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The present research seeks to identify the key areas underpinning some bottlenecks as well as potential contingencies in the ROK-US relationships that center on alignment issues. The core institutional pillars may reveal lasting disparity that can hardly be bridged along the lines of embedded liberalism. From the standpoint of comparative politics, some of the exogenously imposed convergences might carry the extra risks as well as reputation costs.

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Comparative History

The Korean Republic has followed a fairly uneven trajectory of governance, with a core of statehood dating as far back as 37 BC, followed by a heyday of the dynastic rule in the 14th century and a decline of the imperial rule by the late 1890s (Jinwung 6, 74). Although South Korea’s Hanguk etymology has been disputed everywhere between the Chinese Han core and the ‘nether replica’ of the Japanese in terms of the strength of linguistic overlaps, the strife for a unique identifier may well have been underway beyond trivial economic nationalism (Shin 291).

By contrast, America’s Celtic or Gaul heritage, dating back to its prehistorical past or lasting indigenous suppression, may or may not be stressed by St. Patrick’s and Thanksgiving Day celebrations respectively. Yet, in any event, the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation as of 1776—1777, following the sequel of the French Revolution amidst the Civil War of 1860-1865, may have earmarked the evolution of a new identity.

The two countries may at first appear at odds due to their historical paths and it could be difficult to envisage any common future in the long run. Korea is a traditional or ‘high-context’ society, which means that its institutions have been forged for centuries, and these factors are unlikely to be outmatched by any short-lived or fully exogenous trends. It may be explained by the fact that whatever is deemed arbitrary and fundamentally inconsistent cannot generate lasting achievements at a higher level, up the Maslow hierarchy of needs, with self-actualization, successful development, or windfall payoffs.

By contrast, the American nation has emerged as a spin-off version of the European civilization or the British style Reformation, amid a fierce struggle to reconcile secession from paternalism with a commitment to puritan vigilance and zest. The latter may have built, with the help of some controversial hard-line views, a free society that would not tolerate any major opposition to its own ways, which reach beyond trivial incumbent nationalism or imperial consolidation per se.

According to formalized terms of comparative politics, however, the two models prove to be compatible, as both have sought to eliminate nominal political ties with the metropolises, London and Beijing, without being able to divest themselves of the heavy cultural links. Later on, by the mid-1950s, the US had swapped its hierarchy status with the British Empire, whereas Korea had some kind of liberation from Japan’s imperial yoke (Jinwung 336).

As far as ROK’s post-WWII history is concerned, it has in fact been dominated by the multi-layer background of the US-Korean relationships. However, these should be properly studied, featuring explicit regional rivalry amid latent tension within South Korea’s societal attitudes and institutional underpinning. Moreover, a meaningful outlook should involve an appropriate retrospect, linking a chain of developments and choices rather than regard them as standalone facts.

Institutional Legacies & Political Setups

However general and non-restrictive, the early US Constitution prepared by the founding fathers, perhaps again after the French analog, proposed a governance model striking a balance between concentrated presidential leadership and representation, the latter was reflected in the bicameral design of the US Parliament or Congress. This scheme proved to be transferable to the South Korean democratic terrain, amidst markedly different administrative divisions and legal principles. Whereas in the US federal law may dominate municipal regulations without prevailing upon state law, landmark decisions become law and their binding precedence is based on a handful of common-law principles, irrespective of the jurisdiction. Although the Senate appears to be maintaining more full-blown interaction with the executive branches, the House of Representatives might exercise better bargaining leverage, e.g. when it comes to the impeachment of select executives.

Korea’s Sixth-Republic model is similar in many ways, as local governments stay reasonably immune to national-level intervention, which is confined to judicial and legislative powers (Jinwung 398). The robustness of the basic model is all the more remarkable given that, in Korea’s case, reliance on common law is minimal. It is ironic that the Buddhist point of view is so strong in ROK, despite the fact that Christianity prevails among the population, as the Protestant ideas find ways of reaching atheists in the US. It is all the more controversial, taking into account how consistently the US has supported ROK’s alleged liberal democracy, which was inseparable from the history of dictatorships and massive imprisonment due to an unflavored creed(521).

By applying backward induction, it is possible to trace the ongoing ‘all-time high’ geopolitical as well as a socioeconomic rapport of the two nations’ and the origins, which have appeared vis-?-vis the initial conditions, and the model of interaction imposed throughout the post-war period. To begin with, whereas South Korea was perceived as America’s chief anti-communist stronghold in Indochina back in the late 1940s, Japan, as part of the rival Axis and a subdued counterpart, shared the same model with the former. In other words, a recovery model essentially amounted to a transition path that was supposed to transform into some additional markets, facilitating the development of institutions or rules of the game similar to those maintained in the West, without tapping the of the original core, traditions, and informal institutions.

