By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
Here’s a term that rarely crops up in discussions of American policy towards northeast Asia: the Korea Lobby.
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 philanthropists.
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.
What pro-Israel and Korea democracy advocates have in common is the fact that they work in a benign environment. Especially when compared with Europeans, Americans have a far greater appreciation of the importance of democratic allies and of the imperative of maintaining warm relations with these allies. We support South Korea and Israel not because some shadowy lobby cajoles us into doing so, but because the centrality of both countries to the security and wellbeing of the U.S. is self-evident.
The perennial question that’s faced successive U.S. administrations is how far to take that support. In military terms, our relationship with South Korea has always been very close. Between 1950-53, we helped defend the South from the invasion launched by the North. We still maintain nearly 30,000 troops on the Korean peninsula, and we supply the government in Seoul with cutting edge military technology, such as F-22 stealth fighters.
And while the U.S. has never had to deploy a single soldier in an offensive capacity on Israeli soil, the bilateral defense relationship between Washington and Jerusalem is just as strong.
Crucially, both South Korea and Israel are facing existential threats from their neighbors. Few believe that North Korea, now led by the bellicose Kim Jong Un, poses a direct threat to the U.S. mainland. But its nuclear program and its arsenal of long-range missiles like the Nodong-B could devastate South Korea, and also inflict terrible damage upon Japan and on American military bases in the Pacific Ocean.
Meanwhile, Iran shows no sign of abandoning the nuclear program it has developed with the active assistance of North Korea. It was no coincidence that just as North Korea’s warlike rhetoric reached the point of hysteria in early April, talks in Kazakhstan between the Iranian regime and international negotiators over the nuclear program collapsed. As Catherine Ashton, the gullible European Union foreign policy chief, put it, “…all sides will go back to their capitals to evaluate where we stand on the process.”
Any evaluation will have to acknowledge the painful truth that negotiations have failed and that the specter of war looms. That’s true for both Korea and Iran. Both North Korea and Iran have been hit by punishing sanctions—indeed, it was a new round of sanctions that triggered North Korea’s latest bout of hostility—but, as I and others have argued in the past, the sanctions have not succeeded in grinding the nuclear activities of these rogue states to a halt.
And that’s why, if the terrible prospect of military confrontation becomes a reality, the blame won’t lie with “Israel Firsters,” “Korea Firsters” or any of the other ludicrous notions cooked up by conspiracy theorists. It will lie squarely with the tyrannies in Pyongyang and Tehran.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.
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