Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2004


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Asia on Assignment

Asia on Assignment
Korean girls in Seoul had many questions for Lily Bower ´07

On May 30, 2004 eight Connecticut College students and I left from New York City on a three-week trip to Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul. The trip, funded by a generous grant from the Freeman Foundation, had one overall objective: to broaden the students’ understanding of the international challenges faced by three critical Asian states.

Each of the eight students selected for the trip had just completed my introductory course to international politics. Throughout the semester they had focused on a number of subjects, ranging from security to economic, human rights and environmental issues, and they learned about the alternative theories scholars rely on to explain the actions initiated by states and nongovernmental organizations.

And yet, despite my efforts to explain in class the ways in which different international actors interpret and deal with a range of world problems, I was unable to capture in full their mode of thinking and behavior. The trip to the three Asian capitals was designed to address, albeit in a limited manner, this shortcoming.

Prior to our departure, we spent two weeks reading about Japan, the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of South Korea and the United States, and identifying the issues that seemed to draw the attention of their leaders. As part of our preparation, each one of us generated independently a set of distinct questions — questions we intended to pose to our hosts during the tour.

Our homework paid off. In Tokyo, we discussed with spokespersons of the U.S. Embassy Washington’s security and trade concern vis-à-vis Japan, asked members of Japan’s Self-Defense Agency whether their country was committed to redrafting Article Nine of their constitution, and queried representatives of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about Japan’s policy towards North Korea and China. We also attended a cocktail party hosted by a member of the U.S. Embassy at his apartment in the American compound, where we mingled with American and Japanese governmental officials, scholars and members of the media. In Korea, we spent a full day with the newly appointed secretary (a U.S. Army colonel) of the United Nations Military Armistice Commission and his assistant (a lieutenant colonel). During that time, we visited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and discussed at great length the evolving relationship between the two Koreas and the changing role of the United States in Korea. During the rest of our stay in Korea, we attended four comprehensive briefings: one presented by a member of the Asia Foundation, the second by the economic and political attachés at the U.S. Embassy in Korea, the third one by two representatives of Korea’s Ministry of Unification and the last one by three members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In each instance, we were given the opportunity to pose our own questions; many of which elicited surprising responses. And in China, though we were unable to talk to Chinese governmental officials, we met with a number of distinguished Chinese foreign policy scholars and some of their students, who, in addition to presenting exceptionally lucid explanations about their country’s domestic and international political and economic challenges, gave very candid responses to several of our questions.

The articles that follow capture the personal and academic significance of the trip through the words of two participating students, Lily Bower and Vassilena Ivanova.

— Alex Roberto Hybel
Susan Eckert Lynch Professor of Government

Lily Bower ’07
A new openness

For an outsider looking into another culture, it is difficult sometimes to understand the context of popular values. The belief systems and behavior that we take for granted in our own society appear unfamiliar from other points of view. The ideal of honor in Asian cultures is an example of this kind of central value that has long been interpreted by visitors as a preoccupation with appearance. The link between formal courtesy and traditional restraint is beginning to give way. Throughout our trip, especially during our stays in Japan and China, we witnessed openness, on the part of individuals and the state itself, that broke with the cultural traditions of censorship and control.
Just 10 years ago, it would have been unimaginable to mention the subject of the military to a Japanese official. This topic was considered off-limits in daily conversation, especially with a group of American tourists like ourselves. Today however, bureaucrats from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan field our questions on this subject with ease and candor, betraying none of the national stigma that was attached to the military after World War II. While the directness encountered in discussions of the military is new for Japan, it seems to be part of a larger movement away from inhibition. Both culturally and politically, Japan has grown more expressive over the past few decades, mirroring similar changes across Asia.

