Could South Korea “Save” America’s Relations with Pakistan?

Recent Features

Features | Politics | South Asia

Could South Korea “Save” America’s Relations with Pakistan?

While imperfect, America’s experience with South Korea could provide important lessons on how to develop stronger ties with Pakistan.

It might be difficult to overestimate the iniquitousness of Korean pop star Psy’s hit single “Gangnam Style.” From supermarkets in the United States to cricket matches in South Asia, “Gangnam Style” has been played and imitated a countless number of times. In an era of viral media, the song has proved to be a cultural epidemic.

“Gangnam Style,” though criticizing materialism in contemporary Korean society, is in many ways the de-facto theme song for Brand Korea, whose exports were once seen as second-rate, but now is giving its Japanese and American competitors a run for their money. Hyundai, Samsung, and K-Pop all signal the emergence of corporate Korea on the world stage. It is a transition that perhaps began with the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, but is reaching new heights today.

Americans were shocked to learn this month that Psy took part in anti-U.S. rallies in 2002 and 2004 and, in the latter incident, sang lyrics from another Korean band that exhorted his countrymen to “Kill those Yankees.” Not only is the anti-Americanism virulent, but, more generally, the expressly political nature of the lyrics is glaring. Psy contradicts the American stereotype of the apolitical, business or fun-only Asian. But beyond this stereotype, what the shock in the U.S. points toward is an unfortunate American tone-deafness toward the politics — especially the politics at the sub-elite level — of other countries.

Americans were largely unaware of the context of Psy’s past statements (for which he has since apologized). In the 2002 incident, he sang the anti-American lyrics in the midst of an anti-American phase in South Korea, sparked by the killing of two young Korean girls whom they overran with their armored vehicle. They were later acquitted by a U.S. military tribunal. This anti-American fever was also the byproduct of generational change in South Korea.

The so-called 3-8-6 generation in the 1990s resented U.S. support for military dictators and saw it as the agent behind the separation of the two Koreas, keeping two brothers at war. They were angered by the great latitude given to U.S. forces during military rule. These sentiments grew as the third wave hit South Korea in the 1980s and mushroomed during George W. Bush’s first term, when over 30% of Koreans supported an autonomous national security policy.  Opposition to an alliance with the United States was much higher among youth in their 20s and 30s. Psy, who attended Boston University and the Berkley College of Music, was representative of this population segment.

South Korea’s anti-American spell bears an uncanny resemblance to the current wave of opposition to the U.S. in Pakistan, with which America has one of its most problematic partnerships. Pakistani suspicions of the U.S. go back decades, but opposition to America took on a new, more strident form in the years after 9/11. As in South Korea, urban middle and upper-middle class Pakistanis have felt that Washington has been forcing Pakistanis to fight one another through the war on terror.

Pakistan too witnessed a democratic opening in 2007 while Washington was supporting a military ruler. It was precipitated by a civil society movement led by lawyers and the middle class, and enabled the return of its two major civilian politicians. Among the movement’s strongest backers were the urban youth, who today largely support Imran Khan, the nationalist politician who has railed against the war on terror. Khan, much like the Korean unificationists, calls for talks, not continued war, with the Taliban.

Like young South Koreans over the past decade, Pakistanis today deeply resent the presence of U.S. security personnel in their country. The case of Raymond Davis, a CIA security officer who killed two Pakistanis and was never punished for his actions, compounded the Pakistani belief that U.S. security forces operate with impunity inside Pakistan. And it was soon followed by the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, not to mention the perpetual drone strikes.

The comparison of Pakistan with South Korea is imperfect. Pakistan is riddled with religious extremism, poverty, and corruption, its military remains wedded to using jihadists as an instrument of policy, and it is decades away from achieving the educational, economic, and social progress of South Korea. Nonetheless, there are lessons from America’s South Korean experience that can be applied to improving ties with Pakistan.

Washington must internalize the reality of the generational change that is happening in Pakistan and keep in mind the long view. Much like South Korea’s 3-8-6 generation, Pakistan has its own 2-8-9 generation: young men and women in their twenties, born in the 1980s, whose worldview has been shaped by the post-9/11 era as well as the preceding decade, marked by U.S. abandonment of Pakistan and failed governance.

Nearly 70% of Pakistanis are below the age of thirty. With a population size of over 176 million people, Pakistani youth number well over 100 million. Given Pakistan’s youth bulge, its 2-8-9 generation will play a pivotal rule in its future. Fulbright scholarships, fellowships for journalists, and networking with social media activists are valuable investments Washington has made in Pakistan in recent years. But these efforts are just drops in the bucket and are overshadowed by the direct and indirect U.S. impact on Pakistan’s security.

Pakistanis tend to see Washington as the principal contributor to Pakistan’s instability and the loss of tens of thousands of lives since 2001. Those sentiments — as reductionist as they are — will likely prevail as long as Pakistan and its next generation of politicians, journalists, and military officers witnesses high levels of violence.

President Obama has been keen on developing a relationship among equals with Seoul. Toward this, he has visited South Korea three times and is encouraging its leadership to think about big picture issues — such as nuclear security and global economy — a paradigm he has dubbed “Global Korea.”

Similarly, Washington can try to help make Islamabad a responsible actor in its own backyard, yielding dividends for Pakistanis, as well as Americans and Afghans. The White House should give full backing to joint Pakistani and Afghan efforts to achieve a broad-based political settlement with Afghan insurgents. Efforts by some Beltway actors to work around this process or even derail it will only result in greater Pakistani intransigence — and greater danger from militants in the region.

Washington should exercise strategic patience and wholeheartedly support civilian democracy in Pakistan as it did with South Korea. Pakistan’s democrats must not be abandoned once the U.S. leaves Afghanistan.

Next year’s elections could bring in a center-right coalition in Islamabad. It is important for Washington to be able to anticipate a difficult balancing act as a center-right party might have to contend with the United States on the one hand, and more conservative or even Islamist coalition partners on the other. And at the same time, the Obama administration should determine internally the red lines for what it will tolerate.

A center-right coalition in Islamabad is more likely than the present government to pursue efforts for economic and governance reform. Washington should give its full moral and technical backing to such efforts by rewarding legitimate anti-corruption measures, improvement in income tax collection, and by extending preferential market access to Pakistani exports.

After a disastrous 2011, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has taken a turn for the better this year. With an eye on the long term, regional peace and economic prosperity achieved through strong bilateral cooperation might salvage a fledgling partnership and prevent the U.S. from losing an entire generation of Pakistanis.

Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He tweets at: @arifcrafiq.