New York Philharmonic musical director Lorin Maazel, about to depart on the orchestra’s triumphant first trip to North Korea, reflected recently on America and the world. He and his musicians were facing sharp criticism that the Philharmonic’s performance in Pyongyang would hand dictator Kim Jong Il a propaganda victory:
People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw bricks, should they? Is our standing as a country—the United States—is our reputation all that clean when it comes to prisoners and the way they are treated? Have we set an example that should be emulated all over the world? If we can answer that question honestly, I think we can then stop being judgmental about the errors made by others.
In fact, a world of difference exists between a police state, in which citizens lack rights, and a liberal democracy in which the rights of even unlawful enemy combatants seized on foreign battlefields are vigorously debated in the press and zealously defended before the highest court in the land. Indeed, contrary to Maazel, informed reflection on America’s example obliges us to form responsible judgments of other nations as well as our own.
And so, before my own recent first trip to South Korea, I was, like Maazel, impelled to consider America and the world—particularly America’s protection of freedom on the Korean Peninsula. To do so responsibly, I sought to consider the historical context.
Harry Truman decided in June 1950 to send supplies and troops to repel North Korea’s Soviet-sponsored invasion of South Korea, and the year that followed brought some of his presidency’s toughest times. Critics vilified him for rushing to judgment and accused him of gross incompetence that was going to drag the United States into World War III. In the spring of 1951, when he fired war hero General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination, the congressional Republican leadership, along with conservative editorialists throughout the country, vehemently demanded his impeachment. By 1952, Truman’s public approval rating had sunk to 22 percent, still a record low for a sitting president.
Yet were it not for Truman’s steadfastness, and the efforts of U.S. troops, 34,000 of whom gave their lives to prevent communism’s forcible extension into South Korea, the Korean Peninsula might look very different today. Had America not waged its “forgotten war,” it is possible that the almost 50 million citizens of the free, democratic, and prosperous Republic of Korea would be sharing the backwardness and poverty—and feeling the lash of cruel and arbitrary state authority—to which Kim Jong Il has consigned his 25 million subjects in the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Such were among my thoughts as I read up on South Korea last December aboard a plane to Seoul, where I was to spend a week teaching The Federalist to students at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College, South Korea’s only four-year English-language undergraduate degree program.
How, I wondered, did South Korean students and university professors think about freedom and democracy, and what were their attitudes toward the United States? After all, the conventional wisdom in the United States holds that since the invasion of Iraq, anti-Americanism around the world has soared. And the multiculturalism that is frequently taught at U.S. universities implies that this anti-Americanism is reasonable because all cultures are equal, except Western culture, particularly as embodied in America, which is peculiarly vulgar and unjust.
Yet classroom discussions and a variety of conversations during my week in residence at Yonsei University suggest that South Koreans do not fit the U.S. intellectual class’s complacent conceptions. What little anti-American sentiment students and faculty in Seoul evinced did not run deep. Certainly students complain about the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and the large U.S. military base occupying prime real estate in the center of Seoul. But ask them what impact the departure of the American military forces would have on young Korean men’s already lengthy two-year mandatory military service, and they will quickly acknowledge the importance of the U.S. alliance.
To be sure, South Korea’s 680,000-member military is modern and powerful. And a wide consensus favors Seoul’s continuation of its ten-year-old policy of engagement with North Korea: the main disagreement between the leading political parties concerns how aggressively to proceed. Few doubt, however, that the U.S. military presents a crucial deterrent to Kim Jong Il’s 1 million troops, nuclear weapons, offensive missiles, and enormous installations of heavily fortified long-range artillery pointed at Seoul from the other side of the demilitarized zone that, thirty miles to the north, separates the two Koreas.
Nor is South Korea’s entanglement with the United States purely military. South Koreans may complain about U.S. presumption, power, and influence. But wealthy South Korean parents still spend lavishly to teach their children English and hope to send their children to the United States for college. And South Korea’s hypercompetitive young people still want to travel to America, buy American, and dress American.
