A Brilliant Rivalry: Victor Cha and David Kang
In an age of partisan politics and one-upmanship, “hawk” Victor Cha and “dove” David Kang—two top Korea experts—have written their own counter-narrative.
by JULIE HA
photographs by ERIC SUEYOSHI
Could you script a more perfect rivalry?
Victor D. Cha, cast as The Hawk, suspects North Korea wants to be treated like a nuclear weapons state. Juxtaposed with him is David C. Kang, The Dove, who thinks the North is going nuclear because it’s insecure over a U.S. pre-emptive threat. Enter, stage right, Cha, in favor of coercive diplomacy through negotiations and sanctions. He brandishes a stick. From stage left, Kang, who wants to open the isolated nation to capitalism and Western ideas, leads by dangling a carrot.
Figurative analogies aside, Cha and Kang are, in fact, highly positioned players on the real-world foreign policy stage. Formidable opponents with divergent opinions on how the U.S. should respond to North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambition, an issue that has plagued this nation for two decades, each has assumed an important role in government policy formation and scholarly research.
An international relations professor at Georgetown University, Cha formerly served as a key advisor on North Korea policy to then-President George W. Bush. Kang, who teaches international relations and business at the University of Southern California, has consulted for various government agencies since the Clinton administration.
Dubbed by one senior scholar as “the best young political scientists who study Korea,” both men have emerged in the last several years as two of the nation’s leading public policy commentators on Korea issues. When South Korea blamed a North Korean torpedo for the March sinking of its naval ship, killing 46 sailors, NPR invited Cha on-air to explain possible motives. When the United Nations Security Council came out with an ambiguous statement that didn’t quite condemn the sinking, the New York Times asked Kang to interpret its meaning.
To play up this notion of a rivalry, the scholars boast tit-for-tat resumés. Each has published three books and play prominent roles as ambassadors in Asian scholarship, with Kang directing USC’s Korean Studies Institute and Cha leading the Asian studies program at Georgetown.
The contemporaries have followed parallel paths, dating back to their heritage as American-born sons of early-wave Korean immigrants. They were back-to-back Fulbright scholars in Korea, where they also studied at the same research institute. In fact, it was while a Fulbright that Kang, a grad student from Berkeley, first got wind of his Columbia University-based counterpart, who had left within weeks of his arrival.
“So I show up at the Fulbright office and the research institute, and other Korean Americans are like, ‘Victor Cha, Victor Cha, Victor Cha,’” described Kang, 45, in a mock fan tone. “They loved the guy. So I hated him before I ever met him.”
Cha, too, had been apprised of his liberal colleague before their first encounter. “I heard there was this young communist being trained,” quipped the 48-year-old.
The pair would even have dueling hawk-vs.-dove op-eds published by the New York Times in 2002 exactly one Sunday apart.
But, as it turns out, this ideal contest is not what it seems. These would-be opponents are defying trend in this age of hyperpartisan politics and going against the grain in an academic world that often sees scholars trying to outbuild the other’s empire. Fifteen years ago, they decided to write their own narrative, and it goes something like this:
“Our ideas don’t necessarily agree,” said Cha during a joint interview with Kang, “so we debate.”
“And learn things from each other,” added Kang.
“And also push each other,” said Cha. “You look at these top people in their fields, and some of them don’t even talk to each other.”
“It’s so self-defeating,” said Kang.
After first meeting in the mid-1990s, they instead made an informal pact to join forces, and their personal decision has yielded important public benefits. In 2003 the pair co-authored a highly lauded book that took a bipartisan approach to the contentious topic of dealing with a nuclear North Korea (with an updated version planned) and, earlier this year, launched a research project on long-term Korean reunification issues geared toward aiding policymakers.
Both collaborations speak to the scholars’ shared desire to reframe the way decision makers and the general public consider one of the most important foreign policy issues of our time: achieving peace on the Korean peninsula. It also happens to be an ambitious vision that perhaps helped this seeming rivalry give way to a brilliant alliance.
