Munhwa Ilbo (South Korea) Life & Story – William H. Overholt

January 11, 2013

Interview by Mi-sook Lee – January 11, 2013

[The translation of the interview from English to Korean and back to English resulted in some ambiguities and awkward phrases. We have sought to remain close to the Korean text while inserting some bracketed phrases for clarity.]

William Overholt is a senior researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center. Since the 1970s, he has served as an East Asia specialist focusing on Korea, China, and Japan. Following the Kwangju Democratization Movement of the 1980s, he expressed early optimism for Korea’s democratization and, as an East Asia strategist, anticipated the success that Deng Xiaoping’s open market reforms would achieve. Last year, he attended the Asan China Forum (December 11-12 2012), hosted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies (director: Hahm Jae-bong). He gave the Forum’s keynote address and interviewed with the Munhwa Ilbo as the Forum progressed.

Q: As a long time research specialist on China, how do you analyze the 18th Chinese Communist Party convention’s chosen leader Xi Jinping’s leadership?
A: “I think we have to observe Xi Jinping’s leadership cautiously. This is because the economic situation is difficult, and changes in policies require time. I think that reducing the new Politburo Standing Committee from nine members to seven members made the decision making process easier. While assembling the Xi Jin-ping regime, China eliminated the leftist Maoists. At the same time, they did not embrace those of the most reformist faction. I see this as a strategy to enabling the highest ruling body to reach a consensus more easily in the face of even the most difficult situations. The new leadership's view is that the Chinese system is not in a normal situation, but rather a crisis situation. I think this perception is reflected in the reforms of the leadership structure.”

Q: Are you optimistic about Korea-China relations during the Xi Jinping era?
A: “This has been the most-asked question on this visit to Korea. Korea and China have an economically close relationship, while Korea depends on the U.S. for security. Many worry that the tension [between those] is unsustainable. It’s true that there is imbalance in the economic/security relationship; however, I think the tension will be manageable.”

Q: Can you compare General Secretary Xi Jinping’s power with that of Premier Hu Jintao, Premier Jiang Zemin, and those before him?
A: “[In China it is common to say,] If we assume Mao Zedong’s power level was 100, then Deng Xiaoping’s level of power was 80, Jiang Zemin’s 60, Hu Jintao’s about 40. I don’t yet know how much Xi Jinping will have.”

Q: Will Xi Jinping be able to effectively lead China with that level of authority?
A: “From here on out it seems that we are no longer in an era where one individual in China can take all of the power, but are in one of collective leadership in which a number of leaders make decisions together. From now on, any one individual’s authority won’t be very considerable at all. When Hu Jintao’s administration was established, China’s environment, both inside and out, was far less complex than is Xi Jinping’s. Also, the Communist Party’s leadership was far more centrally organized [at the beginning of] Hu Jintao’s administration. Moreover, because the Chinese people had become tired of Premier Zhu Rongji’s reforms, Hu Jintao’s leadership [based on a promise of ‘harmonious society’] initially had strong support [that subsequently dissipated].”

Q: What sorts of stress were the Chinese people subject to under Premier Zhu Rongji?
A: "Under former Premier Zhu Rongji, 50 million jobs were cut from state-owned enterprises while 25 million people lost their jobs in the manufacturing industry. President Hu Jintao understood the limitations [reacted to the stresses] of the Zhu Rongji era. This was a time when people felt the need for stability, not [more] economic reform." [Unlike today.]

Q: In the previous interview, you said former Premier Zhu Rongji had [and relied on] a deep understanding of Korea's economic development. To what extent do the Chinese leaders after Zhu understand Korean economic development?
A: "It's unclear how well Hu Jintao understands Korea, but the important point is that China is no longer looking to gain development experience from Korea. Zhang Dejiang, vice-premier of the State Council, knows a lot about North Korea, but the new generation of Chinese leaders do not seem to regard South Korea as a model for China."

In his last interview (Munhwa Ilbo, 5/31/2011 page 6), Dr. Overholt said that "Deng Xiaoping modeled his economic reform plan after Park Chung-hee's model" and also revealed that "the leadership nowadays does not consult the Korean precedent."

Q: Do you think that China will independently create its own model?
"At this stage, the most urgent task for the Chinese leadership is economic reform. The leadership seems to have determined that the experiences of other nations are no longer applicable for China and that China will need to find its own solutions going forward."

Q: Xi Jinping's leadership style is said to be pragmatic and open. What is your own assessment of Xi?
"Former President Jiang Zemin spoke as a Marxist theorist while Premier Wen Jiabao was a pragmatic leader [who spoke like a military commander]. Xi Jinping is relatively warm and open compared to his predecessors."

