By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
Here’s a term that rarely
crops up in discussions of American policy towards northeast Asia: the Korea
Click photo to download. Caption: The Arak IR-40 heavy water reactor in Iran. Credit: Nanking2012/Wikimedia Commons.
And as for the pejorative
term “Korea Firsters,” that isn’t one I’ve come across.
It’s not as if a cluster of
organizations working to enhance our relationship with South Korea, or
highlight the danger posed by the communist North, doesn’t exist. There’s a
group called Korean American Civic Empowerment, whose website boasts a photo of
its supporters with the refreshingly combative U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
(R-FL). The group works on a range of mainly domestic issues, like registering
Korean-American voters and commemorating the ordeals of so-called “comfort
women”—girls and women in Korea and other Asian countries who were forced into
prostitution by the Japanese military during the Second World War.
Then there’s the Committee
for Human Rights in North Korea, which works to expose the truly gruesome
humanitarian situation in the only country in the world that manages to be both
a sovereign state and a concentration camp. The committee’s board includes an
impressive array of former foreign policy officials, policy wonks and wealthy
And don’t forget Liberty in
North Korea, or LiNK, a truly wonderful organization that endeavors to bring
comfort and aid to the thousands of refugees who have fled the living hell that
is North Korea.
In addition to citizen-based
groups, the South Korean government is an active participant in the Washington,
DC lobbying scene, along with private corporations doing business in South
Korea. According to the Sunlight Foundation, a think tank whose stated goal is
to increase “transparency and accountability” in the U.S. government,
Washington lobbyists and PR firms earned a handsome $100 million in
Korea-related contracts during 2009 and 2010.
This picture will be very
familiar to those who follow the endless debate about the influence of the
“Israel Lobby” on American policy. When it comes to style and substance, there
are many similarities between Korean advocacy groups and their pro-Israel
counterparts—a national agenda that is strongly focused on issues like
immigration and integration, a cultural and historical agenda that seeks to
raise awareness of past suffering and past triumphs alike, and a foreign policy
agenda that hones in upon the North Korean threat.
Yet no one of any significance
is accusing Korean Americans of putting the interests of South Korea above
those of the U.S. A Korean equivalent to the pack of lies contained in the book
The Israel Lobby, by academics John
Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, has yet to be written, let alone make the New York Times bestseller list.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not
seeking to apply the “dual loyalty” accusation to Korean Americans. Like
American Jews, they have every right to lobby and campaign on the issues they
care about, and to do so free from the ignorant bigotry that has stained the
“Israel Lobby” controversy.
My point is a completely
different one: Lobbies do influence government policy, but they are only one of
several factors that contribute to the legislative process. And when it comes
to foreign policy, whether the issue is South Korea or Israel, national
interests will prevail, as they always have done.