The effects of this trend toward greater openness became clear as two representatives from the U.S./Japan Security Treaty Division explained the country’s rising desire to expand military capabilities. In order to accommodate these changes, the Japanese constitution would have to be amended. Article 9, introduced to the constitution at the end of World War II, precludes Japan from entering into any offensive military action and limits the number of troops Japan may retain. This policy was forced on Japan by the allies as part of the surrender agreement. Its primary aim was to prevent future aggression by equipping the military only for basic domestic defense. The atrocities incurred by Japan during World War II and its final, demoralizing defeat, resulted in a readiness to accept such a policy of constraint. Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Japan described Article 9 as a means by which a fundamental arm of the state was cut off, altering the way the nation viewed itself. The dishonor that the Japanese people felt surrounding their military failures left a stigma that is only now beginning to dissipate.

The role Japan occupies in the world today differs greatly from what it was in 1946 when the current Constitution came into effect. The inflexibility of Article 9 has generated problems as Japan became a more transparent and modern political actor; it served as an obstacle in lending support to allies or assisting in conflict resolution. As a result, the revision or deletion of Article 9 and the acquisition of offensive capabilities is becoming a stronger possibility.

Because of the ease with which our hosts discuss the future of the Japanese military, it is difficult to appreciate the pain this subject has represented for decades. The ability to talk openly on this topic is the result not only of the passage of time, but of growing confidence and stability. Modern Japan is an integrated part of the global community both politically and economically. Many within Japan feel that the residual consequence of Article 9 is an outdated policy that needs to be restructured.

While opinion on the Japanese military is one of the most obvious areas of reduced censorship, there were signs of a new openness in other areas as well. Bureaucrats from several government agencies were willing to discuss all aspects of Japanese domestic and foreign policy, including important failures and setbacks.

Like Japan, China is showing signs of moderating censorship. However, these changes are less visible because they have been constrained by a strong tradition of governmental control. In Japan, most of our meetings were with government officials and bureaucrats, but our understanding of Chinese policy came primarily from academics. Access to governmental offices and resources was more difficult to come by in China, especially for foreigners.

Despite the steps taken toward modernizing its society, China retains a non-transparent government invested in controlling public expression. This reality was made clear through the customary responses given to politically controversial questions. Censorship is still an important part of Chinese society; however, it exists today in a new form, one more conducive to growing levels of education and liberalism. An associate professor of government at Beijing’s Peking University described this censorship as a largely superficial means of creating the semblance of societal restriction. In the past, the Chinese government took steps to seek out and quiet voices of dissent. This policy has slowly been replaced by a more passive means of censorship: as long as no overt opposition is expressed, no effort at suppression will be made. This has led to thriving academic communities throughout China. As in Japan, there are almost no subjects that are restricted in these settings; it is primarily the de jure policy that differs between the two countries.

The most revealing interactions we had in both Japan and China were with those people who had a daily role in governmental administration. Often, it was what they did not say, the questions they avoided, that provided a sense of how policy influences society. Just as in any culture, censorship is a natural companion to some topics. What is clear today in Japan and China, however, is that it is no longer the standard.

Vassilena Ivanova ’07>

Reflections on a visit to Korea’s Demilitarized Zone

During the last week of our visit to Asia, we were walking through the center of Seoul on a drizzly weekday afternoon. At some point I managed to lose Professor Hybel, who had hurried somewhere ahead with his orange backpack. We used that brightly colored backpack to spot him in the Tokyo metro or in between stands of live scorpions, snacks on the night market in China.

Our trip had given us the unique opportunity to discuss issues of tremendous importance with individuals who are engaged in resolving them on a daily basis. Twenty minutes earlier, we’d been sitting in an imposing conference room on the 12th floor of the Ministry of Unification.

“That’s what I call naive!” Adam protested out loud the minute we exited the high-security Ministry building. There we’d listened to a lecture on the Korean government’s efforts to reunite or at least integrate with the North after 50 or so years of animosity and limited interaction. As we continued on the busy street among crowds of black umbrellas, we ardently debated whether the policymakers were astute or just plain gullible.