Q: You have a very favorable attitude towards Xi Jinping.
"Foreign leaders have responded favorably and affirmatively towards Xi Jinping's straightforward style. Hu Jintao was very stiff and made foreign leaders uneasy, but Xi Jinping is comparatively more affable."

Q: You give a positive assessment of China's Deng Xiaoping and Korea's Park Chung-hee. What do you think was the key component of their leadership styles?
"First of all, the two leaders are similar in that they both rescued their nations. The important point is that they both slashed the defense budget and transferred the funds to the economy, and broke away from Marxist ideology to focus on economic development. Park Chung-hee came from a leftist background and that drove his universal education and egalitarian social policies. Park Chung-hee built the foundations of democracy while pushing for economic development and national education, which is ironic, coming from an authoritarian politician of leftist background. Within this context, South Korea went through the process of economic development and eventual democratization, and to a stage of [partial] national reconciliation between the left and right. [For achieving rapid, fair economic development] Democracies are impossible in agrarian societies. Through his industrialization policy, Park grew the middle class and opened the way towards democracy. [Conversely, opposition leader Kim Dae Jung was also crucial to South Korea’s eventual success.] A long time ago, I was involved in the 1980 rescue effort for Kim Dae-jung, the opposition party leader sentenced to death. But since then, South Korea has gone through some surprising changes. In 1970-1980s Asia, Park Chung-hee rescued South Korea while Deng Xiaoping in China and Chiang Ching-kuo in Taiwan saved and improved their nations. The South Korea of today was only possible through the combined development endeavors of Park Chung-hee and the democratization efforts of Kim Dae-jung."

Q: After the early 1980s rescue efforts, Kim Dae-jung was freed from prison. Did you meet him afterwards?
"I have not met Kim since his release from prison in 1982 or even after he became president."

Q: At that time, why were you so deeply involved in the pardoning of a Korean opposition party leader? Was it because of your conviction in democracy?
"As a researcher interested in Asian issues, I believed at the time in the 1960-1970s that Park Chung-hee had saved South Korea. However, as I observed the situation towards the end of the 1970s, I came to believe that change was needed and wrote on that as well. More than anything else, I saw the execution of a populist political leader as politically and ethically wrong, and believed that it would be a disaster for Korea's future. I also believed that the execution would harm US-South Korean relations as well. My father was a Methodist [minister] and I believe that his Christian beliefs also influenced me to do the right thing."

Q: The South Korean economic recession today has some worried that Korea might follow Japan's long recession of the 1990s.
"I do not see South Korea repeating Japan's long recession. Whereas Korea and Taiwan switched into market economies and developed competitive democratic systems, Japan failed to develop into a modern competitive market economy and politics. In Japan, various power holders have been obstructing such development by continuing to intervene in politics and the economy, but South Korea is different. When Japan had just begun to globalize, many Japanese students came to study in the US. Yet today, [Japan has turned inward]; Korean and even Taiwanese students outnumber the Japanese on US campuses. South Korea's advantage lies in its competitive political system. Especially compared to that of Japan, the Korean political system is dynamic and highly competitive. Moreover, women have great opportunities in most sectors of the Korean economy, but this is not the case in Japan. Japan lags behind South Korea in opening its labor market. South Korea is on the path to success while Japan continues on its road to decline."

Q: Japan's prospects seem very gloomy, but do you see any way for a Japanese revival?
"If you look at their history, Japan is always unresponsive until a crisis and then ultimately reforms by way of a third party. In 1853, Commodore Perry forced Japan to abandon its isolationist policy and open its ports, and in 1945, as General MacArthur ended the Second World War, Japan had to undergo post-war reform. During the Koizumi Junichiro government, I said that "the good news is that Koizumi rescued Japan from the financial crisis, but the bad news is that he revived the [1955] system and marched Japan towards ruin." Despite recognizing the need for change, Japan is unable to do so. Even after the Fukushima disaster, various interest groups have been unable to compromise, which has prevented proper reform. It is regrettable to see their inability to reform even after such a great disaster. I fear for the [eventual] collapse of the Japanese bond market."

Q: Do you think such a worst case scenario could occur in the next few years?
A: "Prime Minister Abe Shinzo vowed to print an unlimited amount of yen, but [without structural reforms] such monetary and fiscal support will eventually reach a point where it can no longer be maintained and the bond market may collapse as a result. Japan may be able to reform after such a scenario. As for Japan today, it is very difficult to see a positive prospect."

After the general elections [in Japan], Abe is now on his second term as Prime Minister.
"Prime Minister Abe as well as the Liberal Democratic Party could be viewed as the Titanic about to sink. These past twenty years or so, not one Japanese leader has provided a positive image of the future. Every time I go to Japan, I can see that there are many bright and talented individuals in the country. That such people cannot become the top leader of their nation [because of interest group opposition] is the limitation of the Japanese system."

