Washington is a marvelous city for someone like me. Where else could a foreigner, an outsider like myself, do the things I was able to do?
– Tongsun Park, to the House Ethics Committee, April 1978
A detailed story in The New York Times, examining grants and gifts by foreign governments to U.S. think tanks — and how those gifts influence scholars (and through them), voters, policymakers, and Congress — has caused much controversy and discussion in Washington this week. South Korea is not mentioned in the story, but it does feature prominently in this companion graphic tracking think tank contributions.
The Times also suggests that some of the strings attached to those gifts, whether expressed or (more often) implied, could violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which is a thing people can actually go to jail for, but as we’ll see below, seldom do.
In a Washington Post op-ed, David Post calls the story “rather nasty” and wonders what the big deal is. The Brookings Institution, one of the think tanks discussed in the story, responds that the reporter’s “characterization of a few issues is inaccurate,” but promises to “continue to review our internal policies and procedures … to make sure that we are setting the standard for think tank integrity.” A “deeply concerned” Congressman Frank Wolf also wrote to Brookings. And in a thoughtful piece for The New Republic, John Judis worries that foreign influence is corrupting our foreign policy. I’ll return to Judis’s piece a few times in this post.
There is much in the Times’s story that’s concerning, such as this:
Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — two nations that host large United States military bases and view a continued American military presence as central to their own national security — have been especially aggressive in their giving to think tanks. The two Persian Gulf monarchies are also engaged in a battle with each other to shape Western opinion, with Qatar arguing that Muslim Brotherhood-style political Islam is the Arab world’s best hope for democracy, and the United Arab Emirates seeking to persuade United States policy makers that the Brotherhood is a dangerous threat to the region’s stability. [N.Y. Times]
Guess who else has been one of the beneficiaries of Qatar’s contributions to “political Islam.”
It’s bad enough that foreign governments vie to use our armed forces as their rent-a-cops. Now, contemplate the idea that foreign governments do this even as they simultaneously subsidize threats to themselves, to the American people, and to millions of other innocent civilians.
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This brings us to Korea, one of a select group of countries to have given its name to a Washington influence-peddling scandal. In 1977, years before his conviction in the Oil-for-Food scandal, Tongsun Park was “charged with 36 counts of conspiracy, bribery, mail fraud, failure to register as a foreign agent and making illegal political contributions,” after paying off 30 members of Congress to support South Korea’s interests, including by opposing a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea.
During the decade I’ve watched Korea policy in Washington, I’ve never seen or heard of anything remotely resembling Koreagate. I have, however, observed the extraordinary influence of the South Korean government over our Korea policy. Specifically, I’ve observed the tendency of South Korean Embassy staff and Korea-affiliated foundations to offer grants, travel, and other things of value to persons they considered influential. People I trust — both Koreans and Americans — have described efforts by the Korean Embassy to influence the agenda, content, and comment at think tank events where scholars meet, connect, and share information. At events I’ve attended in Washington and elsewhere, “Counselors” from the Korean Consulates were always present, and always watchful.
The “news” that foreign governments buy influence in Washington will not shock many people in this town, but the possibility that conduct far less egregious than Koreagate could still be illegal might. I’ve long felt that some Korea watchers should be more wary about FARA compliance. I’ve also long felt that the Justice Department should offer clearer guidance about the FARA’s limits, and that it should be more aggressive about enforcing the law against those who have crossed them.
For example, writing a confidential gossip dossier filled with personal information of obvious intelligence value about influential scholars, journalists, congressional staffers, and government officials — and then attempting to provide that dossier to a foreign embassy — certainly runs contrary to my reading of the FARA’s spirit. The Justice Department can decide whether this was legal, but I certainly found it ethically objectionable, like a Washington analogue to The Lives of Others. I’d be astonished if South Korea’s National Intelligence Service didn’t plan to use that dossier to target its subjects. But for an errant keystroke that sent that dossier to hundreds of people, none of the subjects would ever have known that a fellow citizen was reporting their vulnerabilities and personal matters to a foreign government.
Observing all of this from my anomalous position — a hobbyist Korea-watcher without professional entanglements with Korea — I’ve often thought that South Korea’s influence was so extensive that I’ve wondered how one can even do significant policy research about Korea beyond its sphere of influence. The expectations of a foreign donor, and how those expectations impact the donee’s work, have obvious potential to push a scholar into treacherous waters, both legally and ethically. I know scholars who’ve shared similar concerns with me.
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Disclosures required under the FARA are supposed to be publicly available, but until recently, you had to obtain them from the Justice Department’s FARA Unit. Today, the Sunlight Foundation has begun publishing them online, although the data are still incomplete. Here is what those disclosures tell us about:
This document provides exceptionally detailed information about what individuals or companies do for their foreign clients. This could include contacting a member of Congress, a federal official or a member of the media. It also could involve producing a conference, press releases or placing op-eds. Supplemental forms also contain key information such as who registrants have contacted in the United States, payments to registrants from clients, political contributions and disbursements that are used to pay for expenses and activities. [Sunlight Foundation]
But how does South Korea compare to other nations in terms of its influence-buying? Sunlight analyzed the FARA disclosures of different nations and found that South Korea spends $3.9 million a year to influence Americans. That would put Korea first among East Asian nations, and seventh among all nations.