In the view of my host, Jongryn Mo, founder and dean of Underwood International College (UIC), these entanglements are good for South Korea. A staunch believer that South Korea’s future depends on globalization and Westernization, Mo leads a fledgling program—it opened in the fall of 2006—that aims to equip students to harness those forces.
UIC’s 200 English-speaking undergraduates represent only a tiny fraction of Yonsei University’s 29,000 students. Yonsei is in northern Seoul, where the city of 10 million—with no fewer than 10 distinct downtown areas and a population of 20 million, if you include the greater metropolitan area—climbs into the jagged mountains that surround it. Yonsei University is one of South Korea’s prestigious top three universities (Seoul National University and Korea University are the two others). Graduate from one of them, and your place in the elite is assured. Attend a lesser university, and you are forever barred from the best corporate jobs. This rigidity represents, according to Mo, who holds a doctorate from the Stanford Business School and a bachelor of arts degree from Cornell University, a crucial obstacle to liberal and democratic development in South Korea.
Mo, a Christian—at 26 percent, South Korea has, after the Philippines, the highest proportion of Christians in Asia—thinks liberal education provides a key to South Korea’s future. The UIC curriculum, with its no-nonsense focus on basics, could teach many American colleges and universities a thing or two about requirements and rigor. Mo boasts that his students, many of whom learned their English abroad, are the equals of those in the Ivy League. After being exposed to them at both a welcoming and a closing dinner, during eight hours of seminar discussion, and in the give-andtake of a public lecture, I’d have to agree.
So what did these students—not altogether representative of but generally at home in South Korea—think of The Federalist? In Alexander Hamilton’s assertion, at the beginning of “Federalist l,” that were Americans to fail to establish free and democratic government by ratifying the new Constitution it would “deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind,” they saw an expression of American exceptionalism. They also saw arrogance—Americans from the beginning attributing to their political challenges universal significance—but agreed on the presence of a certain modesty: Americans affirming that they were not better or different, inasmuch as the moral and political principles that applied to them applied with equal force to all humans.
In James Madison’s caution in “Federalist 10” that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” they found easy application to their center-left president and his center-right challenger (who on December 19 was elected in a landslide as the next president of South Korea). But they were pleased to ponder Madison’s insistence that liberal democracies should be built to withstand the folly of unenlightened statesmen.
In Madison’s examination of the separation of powers in “Federalist 51,” the students discovered grounds for preferring the South Korean system of appointing judges, which assigns a role to all three branches, over the U.S. way, which involves only the executive and legislative branches. But they had no trouble appreciating that Madison’s larger lesson applies not to a particular constitutional scheme for judicial appointments but to a need to achieve a delicate balance in blending separated powers.
Like college students in the United States, my Korean students, in whose country democracy is barely two decades old but who have themselves never known anything but freedom and equality under the law, were intrigued by The Federalist’s harsh assessment of the diseases to which liberal democracies are prone, coupled with its calm explanation of the institutional remedies for preserving liberty. The compelling mix enabled them to make sense of both their low opinion of politicians and their excitement for their democratic future.
Creators of the world’s thirteenth-largest economy—and growing— South Koreans seek unification with the North but are in no particular hurry, given the cost of lifting 25 million of their brothers and sisters out of grinding poverty. They confront China to the north and west and Japan to the east; both evoke long historical memories of colonialism and oppression. Although it is not immediately apparent, either in South Korea or in the United States, the interests of the largest of the small Asian Tigers and the world’s lone superpower converge to an impressive degree. A historically informed liberal education—in the United States as well as in South Korea—of the sort offered at Underwood International College will prepare students of both nations to recognize, and take advantage of, the convergence.
Not least, beneficiaries everywhere of a proper liberal education will be able to understand and appreciate the fundamental differences between representative democracy and totalitarian dictatorship.