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Asian Challenge

Don Oberdorfer

      . . . has spent 38 years in journalism, including 25 years at the Washington Post where he was their diplomatic correspondent for almost two decades. His two other "contemporary history" books are Tet!, a National Book Award finalist, and The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era. Having won a number of prestigious journalism awards, he is currently journalist in residence at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.


You should care about Korea -- both of them. It's more than the curiosity of one homogeneous people arbitrarily divided, through not fault of their own, into two radically different political and economic systems. You should care, according to Don Oberdorfer, because North Korea is a "failed state." And South Korea, as it has recently demonstrated, has its own challenges which it readily shares with the rest of the world. You should care because the world's two largest standing armies virtually look at each other across the not-De-Militarized Zone (DMZ). "There is no 'D' in the DMZ!" And you should care because South and North Korea both have made serious runs at joining the world's nuclear weapons club.

Oberdorfer was concerned that Americans DON'T care. He worries that we only pay attention to Asia in general and Korea in particular when they show up in the headlines. He firmly believes that our lack of interest when combined with our lack of knowledge puts the whole world at risk. So he did something about it. He wrote a "contemporary history" of the two Koreas

Oberdorfer is uniquely qualified to find and report the story. He was diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post for 17 years. He had covered Vietnam (and has written extensively about it) and his specialty was NorthEast Asia. But he also spent a lot of time in the rest of the world, especially the Soviet Union. So his contemporary histories result from his access to the people who created that history. Access and information are no mean feats when you want to know about the notoriously closed society created in North Korea so that neither enemies nor friends need influence "The Great Leader" Kim Il Sung's decisions.

There is much uncertainty about the two Koreas, but one thing that will NOT change is Korea's geography which has influenced it's course for millennia. China, Russia and Japan are its neighbors. But the whole world should be thinking of Korea as a neighbor according to Oberdorfer, and a dangerous one at that.

Oberdorfer is convinced the two Koreas will one day be united. The question is how do we get from two to one. Scenarios now being suggested are all very dangerous. Oberdorfer bows to renowned British historian Dame Veronica Wedgewood who said, "History is written backward but lived forward. Those who know the end of the story can never know what it was like at the time." It is in our collective interest to know a lot about what the history of the two Koreas is, as that history is being created. It may well touch us all.

[This Program was recorded November 14, 1997 in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Don Oberdorfer compares Asia's ancient past to its astonishing economic present, in conversation with Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. He describes the impact of communications satellites which he believes made possible the global economy. He describes how the global economy affected the former Soviet Union and what has happened since the energies of the Chinese people were released in the late '70s.


Conversation 2

Mr. Oberdorfer contrasts South Korea -- the 11th largest economy in the world -- with North Korea -- a "failed state." He recounts a recent conversation with former Secretary of State George Schultz and notes the great significance Schultz also places on the Koreas. Oberdorfer gives his opinion of the current economic challenges in Asia and describes what he sees Japan and Korea doing to become more agile and flexible in response to changing conditions worldwide. The role of exports is explored.  There are a number of scenarios for reuniting 70 million Koreans, the most likely of which are extremely dangerous to the world at large. Oberdorfer summarizes how the dilemma evolved.


Conversation 3

Korea is an old civilization which Americans arbitrarily cut in half after the Second World War. Oberdorfer describes the results in the past half century and the impact America's involvement in Vietnam had on Korea.  Both South and North Korea attempted to become nuclear powers. Oberdorfer describes both efforts and the graveness of the situation, over which the US government was prepared to go to war.  Oberdorfer tells what he thinks is predictable about the two Koreas. He bases his assessment on his belief that unless the North Korean regime makes major changes, they will not survive. Then the question must be answered, "What next?" Oberdorfer describes the concerns the US has, as well as those of all Korea's immediate neighbors -- Japan, Russia, and China.


Conversation 4

Had we gone to war over North Korea's threat to develop nuclear arms, the potential cost in human life and dollars to America alone would have been astronomical. Oberdorfer describes Korea's (De)Militarized Zone -- where the two largest armies in the world face each other.  Korea shares a boundary with Russia, another country Oberdorfer covered. He describes what he believes is in the future for Russia, based on his experiences with the people and their leaders.  Oberdorfer says what he is now doing is "contemporary history." He uses anecdotes from his extensive experience covering diplomatic news to explain the role this kind of journalism plays both in understanding current affairs and eventually in knowing what "really" happened.


Conversation 5

Oberdorfer describes how he got behind the extraordinary secrecy for which North Korea is known, to learn what went on and is going on there. He talks about the origins and current realities of North Korea's closed society.  Ralph McGill, former editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, profoundly influenced the kind of journalist Oberdorfer grew up to be, as his anecdotes recall. He provides insights into what it takes to become a highly accomplished journalist.


Conversation 6

Oberdorfer demonstrates why understanding the past is particularly important in dealing with Asia. He predicts what will happen in The Two Koreas while deferring to future historians on the "how."



Addison Wesley Longman Publishing's Publicist Peter Hale was exceptionally helpful in alerting us to Don Oberdorfer. We thank him.

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The Two Koreas is published by Addison Wesley Longman.

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