire voting public. While America’s role is significant and indispensable, the best that America can do is to set the stage – the people must carry themselves over the finish line. This certainly happened in Korea, as it was the relentless protests for democracy that brought down the long chain of military dictatorship.

Lesson 7: It will take a while

Korea’s first democratic government started under America’s auspices in 1948. Korea was not fully democratic until 1993. While America made its share of mistakes that may have delayed the full democratization of Korea, it seems to safe to say that at least a generation is required before a semblance of real democracy takes root in a country that has no previous experience of democracy.

Lesson 8: The result might be worth the cost

Probably the most controversial point. Again, the Korean is not completely informed about the current Afghanistan situation (and welcomes education from better-informed readers.) On top of that, the Korean is very obviously biased, given that he is a beneficiary of American help.

But the Korean thinks that the current Afghanistan situation is not worse than Korean War. Recall that at the time of Korean War, half of Americans believed that this was the precursor to World War III. Their belief was not unfounded – Cold War was just beginning to take shape, and Korea was right in the thick of Russia and China, the leading communist powers at the time. One wrong move, and the war had a potential to escalate toward another global conflict. It was not a small conflict either – America committed 480,000 soldiers, and more than 36,000 died. The war lasted four years. The Afghan conflict is unlikely to escalate toward a world war. It has taken longer, but so far America only committed 68,000 soldiers. Around 1,000 died so far.

Of course, this is no simple mathematics. American tolerance for military casualty has become a lot lower, as the nation came to better understand the enormous human cost of any war. The characteristics of the warfare are also very different. Korea and Afghanistan have had very different history, culture, religion. There can be a million more caveats.

But if Afghanistan can become another Korea of the region, the potential reward for continued American presence can be extremely huge, and therefore must be taken into account. The most important takeaway from America's experience with Korea is this -- in 1953, upon looking at the smoldering rubble that was South Korea, nobody except the most ardent optimist (who must have appeared borderline delusional at the time) would have thought that Korea would be one of the world's leading countries within 50 years.

What if within 50 years, Afghanistan could turn into a top-25 economic power with stable democracy (albeit with occasional brawls in its legislature)? What if U.S. could gain a near-permanent ally in the region in which there is currently no single dominance by any of the world’s powers? What if Afghanistan pumped out annoying yet somehow irresistible soft culture that makes other countries in the region to aspire to be like Afghanistan? What if America can deliver peace, freedom, prosperity and democracy to the 33 million Afghans?

It is, in the very least, something to consider.

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


  1. Great article. It informed me quite a bit. I'll be traveling to Daejeon for the first time in February, and I've been interested in the history between the two countries. From my experience, the Korean War receives 10% of the attention in American schools, while the big two are taught with reverence, bordering on perverse excitement.

    The most I had known about it was that it was a bloody, costly war. We have a monument dedicated to it, and, well ... I know a bunch of people my grandparent's age who participated in it. That's it, and it makes me feel as if it's been swept under the rug in American minds.

    As you pointed out, it led to a shimmering democracy, so it seems as if the powers that be, here, would tout it as an example of success.

    Is the primary mission in Afghanistan to turn it into a democracy, though? I feel like our purpose there is convoluted - is it for money? Is it for oil? Is it to hunt down terrorists? Is it to instill democracy?

    For this reason alone, I am certain that the mission will fail.

    I was recently reading "The Shock Doctrine" by journalist Naomi Klein, who pointed out that the US- led IMF forced South Korea in the midst of 1997's economic depression to accept invasive policies and drop its protections, allowing foreign-based companies to buy out your home country's industry.

    Samsung, for instance: Volvo bought its heavy industry division, SC Johnson & Son bought the pharmaceutical arm, General Electric its lighting division. Daewoo, once valued at $6 billion, was sold off to GM for just $400 million. JP Morgan bought a stake in Kia. Smith Barney bought into Korean textiles.

    Basically, as the US has done underneath Chicago-school economic theory many, many times ... it raised a panic, then pillaged another country's economy, and for this, I think the South Koreans would be more upset than anything. Or maybe they're just like our public - oblivious to the hidden history.