Indeed, one of every four Koreans has a family member in the North. The fifth poorest country in the world in 1961, Korea has developed, much on its own, into the 12th richest economy in the world with the third highest number of millionaires. Even though the 1997-98 financial crisis hit Korea hard, the country has been the fastest in the region to recover. Currently, it is the United State’s seventh largest trading partner and the sixth largest importer of American goods. While the South is prospering, the 23 million people living on the other side of the DMZ have practically no market economy. Thus, a hypothetical reunification or even a confederacy may not be sustainable. Not only would there be huge social costs, but a refugee problem could result as well. After all, North Koreans could “vote with their feet” as Col. Madden, our DMZ escort, put it. Even if they don’t, a huge voting block like the North Koreans would certainly transform internal politics.

Our visit to the Ministry of Unification came the day after we’d visited the DMZ together with two American colonels from the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC). Getting out of the city in the morning was a hassle. A dynamic metropolis of 10 million people, at first glance Seoul seems to be worlds away from the DMZ, about 27 miles away. Traffic disseminates via the many bridges, crossing the immense river that flows slowly out of the bustling city and into the Yellow Sea. Cars sped past our U.N.-marked jeep, going northward on a newly built highway as we leave Seoul behind.

The modern architecture and buzzing city noises slowly fell behind. A magnificent estuary spilled into a peaceful valley, surrounded by the same jagged little heaps of mountains that bring the cooling breeze to Seoul in the late afternoon. We drove along the riverbank, passing beautiful rice paddies and milk-white cranes saluting the sun. All was heavily guarded by barbed wire and land mines.
“Beautiful beaches, if it weren’t for the land mines,” Lt. Col. Taylor commented absent-mindedly.

The surrounding region is so heavily mined on both sides that it would take more than a lifetime to de-mine, we were told. Defectors and spies used to come with the tide in scuba diving suits, which is why there are also well-hidden platoons and observation posts everywhere. As we traveled, we learn more about North Korea and the U.N. Armistice Commission from our two escorts.

When I first entered the DMZ, I was overcome by a feeling of extreme absurdity. Orwell’s novel 1984 came to my mind as I saw the different tools that both sides use for broadcasting propaganda of various sorts. All of those mechanisms were removed just one day after we visited, a result of the 14th Inter-Korean Ministerial Talks last May. This was a symbolic change, but as Lt. Col. Taylor noted, in the current climate, symbolism is at least as important as reality.

Land mines are more than abundant near the DMZ. So are barbed wire and helicopters. Alongside this area, however, within two kilometers of the DMZ, is one of the best preserved ecosystems in the world. Wildlife is thriving under the careful supervision of both sides’ land posts. A North Korean soldier carefully observed us with binoculars as we step over to his country.

Col. Madden (Mad Dog as he tells us he is known) told us that the U.S.-Korean alliance, solid for more than 50 years, is shifting rapidly. Among other things, the two allies have diverging perspectives on North Korea and its nuclear arsenal.

There is also a growing generational divide among Koreans on the issue of the United States’ presence in Korea. Whereas the older generation feels unlimited gratitude and respect for the U.S. troops that aided them in the Korean War, the ever more nationalistic younger generation is dispassionate about the States. For them, the ties with the Americans seem easy to break.

On our first night in Seoul we walked through an anti-American protest. In July 2002, two high school girls were accidentally run over and killed by an American tank on a country road. With an incident such as this, the United States is easy to vilify. Nevertheless, the Korean government was one the early supporters of the U.S. in the Iraqi War and has contributed financially to the reconstruction of Iraq.

Later we go 240 feet down into an infiltration tunnel, one of six or more the North Koreans built secretly in order to invade. About 30,000 armed soldiers with field artillery could reach the heart of Seoul in about an hour. Our escorts point out that the DMZ is the biggest oxymoron in history because there are more arms concentrated on either side of the zone than anywhere in the world.

Anti-American demonstration in downtown Seoul

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