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  • Ethnicity and U.S. Foreign Policy:Korean Americans
  • Katharine H.S. Moon (bio)

South Korea, U.S.-Korea relations, foreign policy

Executive Summary

This essay examines how Korean Americans, a relatively new and fledgling ethnic group, are attempting to negotiate and coordinate agendas and interests in order to influence U.S. policy toward Korea.

Main Argument

Korean Americans have yet to develop the internal cohesion as a political group that would allow them to effectively serve as a bridge between U.S. interests and Korean interests. Generational, regional, linguistic, and other identity markers often generate competing agendas and approaches to political participation among Koreans in America. This essay finds the following:

  • • Korean-American political participation is sometimes hampered by a history of Americans' distrust regarding ethnic groups, especially those of Asian heritage, influencing domestic politics and foreign policy.

  • • Korean Americans have been more politically active and effective on issues such as human rights than on other issues, such as the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which took years to pass Congress.

  • • Korean Americans often work with other ethnic organizations, especially more established ones such as Jewish-American groups, to learn about political community-building and activism on foreign policy issues.

Policy Implications

  • • Korean Americans are not yet an associational group that can be relied on to advance bilateral interests.

  • • The increasing diversity of Korean Americans in terms of age, geographic concentration, and other demographic demarcations complicates the development of coherent policy positions on bilateral issues.

  • • Politically active Korean Americans should continue to emphasize a "universalist framing" of issues—e.g., human rights, peace, or the environment—rather than an "ethnic framing." This strategy will likely have a greater political impact in Washington and is in line with the approaches of other social movement groups around the world.

  • • Exchanges between individuals and groups in Korea and the U.S. about each society's domestic political process would prove useful in building trust and cooperation and in decreasing unreasonable expectations. [End Page 20]

Individuals and civic organizations can play significant roles in facilitating trust or mediating distrust between states. Such actors may espouse ideas and values (e.g., anti-Communism, democracy) shared by their foreign counterparts. In the United States, investing personal, financial, and social capital into a cause and establishing a focused interest group can be an effective way to influence debate and policy toward a foreign government or political community. Although "ethnic lobbying" seems commonplace today, it is relatively new, facilitated by a variety of changes in the U.S. Congress throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the decline of the executive branch and the concomitant rise of the legislative branch in controlling foreign policy (e.g., through the War Powers Resolution of 1973), and new laws and court decisions that provide opportunity structures for individuals and groups to participate in foreign policy.1 In the early 1970s, Jewish-American activism helped pass the Jackson-Vanik amendment in Congress; in 1974, "Greek-Americans played a noteworthy role in the congressional passage of an arms embargo on Turkey as a retaliation against that country's occupation of a sizable portion of Cyprus"; and African Americans, with the establishment of the Black Congressional Caucus in 1970, increasingly mobilized against the apartheid system in South Africa.2

"Associational groups" are composed of individuals who, owing to similar group identification and experiences, are likely to share attitudes and therefore be more sympathetic or open to a particular cause than the general public.3 Such groups frequently serve as agents of government lobbying. In the United States, ethnic groups are often viewed as the most natural associational or attention groups regarding issues related to their country of ancestry or heritage and can readily serve as mediators between that country and the U.S. political process. Jewish Americans, Cuban Americans, and Armenian Americans are the most salient examples in contemporary times.

But ethnic identification is neither necessary nor sufficient to influence U.S. foreign policy. Non-ethnic actors can include veterans of war (as in the case of Korea), specific business interests, or issue-oriented civil society organizations such as humanitarian or environmental groups. Historically, the China lobby stands out as a powerful force composed...


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