  2. I think the article is misinformed.

    Please, i would seriously request you to read this article to know about the real history of Afghanistan. Its vital, Dont skip it please.

    America is not the solution, its always been the problem, wherever it went.

    You forgot to mention the success of Taiwan, which US aided and did technological transfer in order to counteract China.

    The same happened with south Korea. They made one Korea more powerful than the other for their own geopolitical gain.

    If you compare the rise of Taiwan and south Korea, you would see the same tone been played.

  3. Shawn,

    Actually, the theory in "The Shock Doctrine" was a widely held belief in Korea.


    Good point about Taiwan -- the Korean neglected that. But the Korean obviously knew that America helped the Mujahedeen during the Cold War. Every educated person knows that.

    America is not the solution, its always been the problem, wherever it went.

    You forgot to mention the success of Taiwan, which US aided and did technological transfer in order to counteract China.

    Didn't you just contradict yourself? It seems like America was clearly the solution for Taiwan, not to mention for Korea.

  4. I think you did not read the link i had send, The story of Afghanistan is completely different from what the media and mujahahidin had to say.

    The point i'm stressing is, it will clear a lot of misconception about Afghanistan. Please read it if you have time. its only 10 to 15 minutes reading. It is written by a PH.d dude from US with a lot of research.

    Regarding Taiwan, US only helped them 'cos they needed a counter balance for China. US never helped panama, Honduras, serbia, georgia, they only gave economic and military aid but not technological knowhow to these countries.

    Once US comes, no country is independent, US can never be told to get out of taiwan or korea without expecting some adverse reaction. I mean they did not do it for good will gesture to korea, but for strategic interest.

    People have a lot of misunderstanding about America. very few people here know that 36 of 44 presidents in US are directly linked to European royalty and were members of freemasonary.

    I mean the education you talk about is left brain one, people are not aware what goes on in the right side of brain where these elite exploit it for power.

    If one wants to know what really America is.. search for freemasonry

    regards..keep writing

  5. Whatever legitimate points Sunil might have are washed out by his fixation on freemasonry.

    The Americans also kicked the Japanese out of Taiwan during WWII. The situation is then complicated by the events surrounding the 1949 Communist takeover. The US did and still does assist Taiwan militarily, although a lot of this was part of Communist containment strategies. A lot of people in Taiwan are grateful for the US's help in preventing a mainland takeover. However, this feeling is complicated by the fact that the leaders coming from the mainland around 1949 were often cruel and repressive to the people already living in Taiwan. Martial rule was in force for a very long time, mostly to the advantage of the mainland emigres. I've heard some people say that it would have been better being ruled by China (although I don't know how you can know about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and think that). Still, no one wants the mainland to come by with bombs and guns, and US influence probably does have much to do with the fact that China hasn't yet.

  6. Wanda,

    Care to explain what you know about the freemasons and why you just ignored the fact that all US presidents are connected to two major European royal lines.

    what you wrote is correct but its just the movie that is played infront of the world.

    The game is much much more deeper than 99% of the world population have any clue.

    Why do you think young Americans who are so educated and aware, just go out to Iraq, Afghanistan and fight for some US corporation.

    I would suggest you to read the history of freemasonry or do a Google search about Bohemian groove...then you will really know..why America went for war with Iraq, Afghanistan and now planning with Iran.

  7. Dear The Korean, an over-educated dude.

    OK, America was solution in South Korea but what was the problem?

    "..America removed the murderous Imperial Japan from Korea..."

    You probably forgot what was 'The Taft-Katsura Agreement' between the U.S and the Japan Empire in 1905.

    "..America defended South Korea against communist North Korea’s invasion..."

    What if America didn't dominate South of Korean peninsula (and USSR didn't dominate North of Korean peninsula) after WWII? Do you think that there was still Korean war under that situation? Do you think American army stayed on South of Korean peninsula for 'freedom and democracy' at that time?

    You already said that 'Lesson 3: Healthy economy is essential for democracy' and I agree with that.