In fact, comparative politics should be applied to analyze such development, with an eye toward selecting some inherently common independent variables such as core institutional underpinning as opposed to those added in order to artificially make the systems compatible with the US setup, considering their similarity. The latter pertains to Korea and Japan that share a common body of Buddhism and animism as well as folk heritage, which does not necessarily reveal full-fledged overlap. For instance, whilst Japanese Zen has a bias toward greater sympathy for the neighbor’s concerns and subsistence, thus driving the motivation for best labor efforts to the principle a virtue-unto-its-own, more ‘classical’ branches of Buddhism, practiced in Korea, have been intertwined with Confucianism in ways that place a value on unemotive empathy, a somewhat cynical attitude toward the ongoing reality modes or models, keeping the onlooker largely unmoved by the second-order paths or outcomes.

Economy: Models & Relationships

Perhaps, it is the reason that even the older-age institutions have not rejected the incursion of market-driven means, albeit not necessarily acceding to the common ends. The flipside, however, is the fact that the market model has not fully accepted the traditional core despite the underlying ideology of Protestant ethics, superficially resembling the indigenous peers. One important outcome is that there is a two-way convergence, with the Western-style management readily accepting models of team play and joint responsibility that have worked well for securing explosive growth and accelerated development in the Asian Pacific, although the pillars may have been at odds with an individualistic attitude fostering compromise, bargaining, and non-cooperative trade.

The two economies, the US and South Korean have never quite converged, which may have been a source of tension as well as profitable trade. It is worth bearing in mind that different technologies or endowments make the inter-industry exchange meaningful. With an utmost convergence, there is still some room for the intra-industry or similarity driven interchange; yet, that mode is more characteristic of North-North type relationships, which are built on trivial introspection, similar to underlying strategic choices in the game-theory.

As it happens, neither one not the other fully abides by strong-form market democracy, even though the ideal model does not need to be optimal with respect to the actual institutional and resource constraints, enforcement mechanisms, or bargaining options. In this context, the re-emerging notion of ‘embedded liberalism’ could be useful whenever there are crucial complementarities suggesting how ‘norm’ or societal preferences could be aligned to particular power modes or political processes (Ruggie 381). Kim and Paik approached the alignment issue in terms of the US-ROK alliance cohesion (37-38). Moon has presented a more integrated perspective, tracing out the emerging role of the NGOs that combine endogenous causes and factors beyond third parties (44).

The two political systems may or may not share a lot in common when it comes to the power dimension. For example, when referring to the presidential constitutional republic as a grand governance arrangement, with the ‘social purpose’ or institutional cores clearly dominant as well as lasting. With the help of this gap, it is possible to trace the whole way of the long-term divergence. On second thought, it does not imply trivial and complete reduction because there is little knowledge of what the two domains amount to. In somewhat sketchy yet visual terms, the product of matrices cannot always be traced to unique matrices.

For one thing, the Judeo-Christian versus Oriental legacies might be neither fully compatible nor in a serious conflict with each other. On the other hand, neither the West nor Southeast Asia maintains any pure-form versions of these. Again, this might act as a bridge between some gaps, while denying any major overlap or tangency elsewhere because non-systemic discrepancies amount to complexity, which should be tackled in an ad-hoc manner.

Considering the case illustrating the chasm, Korean chaebols or large-scale as well as diversified or vertically integrated, players or MNEs may or may not amount to Western-style clusters, yet they clearly maintain a protectionist model very different from the one suggested by the free market, which can be nevertheless fully in line with Korean social planning, exercised at the macro-level over the long haul. For instance, apart from cheap labor back in the 1970s as one source of endowment-based competitive advantage, which drove the Korean model of exports-facilitated growth, low cost of debt financing was another pillar of state-sponsored protectionism that would provide the economy with artificial security, albeit bypassing the WTO clauses (Rodrik 2-3).

Even though now the economy may not have undergone dramatic efficiency losses in respect of implicit cross-subsidization, the resultant productivity boost stemming from large-scale players that contribute to whole new emerging sectors and markets has acted as a hedge of the otherwise ‘small’ or narrowly specialized economy against external demand shock. Although the underlying model was criticized earlier by neoliberal institutions such as the IMF, still the World Bank issued reports as early as in the mid-1990s, arguing that the strategic approach did work for South Korean and Southeast Asia at large (Rodrik 1). One implication arose from the fact that the vast majority of OECD economies followed the suit, deploying social planning beyond inflation in order to target and peg exchange rates, which is evident from their macroeconomic time series over the past decade (“Select Indicators” n.pag.).

In fact, keeping in mind that there is a less than 50% wage or GDP per capita gap between the US and Korea (“Select Indicators” n.pag.) that keeps converging, low labor cost ceased to be Korea’s key driver as FDI flow in, with agglomeration synergies and infrastructural design that increasingly dominate its growth accounting and developmental sustainability. The latter pertains to such issues as intergenerational replicability as well as cost-efficiency of the economic model that may generate social costs or adverse spillovers, such as pollution or occasional diet-related health problems. As a matter of fact, it is this domain, alongside CO2 emission, that may have been a major area of concern that pertains to military bases.

Besides, ‘not-so-green’ technologies may have been just a pretext for the lasting tension between the two large players, Samsung and Apple Computer, as they have long been major contractors for each other (Chen n.pag.). More importantly, they are chief and direct rivals, bearing in mind the high market commonality as well as resource or input similarity that define their intra-industry strategic responses amidst the fast loss of a unique edge.

