South Korean president Park Geun-hye undertook a major shakeup of her cabinet members and state ministers in March of 2015. Among the new cabinet members and ministers, 50% have studied in an American graduate school. Compared to neighboring Japan and China, that ratio is very high, underlining how closely tied the US and Korea are when it comes to education.
Among the 18 state ministries of Republic of Korea, nine are led by those who earned their final degree in the US. Within President Park’s new cabinet, seven out of 13 members studied at American graduate schools. These officials are currently in charge of Korea’s economy, foreign affairs, government management, trade and industries, and technology. By contrast, within Abe’s 2015 administration, only 4 out of 18 cabinet members and 3 out of 25 state ministers studied in the US. In China, not a single person in Xi Jinping’s administration received an advanced degree in the US.
Part of the reason for the high rate of US educated policymakers in Korea goes back to history. Syngman Rhee, the first president of Republic of Korea, obtained a Ph.D. from Princeton University after earning earlier degrees from George Washington University and Harvard. His personal experience was important in the early stages of the US-Korea alliance, and much of Korean society looked to his example. Since then, even under the authoritarian regimes from the 1960s to the 1980s, large numbers of Korean students continually travelled to the US to study. In 2012, there were more than 72,000 South Koreans studying in the US, an increase of over 40% since 2001 and ranks third-highest of all sources of international students. Based on population, South Korea sends more students to the US than any of the other top sources. At a rate of 144.6 students in the US per 100,000 citizens in its population, Koreans study in America at greater levels than Saudi Arabia, Canada, China, and India.
China might expect to encounter a similar phenomenon to that of the South Korean government in the future. The number of Chinese students in the US tripled in a decade, and those students have started to go back home and work in the public sector. It is possible that Chinese government employees that have studied in the US will soon be seen climbing the political ladder, though it remains unknown if substantial time spent studying in the US might prevent them from reaching certain ranks. Xi Jinping himself visited the US as a student in the 1980s, though his two-week visit did not include enrollment at an American institution.
Japan, on the other hand, might see such representation diminish in coming years. The number of Japanese exchange students in the US shrank to below 25,000 in 2009-10 and have hovered at around 19,000 per year in the last two years. Various explanations have been put forward to explain this trend, from changing perceptions about the quality of education available domestically in Japan, to unfavorable exchange rates, to shrinking youth population numbers and demographic challenges. While the number has fallen, Japan nonetheless remains in the top ten sources of international students coming to the US.
Educational exchange is an important way to grow mutual understanding between future leaders of countries. This fact is recognized by the US State Department, which runs the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) to engage with “current and emerging foreign leaders and their American counterparts.” Ma Ying-jeou, the current president of Taiwan, has participated in the IVLP, and is the only sitting head of state in Asia to have done so.
Though the statistics reveal changes in the levels of educational exchange between the US and Japan, it should not be interpreted as a barometer of how firm the alliance is. Nor does the increasing rate of students from China in the US guarantee an alliance such as the one shared by the US with Korea or Japan. What is clear is that there is a recognized value placed on education in the US by East Asian societies, and that personal bonds formed in school can be useful assets in future relationships.
Cheolwoo Lee is an Asan Academy intern at the East-West Center in Washington.