    I don't deny the role of the US on South Korea. However, the role of the US was, is, and will be based on making 'free' capitalism countries from the US foreign policy or world strategies for making world order. (Moreoever, that 'role' is not only for South Korea.)

    I don't know what the US did for South Korea on democracy rather than on capitalism. People's struggle against three former dictatorships, Rhee Syng-man, Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-Hwan, was the more important key point on democracy of South Korea (and is still going now.)

    Every actions on the East Asia from the US should be considering in the 'context' of situation of the East Asia (and the era of cold war at that time.) Furthermore, the power game of the East Asia is absolutely different from the situation of the Middle East.

    So, I don't think 'the lessons' could help the situation of Afghanistan, whether 'the lessons' are right analysis on the democracy of South Korea or not.

    I don't say that Your 'facts' are wrong. Although all of the facts you mentioned is correct. but there is some missing points and frameworks.

    That's all. This is the perspective from a Korean. I understand that your position tend to be 'fair' as a Korean-American. but the article brang about results that response from that Wanda using expression like 'help' (even you used that expression). There is no 'help' between countries. It is not my original idea but what Reinhold Niebuhr, who is American, said at "Moral man and immoral society" in 1932.

    I hope you wouldn't point my possible wrong grammar or mis-spelling words out. English is my second langauge like you. Thanks.

  8. Thanks for your article. I'll have to include some of your ideas in my discussion of America's Afghanistan policy in International Relations class next week.

    I do think The Korean forgot to mention that, although Korea was a poor country with no democratic tradition before 1945, Korea has existed for centuries as a coherent, bureaucratic nation-state under the Chosun and Koryo dynasties. Its bureaucratic tradition goes back even further, probably deep into the Kojosun dynasty.

    Afghanistan has no such advantage. It is best described as the ungoverned space that exists between Iran, Pakistan, China, Kyrgyzstan et al. It has multiple ethnic groups and religious traditions with deep mutual hatreds among them.

    In short, what America did in Korea was not "nation building", but "state building". To my knowledge, America has no previous experience with "nation building", except maybe in Iraq, and the jury is still out on that one. I'm afraid that we will be hard-pressed to succeed in Afghanistan.

  9. S/Korea can not be compared to Nam, when it comes to comparing Nam to Afghanistan. Af/Pak is a 100% endless energy resource proxy war. This is for the [CONTROL OF ENERGY ROUTES]. It is not about democracy, or freedom. The West and NATO are encroaching on Russia and China. The blow back for this will be enormous.

  10. Thanks reality zone for your comment, i was thinking i will be alone in writing this up. very few people know what is really going on.

    CNN and BBC is not the real news source.

    People still think America is a great country which does nation building. America did not go to Afghanistan for democracy or freedom or women, they went for 10 other reason which are not at good to the humanity as a whole.

  11. Very interesting points. On the point of not giving up, its also interesting to mention that Jimmy Carter campaigned in 1976 to remove all American troops from Korea. He eventually was convinced by the pentagon to give more time to think about it, and eventually sent off the idea to be further studied. And then lost to Reagen.

    33 years after that, American troops are still there, and will still be there for a long time.

    It's a good promise to recall when similar things have been said about Iraq and Afghanistan.

    When we are comparing Afghanistan to Korea or Vietnam, the real historical comparison comes with how long the American public will tolerate the policy?

    With Korea, after the war, there was a long lasting period without significant military loses. With Vietnam however, there was.

    Given Afghanistan's history of underdevelopment and resistance against foreign occupation (USSR, England, Alexander the Great) it has a greater chance of being abandoned as a military campaign.

    While Iraq is still problematic, it has had a history of development and strong institutions, and is more likely to succeed. And have US military bases for a long time.

  12. Sunil; LOL I even have a thread on my blog titled [Was Columbus A Templar?] You are not alone in your thinking. I am obsessed with Af/Pak. I call it Aq/Af/Pak/An. ZBIG, Kissinger, Unocal, on and on and on. is why we are there. along with a little xtian crusade going on. Pertaining to the masons, you are correct, one third of the founding fathers were Free Masons. G. Washington being the most visible, followed by Ben Frankiln. --------The masses are always afraid of the unknown.