Although their rather aggressive litigation history may not exactly represent the US-ROK clash that is yet to emerge, it points to opportunities that become too scant for any slack to go untapped, which applies to geopolitical tradeoffs as well. In fact, this might be a key explanation for rationalizing Obama’s recent flex stance, as part of the ‘soft power’ leverage, which means making friends with many historical foes in Southeast Asia (Vietnam), Middle East (Iran), and Latin America (Cuba), in the middle of major standoffs following the staged coups in the Arab and Eastern European jurisdictions over the past decade.

Complexity & Implicit Tension

Some of the tensions in the US-Korean rapport have been contingent or implicit in nature without ever bordering on observable showdown or suppressed whistle-blowing a la US cable leaks (Farhi n.pag.). For starters, Gallup Polls consistently show considerable support for US-style hegemony, as reported by ROK (Cynkar n.pag.), which is far from typical of the Pacific Rim on the whole. Although South Korea and Japan have both maintained political models and processes that were largely imposed or ‘foisted’ on them in the wake of WWII and the Korean War respectively, they have a millennial history of mutually complex and controversial relationships that cannot be fully resolved by the US acting as either a moderator or an umpire.

Japan may be committed to providing ‘unqualified support’ for South Korea in the event of Northern aggression or threats; again, largely due to hosting US military deployment bases from lack of its own regular forces. However, that amounts to downside support by and large. Even the US, despite signals of sustained commitment to friendship beyond strategic partnership, does not hasten to back it up by full-fledged NATO membership for Korea, giving the second-order and somewhat informal status of a ‘major non-NATO ally’ for at least three intertwined reasons.

First, the US is not in a position to take a hard line on North Korea the way it did on Syria, because tactical-range missiles may have been backed with more serious supplies from Russia. Second, the US is interested in deterring only, without overlooking Seoul’s attempts at irresponsible actions. Last yet not least, Washington and Langley are mostly interested in either cooperating with or deterring Beijing economically, so China’s lasting commitment to upholding Pyongyang’s communist regime will, in the worst possible scenario, be manipulated by lamenting both countries’ ‘undemocratic ways.’ It should be recognized that, even when China was extremely weak during the Vietnam war, the US opted not to go to great lengths to irritate Beijing when striking a balance between the latter’s cold shoulder on the Soviet Union in the wake of early destalinization and its own stakes in Indochina. Interestingly, W. Lee has conjectured that the establishment of the US-ROK Free Trade Area amounts to little more than signaling America’s interest in Southeast Asia to China (28, 56).

When it comes to scratching the surface of aggregated polling, the results have to be broken down demographically. For now, the odds of strong opposition and weak support for US hegemony are on the order of 22% versus 57% respectively (Cynkar n.pag.). It is likely that the opposition is by and large represented by the elderly and the left-wing intellectuals, both favoring reunification. The former category could be deemed as more risk-averse and laden with tradition, so the above odds ratio may converge as the populace grows older.

However, the aging group may maintain an altogether different notion of conservatism, possibly referring to any status quo, mainstream, or incumbent paradigm that means the right-center and pro-market as well as pro-US for the time being. Ch. Lee (1-2) and Chun (2) have some paradoxical results consistently suggesting that ROK’s aging population reveals a higher rate of labor participation alongside a higher propensity in terms of consumption. Actually, both could be pointing to increasing acceptance of the market economy that the people are progressively exposed to during their life, despite the shrinking rural population.

Alternatively, Korea’s status as an outlier, when it comes to perceiving America’s goodwill or reputation capital, might shift or converge as well, following major dissipation due to the latter leverage or trust. Israel-US tension could posit a ‘complex friendship’ model that is contingent on a particular administration at any rate (C. Lee n.pag.). At the same time, it does not deny the merit of the ROK-US military alliance, increasingly seen as a vehicle of transition toward a more self-sustained military situation (Suh 105).

Conclusion

Ironically, it is an altogether different paradigm rather than a lasting competing legacy that enable South Korea to believe it has recaptured its unique identity, even though that does not resolve its identity crisis. Therefore, the painful friendship of ROK and Japan around the US may mitigate the Stockholm syndrome or antagonistic stance on a common rival such as China that has a major lasting institutional impact.

On the other hand, inherent orthogonality between the two models, Korean versus the US, may be prone to a cycle of mean reversion as well as revision with the advent of less pro-Western policies versus less ‘flexible’ strategies embarked by the Korean and American administrations. For the time being, however, this link of the global alliance network might be deemed too strong to sustain under the old-hat model.

Bearing in mind the mounting US interest in controlling some of the world’s fastest-growing markets and their block-level bargaining power, ROK should remain a major stake and a kind of democratic superstore that can get investments without having to stay relatively more flexible. Yet such competing ideologies or models as China and Vietnam pose some extra threats, rendering runaway investments that signal more costly and expected payoffs.

One final policy and strategy implication imply the role of NGOs as a hybrid driving force that should neither be discarded nor misaligned in between the political-process and resource-mobilization layers.

General points of the essay

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