Korean Consul General in Houston, Experts Examine U.S.–Republic of Korea Relations Amid New U.S. Administration
Asia Society at Home
HOUSTON, May 20, 2021 — A week before Korean President Moon Jae-In’s scheduled visit to Washington, D.C., Asia Society Texas Center (ASTC) hosted Ambassador Myung-Soo Ahn, Consul General of the Republic of Korea in Houston; Dr. Hans Stockton, Dean of the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences & Global Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston; and Dr. Se-Hyoung Yi, Assistant Professor and Director of Political Science at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, in conversation with Randy Sim, President and Founder of Satsun Corporation and ASTC board member, to examine the current state and future of U.S.–Republic of Korea relations. Among other topics, the panel discussed China and its rising influence in the region, U.S. involvement in East Asia and its impact on Japan–Korea relations, and South Korea’s broader influence on the U.S. and the globe.
The impact of China’s growth
Ambassador Ahn kicked off the conversation with an analysis of China’s economic growth. He shared that, according to the British think tank Centre for Economics and Business Research, China’s GDP will surpass the U.S.’s GDP by 2028. Citing an overall reduction in China’s workforce and population, Ambassador Ahn posited that this prediction is unrealistic and therefore the claims of China rising are also exaggerated.
Dr. Yi agreed with that analysis, and added his thoughts regarding China’s behavior in the East Asian region in recent years. He said that until the Opium Wars, where China saw an overall decline, China had traditionally operated under the idea of Confucian Peace Theory, in which China was believed to be the center of the East Asian sphere through its soft power — which constituted entities like China’s governance system and trade system. As Dr. Yi explained, China in recent years has once again adopted the idea of Confucian Peace Theory, but the key factors of soft power have since shifted to areas such as human rights and democracy, which China cannot offer today. According to Dr. Yi, China has instead tried to push its influence in the region in other areas, such as through economic pressure.
Examining regional relations
Dr. Stockton elaborated on the question around the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — or “Quad” — which includes the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, and why South Korea is hesitant to get involved. He explained that the Republic of Korea's primary goal is to have peace on the Korean peninsula, and so becoming involved in the Quad would potentially be counterproductive to that goal. Secondly, he noted that because the Biden administration has stated that it would not force its allies into an us-versus-them situation, South Korea does not feel pressured to join the Quad.
In addition, the speakers touched on the relationship between Japan and Korea and the U.S.’s impact on it. Ambassador Ahn explained that Japan and Korea have traditionally sustained a level of animosity because of historical reasons, while Dr. Stockton added that relations between the two countries were further strained in the last four years under the Trump administration, which emphasized the importance of bilateral relations with the U.S. However, he said that trilateral conversations between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan on issues such as trade, peace, and stability have created a more constructive atmosphere for relations.
The breadth of South Korean influence
Discussing the impact South Korea has had not only in the U.S. but globally, Dr. Yi briefly commented on the power of Korean pop music, more commonly known as Kpop. He said Kpop has become massively popular around the world because of its universal message in spreading liberal democratic ideas, pointing to examples of Kpop groups and their fans that turned out in massive support for movements like Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd in 2020.
Dr. Yi also raised South Korea’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that the country had used lessons learned from the 2015 MERS outbreak to implement an effective quarantining strategy without requiring businesses to close. He added that people in South Korea have different ideas regarding the role of government and individual rights compared to people in the U.S., which contributed to that success, but also pointed to the country’s current struggle to vaccinate its population compared to the U.S. Dr. Yi said that each nation has something to learn from the other.
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The U.S.–Korea alliance
Reflecting upon the broader relationship between the two countries, Ambassador Ahn said that during the Trump administration, U.S. relations with the Republic of Korea seemed to diminish as the U.S. pursued its own agenda with North Korea. However, he indicated that the Biden administration has taken a different turn and made South Korea an integral part of the alliance to keep peace in the region and to denuclearize the peninsula through diplomatic solutions. This aligns with the Republic of Korea’s view on peace in the region, according to Ambassador Ahn.
He concluded, “I can say the Korea–U.S. alliance is stronger than ever.”
Business and Policy programs are endowed by Huffington Foundation. We give special thanks to Bank of America, Muffet Blake, Anne and Albert Chao, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Nancy Pollok Guinee, and United Airlines, Presenting Sponsors of Business and Policy programs; Nancy C. Allen, Chinhui Juhn and Eddie Allen, and Leslie and Brad Bucher, Presenting Sponsors of Exhibitions; Dr. Ellen R. Gritz and Milton D. Rosenau, Presenting Sponsors of Performing Arts and Culture; Wells Fargo, Presenting Sponsor of Education & Outreach; and Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas), Presenting Sponsor of the Japan Series. General support of programs and exhibitions is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Hearst Foundation, Inc., Houston Endowment, Inc., the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance, McKinsey & Company, Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, Vinson & Elkins LLP, and Mary Lawrence Porter, as well as Friends of Asia Society.
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We are dedicated to continuing our mission of building cross-cultural understanding and uplifting human connectivity. Using digital tools, we bring you content for all ages and conversations that matter, in order to spark curiosity about Asia and to foster empathy.
About Asia Society Texas Center
With 13 locations throughout the world, Asia Society is the leading educational organization promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among the peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and West. Asia Society Texas Center executes the global mission with a local focus, enriching and engaging the vast diversity of Houston through innovative, relevant programs in arts and culture, business and policy, education, and community outreach.
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