  13. Great, what your blog, if you could post the link here... thanks

  14. Shawn; My wife is Korean. If you mention the IMF to any Korean, they will automatically cringe. Unlike Americans most of the world knows what the aftermath is when the IMF pays a visit. Pakistan, and most of Eastern Europe just got a visit from them due to this manufactured re-depression by the powers that be [TPTB]. A great book on this is titled [Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man]. IMHO.

  15. A Korean,

    OK, America was solution in South Korea but what was the problem?

    For the purpose of this post, the Korean does not care.

    Eun-Sung, very good point about nation building versus state building.

    bza, also a good point.

  16. You can check that link, it's a little writting by a Russian soldier sent in Afganistan. He is talking about their mission, and why they were sent there. Very similar to another story...hum hum..

  17. The posts I'm reading are very interesting. I understand that many would question American motives in Afghanistan, and they may be 100% correct. Are they trying to build an American influenced democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq out of the goodness of their hearts? Of course not. Nor did they do so in South Korea. I don't think the article states in any way that the US helped Korea out for anything other than its own interests. They were there to counter communist influence from China and the Soviets, absolutely. The point, I think, is that in the end any South Korean would tell you that they are grateful that the US stepped in. If American geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East can lead to an Afghanistan that is democratically and economically successful, who gives a crap what the motives were?

    Should US be in Afghanistan and Iraq? Yes or no...opinions will be divided. If they're gonna be in there regardless, then here are some points that can be followed to help make it a successful venture for the Afghanis, regardless of US motive.

  18. It is best described as the ungoverned space that exists between Iran, Pakistan, China, Kyrgyzstan et al. It has multiple ethnic groups and religious traditions with deep mutual hatreds among them.

    That's the case today, but historically, Afghanistan is a much more legitimate and coherent entity than Pakistan. It goes back about 300 years, whereas Pakistan is simply the Muslim-majority area of northwestern India.

    Most of the problems in Afghanistan are centred in the south of the country, which is the most homogeneous area of the country both linguistically and ethnically.

    Granted, Afghanistan is far more ungovernable than Korea, but that's really a relatively recent development (1979 onwards).

    I obviously don't know as much about Korean history in this (or any other) period as much as a Korean, but my impression is that America provided the preconditions for success and Korea did the rest.

    The reason this hasn't worked after eight years in Afghanistan is that America hasn't succeeded in providing the sort of basic stability, twenty years after which, Korea actually began to move forward. The reason that American nation-building succeeded in Korea but not Afghanistan has more to do with Korea than America.

  19. I have to put my two cents in. I lived in that part of the world for about 5 years. Afghanistan will never work until you get rid of religion, changed its culture, and at least get all the kids educated. Democracy will only work if the majority of the population is educated.

    The Asian culture tends to put more emphasis on education. Therefore you have an open mind toward new ideas when you are educated. One of the main reasons why South Korea is successful is because of education.

  20. Thomas,

    You seem to know your stuff, so the Korean will push back a little: isn't it true that the current situation in Afghanistan is not worse than Korea in 1953, shortlya after Korean War? At that time, there were tons of prognostication that Korea needs to get rid of Confucianism, etc. to become a modern country.

  21. I am glad that “the Korean” brought up Confucianism. In my option Confucianism kept China, South Korea, and Taiwan from progressing until they realized it was a bunch of bull. Confucianism has a lot of great points, but it had one major weakness that kept its society for advancing in the western world. Confucianism considered the merchant or businessman the lowest form of life in their society

    China, South Korea, and Taiwan were able to adapt its Confucianism beliefs when they realized that businessmen are important to its society. However Afghanistan has a serious issue of not adapting its beliefs. You may be killed if you say anything negative about their religion. America was founded because of religious freedom and openness to new ideals. That is why I love America.

