Tanks of Destruction: Private Think Tanks Are Ruining Policy-Making in South Korea

Yesterday was the opening of the Maekyung Media Group’s World Knowledge Forum (WKF) at the luxurious Shilla Hotel. This event is intended to raise South Korea’s profile in the world of policy and economics.

Three of the featured speakers are none other than David Rubenstein (co-founder of one of the most ruthless and militaristic private equity funds, The Carlyle Group), Dick Cheney (former vice president of the United States and architect of the current endless war in the Middle East), and Wendy Sherman (former undersecretary of state for political affairs famous for her hard line on North Korea).

I am left scratching my head. How is it that a sophisticated nation like South Korea continues to invite people like Cheney as honored guests, someone who is greeted by crowds demanding his trial for war crimes in other nations?

There are other examples: Last April I attended the Asan Plenum, “a yearly gathering of the world’s leading experts and scholars” organized by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. The food and the setting, at the Grand Hyatt Seoul, were lavish and the foreign experts who came were attended to with great attention by college student interns.

At the center of the room was a table piled with brochures produced in English by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies on contemporary economics and international relations. The writings were immaculately edited but the content banal and dishonest, repeating platitudes about growth and development.

The talks by experts were equally superficial and ritualistic. Speakers from other think tanks and government agencies carefully avoiding any discussion of the most important issues of our time: climate change, the growing gap between rich and poor and the rise of the far right in the West – and the resulting slide towards militarism.

For some reason, I was invited to the Asan Plenum. But I learned that very few of the other experts in Seoul on international relations that I know and admire, either Korean or foreign, were on the invitation list.

The presenters from abroad came from the same tired group of experts we always see. Men like Victor Cha, Michael Green, and Bruce Bennett droning on about military alliances and free trade agreements without any concern for the actual lives of people in the two Koreas, in Asia, or for that matter in the United States.

Few of these Asia experts have any proficiency in Asian languages and they are brought into Seoul to meet only with the selected few from government and think tanks.

These individuals are the same ones who have repeated fantasy stories about a North Korea on the edge of collapse for the last twenty years and are unrepentant about the fact that their analysis is not concerned with understanding North Korea as much as about making North Korea look like an alien hostile country unlike any other in the world.

In their writings they shamelessly promote weapons systems, like THAAD, which are overpriced and ineffective. They have made up a narrow definition of “security” which can only be addressed by the expensive weapons they are helping to promote.

I wish they would just stay home, or even better yet, recognize the corruption of their actions and simply resign. We need people who actually care about security, who actually are interested in responding to real challenges like climate change and proliferation of drones.

Interior of the Grand Hyatt Seoul, the venue of this year's Asan Plenum. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)
Interior of the Grand Hyatt Seoul, the venue of this year’s Asan Plenum. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)

Unfortunately, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies is representative of the newly empowered private South Korean think tanks which hold high-budget conferences in Seoul and invite such experts from around the world and high ranking government officials, seemingly without achieving much at all besides touting the institutes’ own importance.

The current South Korean media landscape somehow presents South Korea as being behind in developing these institutions, and domestic newspapers go on to describe them as an essential innovation needed to modernize and internationalize the formulation of policy in South Korea so that the country can enter the ranks of the advanced nations.

Many students intern at these think tanks in the hope of getting jobs in prestigious fields such as international relations and political science. Others boast about their affiliations with think tanks as a means of raising their social standing. And almost no one speaks of think tanks’ inherent shortcomings.

For instance, there is much fuss about which South Korean think tanks made the cut every time the Global “Go To” Think Tank Index is released. (This sacred list was created by Professor James McGann of the University of Pennsylvania.)

South Korea did rather well on this list in 2015, with the inclusion of the Korea Development Institute (ranked #33), the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy (ranked #48), the East Asia Institute, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security and the Sejong Institute.

But ranking is determined according to the amount of funding received, the number of people employed, and the number of publications in “prominent” journals. Are these legitimate criteria for assessing what institutions will have an impact on national policy? The list does not take into consideration the accuracy of research and its relevance. It also counts the amount of funding received from corporations or wealthy donors as a positive, rather than an indication of corruption.

Let us be honest. It is possible for a wealthy individual with a vision for contributing to society to endow a think tank in a meaningful manner. But large-scale corporate funding means often that think tanks are no longer capable of presenting honest and frank assessments of contemporary problems because they worry about whether they will offend their funders if they give too accurate an analysis. In other words, massive corporate funding ought to reduce the ranking of a think tank, not to raise it.

The problem is of course more complex than just think tanks. Prominent journals in international affairs like Foreign Affairs themselves have become far more narrow in terms of whose writings they will publish, often pushing agendas that are indistinguishable from those promoted by major corporations, the same entities that might also fund think tanks..

More importantly, the problem with private think tanks in South Korea is one of accessibility. The South Korean government sends ranking officials to these think tank seminars which are closed to the public and which represent the interests of a small group who fund the think tanks.

The whole point of these conferences should be to promote an open discussion on policy and to educate a broad range of concerned citizens from all backgrounds about issues. But the think tank events to which I have been invited in Seoul have reveled in their exclusivity. The worst offenders are the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and the East Asia Institute — which see themselves as an exclusive club for high-flying policy makers.

These “think tanks” that South Koreans love are increasingly doing for policy what South Korea’s notorious hakwons (cram schools) do for education.

Private hakwons have taken over the education system and exam system and distorted it so as to feed their own profits (by making ritualized exams the only means for youth to find meaningful employment), and marginalized the central role of the teacher at schools.

Although these think tanks are non-profit, their primary concern is either the funds that they take in from events, or the degree to which they can promote the ideas of their founders and donors. They seek, in effect, to hijack the policy process for the benefit of themselves and their supporters.

The think tank seeks to privatize the work that should be carried out by a government official, a staff member of a government research institute or a professor at a university. The think tanks mask their lack of accountability and narrow self-interest by holding seemingly significant events, producing glossy brochures and using commercial advertising to grab attention.

Promoting the assumption that the private think tank can do a better job than the government is not driven by a desire to make South Korea more modern and advanced. It is rather a bid to privatize the most critical process of all for the nation: the setting of a long-term national agenda. Nothing could be more dangerous than to have institutions whose purposes are short-term gains and enhancing their own prestige make proposals about what South Korea must do over the next twenty years.

The dangers of this approach is clearest in the case of North Korea about which any number of reckless responses are promoted without any concern for the fact that Koreans of all stripes will have to live with the results of policy disasters for the next few hundred years, not unlike in the cases of Iraq and Syria.

South Korea needs new ideas and new approaches desperately. The correct answer is to create innovative programs for education and debate within government agencies so that government officials can be sufficiently informed and empowered to participate in the decision-making process. We must create small but vibrant intellectual communities, in which academics, members of NGOs and government officials come together for a participatory deliberative process that does not involve excluding the public.

Praising, supporting or tolerating opaque elitist organizations as arbiters of policy will not bring a brighter future to the Korean Peninsula.

Click here for the Korean version.

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Emanuel Pastreich is a professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University, as well as founder and director of the Asia Institute. He earned his PhD in East Asian Studies from Harvard University. In addition to conducting academic research, he has written for Chosun Ilbo, Dong-a Ilbo and MK Business News among other publications.