It would, except that even this figure is probably a wild underestimate (Israel, a country of undeniable influence, didn’t even make the list). For one thing, it excludes “diplomatic contacts by members of a nation’s embassy.” It also excludes contributions that donees either don’t have to report to the Justice Department, or simply don’t report. Finally, we may not associate FARA-reportable contributions by foreign corporations with a foreign government, even when the foreign government orchestrates them.
The FARA also has a confusing, abuse-prone exemption for “the defense of [a] foreign government” the President has deemed “vital to United States defense.” For the life of me, I can’t see the use for that.
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South Korea’s FARA-registered agents include 22 governmental, consular, political, and commercial entities. They also include at least one media entity, the Korean Broadcasting System. The Korea Herald has also reported FARA contacts with the Korea Economic Institute.
The Korea Economic Institute is the most prominent FARA-registered entity in Korea policy circles. KEI is a well-connected group that serves as South Korea’s voice (and a key hub of its influence machine) in Washington. Its current head is a former congressman, and its previous head was a former senior State Department official. According to KEI’s IRS Form 990, KEI had an annual revenue of $2.3 million in 2012, but in 2013, it reported only $1.3 million in “payments to the registrant,” suggesting that (assuming Sunlight’s math is correct) many of its financials were not reported (or reportable) under the FARA. Its FARA-reported annual outlays include overhead and salaries, and support for conferences, congressional round tables, study programs, and social events for influential people, such as the Korea Society’s Annual Gala.
Despite its considerable influence on Korea policy, the Korea Society is not FARA registered, although a number of its contributions have been disclosed under the FARA, and its Chair, a former U.S. Ambassador to Korea, has disclosed contacts on behalf of Korean principals. Its contributors include KEI and a host of Korean corporations, including LG, Doosan, Asiana, SK, Hanhwa, and Hyundai, in addition to U.S. and European corporations. They also include The Korea Foundation, an organization under the substantial control of the Korean government.
Nothing in my research surprised me as much as the fact that The Korea Foundation (unlike the South Korean government, and its Embassy) also does not appear on the list of registered foreign agents, although a few of its contributions to KEI and other organizations are listed among the FARA disclosures.
That is troubling, because there is no question that the Korea Foundation is a tiger’s paw for the Korean government. It is a creation of a Korean law. Its Chair is “appointed by the President upon the proposal by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.” Its directors and officers are all appointed by the Foreign Ministry. Most of its offices abroad, with the notable exceptions of its Washington D.C. and Los Angeles offices, are co-located with Korean embassies (See Page 51 of its 2012 annual report). Its annual budget of more than $200 million (49) is funded by the Korean government and Korean corporations.
[Figures in Korean won. W1,000 ~ $1.]
The Korea Foundation is immensely influential in U.S. policy circles. It promotes Korean culture, language, and academic exchanges, which is wonderful. It also conducts what it calls “public diplomacy,” a concept it describes in terms that strongly suggest an intent to influence policy through important people:
The Korea Foundation implements various dialogue programs to help fulfill its public diplomacy mission by providing venues for in-depth discussion among distinguished foreign figures and Korea-related specialists, and groups of next-generation leaders, expanding the community of those with a keen interest in Korea, establishing human resource networks, telling the story of Korea to the world’s peoples, and strengthening friendship with countries the world over. To enhance Korea’s public diplomacy, the Foundation organizes numerous international forums that include the participation of domestic and foreign opinion leaders from the fields of politics, economics, and academia, as well as those in the social and cultural sectors. In addition, the
Foundation supports think-tanks abroad, as well as the research projects, conferences, and publications of international organizations. (5)
Specifically, the Korea Foundation provides “support for policy-oriented research on Korea” by the American Enterprise Institute, The Brookings Institution, Berkeley’s APEC Study Center, the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Council on Foreign Relations, the Korea Society, KEI, the Mansfield Institute, and the Wilson Center, among others (39). Here are some screenshots from its 2012 annual report.
The Korea Foundation has also brokered donations by Korean corporations and wealthy individuals to numerous U.S. and third-country universities, including Harvard ($570,000), Cornell ($450,000), Indiana University ($750,000), and the Deerfield Academy ($1,113,000) (48).
In his New Republic piece, John Judis writes that “Japan and China, two of the main countries that have tried to exercise influence in Washington, have often done so through companies and foundations rather than directly through their governments.” He recounts a number of experiences with this and concludes, “In these countries, government and business often work in concert.” Clearly, that is also true of South Korea.
It is also true of North Korea, which is increasingly using corporate profiteers as levers against Seoul’s disarmament-first policy, in favor of a unilateral lifting of sanctions to allow more investment. That view seems to be gaining traction within South Korea’s ruling party, notwithstanding significant ethical and security concerns to the contrary. And if that view prevails in Seoul, its influence will be felt in Washington, too.
The Korea Foundation also sponsors congressional staff visits to Korea.
None of this means, of course, that the scholars and think tanks that participated in Korea Foundation events allowed their work to be influenced. Continue reading »