    “Eun-sung Lee” has a good point. Korea was already a bureaucratic nation-state. You can thank Confucianism for the bureaucratic system. Afghanistan is a country of tribes that do not get along. Each tribe wants power over the other tribes. That is one of the reasons why Afghanistan’s current culture is a boat anchor to change.

  22. How do you correct your post after it is posted?

  23. Two points:

    1. I hate to sound like one of Bill Safire's "nattering nabobs of negativism," but I see this post again framed by an inappropriate analogy.

    There are two main objections to drawing an analogy between the U.S. led state-building in South Korea and in Afghanistan.

    To begin with, Eun-sung made an absolutely central point about the fundamental difference between Afghanistan and South Korea: The former was never a unified nation with a centralized government, whereas South Korea/Korea had been one over a thousand years since the Unified Silla era.

    (And, if more determined and even manic imperialists such as Alexander the Fortunate or the Brits couldn't impose centralization on the Afghani tribesmen, I don't fancy their softer-hearted, flighty American counterparts succeeding at the task.)

    Second, both domestic and international political contexts are dramatically different today than they were in the post-Korean War years. Back then, there was a security threat that was both more serious and identifiable in the form of the Soviet bloc; consequently, there was a nearly unassailable bi-partisan consensus and commitment to fight it. Whatever the true menace that militant Islam may represent, there is certainly no popular nor policy consensus about combating it full-bore the way Americans tackled Communism. As Tocqueville and others have long observed, Americans don't tend stay around and fight things through to the bitter end unless there is an existential threat involved. Nor is American generosity so boundless or purely altruistic.

    In short, I see neither the right material for Korea-style state-building in Afghanistan, nor willing architects and financiers backing the project.


  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. 2. I generally agree with Thomas that culture is a powerful determinant of the success of a culture, and that East Asia may have an edge over the Middle East because of its cultural emphasis on education.

    In addition, I would supplement his observation by also stressing that Confucianism--in spite of its unquestionably hierarchic tenor overall--is more egalitarian at least in rhetoric than much of Western/Near Eastern thought when it comes to the possibility of educational achievement, which may have been even more central as a spur to growth. (Compare, say, Mencius versus virtually every major Western thinker on whether great thinkers are born or "nurtured"; the Western tradition has consistently maintained--a la Plato's myth of the metals--that great minds are born, and not made, at least until Hobbes/Locke.) At least in the domain of education, Confucianism promotes almost a Tocquevillian egalitarianism that results in a frenzied competition among all--which led to a better-educated workforce, among other things.

    Now the Korean counters by referring to the view that Confucianism was long considered a barrier to economic growth among Western academics. I'd present two quick rejoinders. First, that view initially coalesced around Weber's famous study; and Weber--while a seminal figure in 20th century social science and possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of many things--did not know much about East Asia, as was generally the case of those early Western thinkers who wrote extensively about the Far East and tried to fit the region into their pre-conceived paradigms (who can help but laugh at Hegel's section on China in the Philosophy of History?). Second, relatedly, more contemporary, revisionist scholars have recognized that long-standing cultures are complex, protean (one would almost say "comprehensive") organisms, and that they are not governed by a law that hurtles them toward single possible outcomes. Certainly, Samuel Huntington's Political Order in Changing Societies (where he emphasized the protean character of Japanese political culture) was one example par excellence of such a nuanced approach; and even better was Ezra Vogel's articulation of "industrial neo-Confucianism"--in which he gave a strong argument for the position that Confucianism had many aspects salubrious to modernization and growth.

    Of course, the question then becomes: Does Islam contain such covered-up seeds of openness and growth? While I am not too familiar with Islam, I tend to answer in the affirmative, though the historic circumstances is obviously insalubrious for such an outcome today. Nonetheless, the land of Islam was once inhabited by Alfarabi and other protagonists of the true medieval enlightenment--a light that was only extinguished by Al Ghazzali and the specific actions that those who supported him took. Too, one can point to the bustling commerce of Baghdad at the same period that gives lie to the view that Islam is not a commercial religion.

    P.S. This is not to say that I am optimistic about the liberalization of the Middle East in the short-term. History and politics matter too, and both militate against it.