Q: With the leaders of South Korea, China, and Japan changing in 2013, how do you view the state of affairs in Northeast Asia?
"2013 is a year of great opportunities. Obama's first administration failed completely in its nuclear talks with North Korea, and China merely pursued a policy of assistance while completely failing to convince or change the DPRK. Now is the time to focus on the new leader of North Korea. South Korea, the US, and China must work together to bring forth a certain degree of change in the North. Of course, there is no certainty or guarantee that this will work. However, if we do not open the doors, we will lose this opportunity for change. Moving forward, many valuable moments will open up for a chance at reform. At a time like this, a weak and naive leader will be dangerous. Political leaders must be able to make big decisions in face of difficult problems, and in 2013, nations with such leaders will be at an advantage."

Q: As an expert who has had an interest in Asia's economic development and democratization from youth, do you have any New Years' messages for South Korea's youth and intellectuals?
"South Korea is a special country that was able to achieve economic development and democratization on its own. I hope that South Korea's youth and intellectuals will now turn their attention to their neighboring Asian countries and help them out. Myanmar and Cambodia are such countries that need South Korea's help. Myanmar in particular is in a difficult situation. With the US and China involved, their interests can create conflicts and entangle Myanmar's situation, but South Korea has a wealth of experience and wisdom that could teach Myanmar a lot about development. Without the geopolitical calculations that go into American or Chinese actions, Koreans will be able to win the hearts of the people of Myanmar and help them develop. Moreover, the Washington Consensus favored by the US as well as the Beijing Consensus preferred by China have serious limitations, whereas Korea should be able to share with Myanmar the strength it took to go from [poverty to] economic development to a democracy. The Korean Development Institute (KDI) contains a lot of valuable experiences and wisdom coming from Korea's economic development and democratization, and I hope that they will be able to share this with the rest of Asia. If this knowledge were to be passed down to Myanmar, it may pass from Myanmar to North Korea. Hence, by helping Myanmar, South Korea will also be able to ameliorate the North."

Q: Amidst worsening conflict between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, what would be the wise course of action for Korea?
"Between China and Japan, Korea has many economic opportunities. With China and Japan in conflict over maritime territory, Korea is a much more valuable ally for the US. Korea can teach the US the balanced way to handle the maritime conflict between China and Japan. Every time a problem involving China is revealed, Washington focuses [excessively] on fears of the rise of China. However, the Korean perspective will be a little different. Knowing from Korea's dispute with Japan over Dokdo [that both Japan and China are at fault], Korea can share with the US the confidence and wisdom of how it will navigate and develop its relationship with both China and Japan amidst their maritime dispute. Furthermore, it will create opportunities for China and Korea to discuss their shared responsibility in managing the North Korea problem for a peaceful win-win situation. Without assent from China, there can be no success of any [unification] policy towards North Korea. Therefore, from the South Korean perspective, the conflict between China and Japan provides greater diplomatic opportunity as well as a chance for South Korea and China to closely discuss the North Korea problem.

The China-Japan dispute is a difficult and complicated situation, but for Korea it can become an opportunity. But that doesn't mean that the US-ROK (South Korea) alliance should be cast aside. It is necessary to deepen the South Korea-People’s Republic of China relationship while maintaining good relations between the US and South Korea. This is a good situation for South Korea to take the lead in tackling the North Korea problem as well as a strategically advantageous time for the ROK (South Korea). How well Korea will adapt to this complex security environment and lead the situation forward will depend on the leadership of South Korea's new president."

As he wrapped up the interview, Dr. Overholt went back to the issue of Kim Dae-jung and Kwangju. "It's been so long that I don't remember it well, but I don't think I've met with Kim after 1980," Dr. Overholt re-confirmed, and also revealed that he visited Kwangju to see for himself the site of the protest that occurred in May of 1980.

"The Kwangju uprising happened while I was working at Bankers Trust, and I was immediately dispatched to Kwangju as the leader of a crisis response team. I visited all the hospitals to see for myself the many citizens who fell victim to brute force. People were reluctant to talk, so I had to visit all the hospitals in the Kwangju area. When I added up the doctors' tally of victims, the total amounted to 1250 people."

The atmosphere suddenly turned solemn. Perhaps he was recalling the many doctors and citizens he encountered at Kwangju some thirty-odd years ago. The grey-haired gentleman sitting in front of me stopped talking, but his gaze seemed to drift to the site of that incident thirty years ago. His eyes shined bright, as if he was regaining the youthful passion that had been buried deep in his memories. He smiled faintly and rose from his chair.