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  • Korean Civil Society and Trust-Building between South Korea and the United States
  • Yoonhee Kang (bio)

South Korea, civil society, U.S.-Korea relations

Executive Summary

This essay discusses the rise and growth of Korean civil society since democratization in 1987 and analyzes the implications for trust-building between Korea and the U.S.

Main Argument

  • • Since democratization, Korean civil society has undergone significant transformation in terms of the number of NGOs, their membership size, and their activity areas.

  • • As a result, Korean civil society has become an influential actor with the ability to affect the formation and implementation of government policies.

  • • Progress has been slow, however, in establishing sufficient ties between actors in Korean civil society and their American counterparts.

  • • A lack of interaction, information-sharing, and dialogue between actors in the two countries has prevented them from contributing to the trust-building process between Korea and the U.S.

Policy Implications

  • • In a globalized world, network-building and trust-building are important not only at the governmental level but also at the nongovernmental level. In this sense, both the U.S. and Korean governments should make a better effort to strengthen ties between civil society actors.

  • • As for U.S. policymakers, they should fully understand that direct contacts between social activists of the two countries would improve Korea-U.S. relations and facilitate the further maturation of democracy in South Korea.

  • • As for Korean NGOs, they should seek out international or transnational ties, especially with organizations in the U.S. [End Page 62]

Although Korea was once called the "Land of the Morning Calm," today it is one of the most dynamic, fast-changing societies in the world. Not only has its economy developed rapidly, but Korea has also achieved an impressive democratic transition and consolidation during the last few decades. As a result, Korean society is no longer characterized as "passive" and "submissive," as it once was, especially under the repressive military regime of the 1970s. Civil society activism is now the salient feature of Korean society, with numerous voluntary associations and organizations proliferating.

Yet despite the growing importance of Korean civil society, relatively little attention has been paid either to its role in strengthening the U.S.-Korea relationship or to its influence on the process of trust-building between the two countries. This mainly derives from two factors. First, the U.S.-Korea relationship is often understood in terms of alliance relations, which prioritize security, political, and economic issues. Second, nongovernmental ties between the United States and Korea have traditionally been viewed as playing a less important role than government policies in defining the relationship between the two countries.1 This inadequate understanding of the potential power of civil society in building trust prevents both sides from fully utilizing potential resources. As a result, communication channels between civil society actors from the two countries have not developed to a sufficient level. The lack of interaction, information-sharing, and dialogue between actors in Korean civil society and their U.S. counterparts has often intensified mistrust between the two countries. Such mistrust is reinforced in the United States by the negative image of Korean civil society actors as anti-American presented by both American and Korean media.

Against this background, this essay aims to facilitate a better understanding of Korean civil society by providing information on its emergence, main characteristics, and recent developments. Based on this analysis, it tries to answer what kind of trust-building strategies would be best for both sides.

This essay is divided into five sections:

  • • The first section (pp. 64-68) examines the background of the emergence and growth of Korean civil society since democratization in 1987.

  • • The second and third sections (pp. 68-73) discuss the main features of Korean NGOs in the 2000s, with reference to their relations with the government and to their level of global networking. [End Page 63]

  • • The fourth section (pp. 73-79) examines why mutual ties between U.S. and Korean civil societies have not developed sufficiently, what kind of efforts have been made to improve this situation, and what issue areas offer the possibility of future cooperation.

  • • The conclusion (pp. 79-80) draws...


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