  26. The former was never a unified nation with a centralized government

    What are you talking about? Afghanistan was a coherent state from 1747 to 1979. It's only in the last thirty years that, thanks to the USSR and then the Taliban, it has retreated to a medieval state.

    If Afghanistan can be stabilized, it probably would be not so different than Korea in 1953.

  27. I do agree with “Won Joon Choe” statement; “Confucianism promotes almost a Tocquevillian egalitarianism that results in a frenzied competition among all--which led to a better-educated workforce, among other things.” My mother is Korean. Even though, I was very successful in my career without a college degree, my mother was real proud of me when I got my college degree and MBA. I could have been a dishwasher with a MBA and mother would still be proud of me because I have a MBA. By observing many Asian people in my area, I noticed that success in the Asian community is measure in your education. My mother friend’s daughter has a MBA from Stanford. But she only wants to runs the family restaurant.

    Women did have power in the Ottoman Empire during the 14th century. Many women had high government positions. The foundation of some our western achievements in math and science came from the Middle East. The Middle East had many thinkers and idealist before the religious extremists took over. During the early days of Western history, the Middle East was the center of trade between Asian and Europe. I remember those facts specifically from my world history class. Even Iran had disco and hot pants during the 70’s.

    However, religious extremists took over the Middle East through the uneducated poor. Islam is a loving and beautiful religion. I had to study the Karan because it was part of my education curriculum when I lived in Saudi Arabia. To this day, I still do not know where the extremists get their warp views from the Karan. But the extremists distort the religion into a way to control the uneducated poor. In a way the Catholic Church did the same thing to control people during the 14 century with the Spanish Inquisition.

    I do agree with “the Korean that the current situation in Afghanistan is not worse than Korea in 1953, but South Korea was in a better position to grow because of several factors. I know there are other factors, but I will list my 3.

    1. Education and Culture
    (Confucianism is the foundation and the success of the Asian culture. Confucianism allowed the Asian culture to have openness to other ideas)

    2. Adaptation. (If your society is better educated, you have an easier time to adapt your culture and current beliefs. Adaptation allowed the old beliefs of Confucianism to change in support of the businessman)

    3. No religious extremists. (I do not recall if South Korea had any extremists that wanted to control people.)

  28. Thats the best post I ever read from you!! Good Work!

  29. Two points:

    1. The Korean thinks that while culture is a component of development, it is not the proponent/determinent. No large-scale culture in the world preaches the virtue of ignorance over intelligence or that of sloth over diligence. There is always something positive to draw upon in every culture. (The experience as a state until 1973 like Adeel mentioned could be such a source, for example.)

    2. The larger point that the Korean wanted to make by invoking Korea of 1953 was this:

    If one were in 1953, looking at the smoldering rubble that was Korea, would one be optimistic that it would turn into Korea of 2009 in about 50 years? The Korean thinks that would be extremely unlikely, because there were so many things that were wrong with Korea at the time. Korea's problems of 1953 were no less despair-inducing, and any sign of hope would have seemed like a pipe dream. For example, the three factors that Thomas listed are eminently reasonable now, but if he made those points in 1953 regarding Korea, he would have been considered delusional -- inviting scoffs like, "You think Korea will be a shining democracy in 50 years because it will adapt their Confucian beliefs? Haven't you heard of the rape-marriage that goes in Korea?" But eventually, they were all (more or less) resolved.

    The point is this: it is really easy to despair over Afghanistan. The path of least resistance is to find faults. But given that Korea beat what appeared to be impossible odds in 1953, perhaps the wiser course is to try to find solutions (based on the lessons from Korea, among other things,) rather than to give up and despair.

  30. The Korea stated; “the three factors that Thomas listed are eminently reasonable now, but if he made those points in 1953 regarding Korea, he would have been considered delusional.” Yes it is true that I am delusional, but what I stated is not the solution, but the core foundation for any solution to work in Afghanistan.

    Adeel post really sums what the issue. He stated; “It is best described as the ungoverned space that exists between Iran, Pakistan, China, Kyrgyzstan et al. It has multiple ethnic groups and religious traditions with deep mutual hatreds among them.” I have a great example of the hatred. About 10 years ago I had three employees from Afghanistan and one employee from Pakistan. I could not figure out why the employees from Afghanistan were always fighting. I thought they were about to kill each other. So one day I took them on a retreat and asked they questions about their tribe, religion, and why you are in American. I discovered that the Afghanistan employees could only communicated to each other in English, because they all spoke a different language. They came from different tribes and workshop Islam differently. They also stated that they want to because Americans so they can live their lives in peace without someone trying to harm they because of their differences. I told them in America, we have religious freedom, we respect other people way of live, and we do not care what you do as long as it does not affect me. So I asked them; “why you are not getting along with each other.” They thought about and they never did fight again.

    If I asked an old person in American; “what type of American are you?” I general get, I am an American. If I asked a young person in America the same question, they usually respond with Latino, or African American, or something American.

    I think Korea was successful because the Korean people were united as country first and has a common language. The Korean people work together toward a goal. In Afghanistan, it is tribe or religious group first and the needs of the country last. Afghanistan will never be successful until they work together as country first, get the kids educated, and have a common language.

  31. Thomas, those are Eun-Song's words, not mine. Afghanistan's problems come not from its diversity, but from its homogeneous portion. Broadly speaking, Afghanistan is Pashto-speaking and Pashtun in the south and east, Farsi-speaking in the west and a mixed bag including Uzbek and Tajik in the north.

    Most Afghans speak either Pashto or Dari (Farsi). Pashto speakers are a plurality, close to a majority, and they cause all the problems. It's incorrect to argue that Afghanistan is an ungovernable mess of ethnicities and religions to be contrasted with Korea's homogeneity. There's really one religion in Afghanistan and that's Islam, and almost all of them belong to the same sect (Sunni).

    Afghanistan was a coherent state until the USSR and the subsequent civil war destroyed the country over a period of 20 years. Eight years of insurgency have followed. Afghanistan is not a mess because there are different ethnicities or religions or languages. It's a mess because it has been at war almost non-stop for thirty years.

  32. I highly recommend this loooong article, written by Kathleen Wentz, whoever REALLY want to understand the Korean peninsula within the historical and contextual background.

    Understanding North Korea

    "...Democracy movements in the South (Korea) in reaction to postwar military dictators - many of whom were SUPPORTED by the UNITED STATES..."


  34. A Korean, Reality,

    Please stay on topic. Thanks.

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  37. Abel please cited your source so other will not state you incorrectly.

    Your reply brings up a great point and if you dig deeper, you will understand Afghanistan. I will state what I was told when I lived in Pakistan. You are correct in a way that Afghanistan was in a coherent state like Iraq was before the U.S. invaded it. In a way, you can say North Korea is in a coherent state.

    Below is a summary of my Afghanistan history:
    Afghanistan was a puppet state controlled by Pakistan. One of the King’s family members (Mohammed Daoud Khan) wanted to bring changed to Afghanistan like making an alliance with USSR and stop all dealings with Pakistan. So Mohammed Daoud Khan launched a bloodless coup and he was later defeated by the PDPA.

    The PDPA made many changes like giving women the right to have an education. The religious zealots (AKA: The Taliban) were afraid of the changes toward their culture and way of life so they declare war on the PDPA. The PDPA asked USSR for help. As usually during the Cold War, the U.S. always supported the wrong side in their fight in the Cold War. The U.S. supported the Taliban during the Afghanistan Civil War. I truly believe if the US stayed out of the Afghanistan Civil War; we would not have many of the problems today caused by the Taliban.

    As I stated in many times in my previous posts, Afghanistan has many major cultural hurdles that is preventing the country to be successful like South Korea.

  38. Compare to Thailand, Myammar, Japan, Indonesia and all the South East Countries. I believe it is because the divine hands of God upon this Nation Now as the number of Christianity is on the rise and people are really turning the One true and Living God. Jesus Loves Koreans <>"


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