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Kang recalled a conversation he had with his conservative counterpart over drinks after an academic conference in 1995. Both were assistant professors at the time. “We were ‘angry young men’ trying to make our mark on the world,” described Kang, whose animated style of speaking contrasts with Cha’s mild-mannered demeanor. “And Victor says, ‘You know, the field is so big, there’s so much that needs to be done. We could spend the rest of our careers competing with each other, but if we cooperate, we’ll both be way better off.’”
Their competing 2002 op-eds in the New York Times, ironically, marked their first public collaboration. They had conspired to write them in response to events from both sides of the DMZ that were sounding alarms in Washington.
That October, North Korea revealed a secret nuclear weapons program, prompting the U.S. to accuse Pyongyang of violating their 1994 nonproliferation agreement. Meanwhile, the complex and sometimes tenuous alliance between the United States and South Korea felt quite fragile, as South Koreans led protests over the acquittal of two American soldiers involved in an armored vehicle accident that killed two Korean schoolgirls.
Washington seemed to take it as a snub when the South’s voters that December chose the left-leaning Roh Moo-hyun as their next president over a candidate considered more pro-American.
“We had a real crisis,” recalled Cha, who still consults for the government and serves as an advisor at the D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “David and I were talking about it, and I had one view, which was a little bit more conservative, and he had another view, which was a little bit more liberal. And we said, ‘All right, let’s write op-eds on it.’ We were young academics just dipping our feet into this.”
Kang believed the North, by then identified as an “axis of evil” member by President George W. Bush, had genuine security concerns that the U.S. might attack the isolated nation. In his op-ed, he urged a deeply changed American policy that provided security guarantees to the North and normalized political relations between the two nations, still technically at war. He also interpreted South Korea’s apparent anti-Americanism as a sign of anxiety that the U.S. might undo the gains both Koreas had made during a decade of “sunshine policy” engagement.
Cha countered that until North Korea complied with the nonproliferation agreement, a policy of isolation and containment was justified. In his editorial, he issued some tough love for South Korea, who he thought was wrongly blaming American policies, rather than North Korea’s “truculence,” for the threat of war on the peninsula.
Despite their disagreements, the scholars also commiserated about the lack of informed public discourse on the nuclear issue. Pundits and ideologues who merely dismissed the North and leader Kim Jong-il as “evil” and “insane” tended to dominate the debate playing out on cable news stations and newspaper op-ed pages. Kang recalled some from the
far right camp even talked about possible U.S. surgical strikes in the North. (In March 2003, U.S. forces would descend on Iraq, another axis member.)
The Korea specialists saw it as their duty to push for a nuanced understanding of the true sources of North Korea’s behavior and pragmatic U.S. strategies to deal with it. They understood the stakes were too high to do anything less: Should war break out on the peninsula, the estimated costs would be one million casualties, including 52,000 U.S. military casualties, and $1 trillion in material damage, according to one U.S. military official’s assessment.
In light of such stakes, they tried to move a constructive debate forward with their 2003 book Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies, which like their op-eds, presented their he said/he said arguments in alternating chapters.
“We thought it would be a good idea to do something together where you have two people informed on the topic, who have different views and still could have a rational discussion about it,” said Cha, “not just talking…”
“Talking past each other,” Kang finished.
Later, Ashton Carter, former assistant secretary of defense for international security in the Clinton administration, would call Nuclear North Korea “the most thoughtful and analytical treatment of practical strategies for dealing with North Korea that exists in print.” Copies of it could be found on the plane taking then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to Korea and in the hands of then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
Charles “Jack” Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute and a former U.S. special envoy for North Korean negotiations, has worked with both Cha and Kang, whom he called “top-notch.” He said their book was “refreshing” in that the debating scholars also wrote shared chapters with their points of agreement. Cha and Kang, considered moderates in their views, took opposite directions to the same conclusion—that, as reprehensible as the actions of the Kim Jong-il regime were, its behavior was comprehensible, even rational, and therefore, there was a path for diplomacy. They commonly urged Washington to pursue some form of engagement with the North. For Kang, it could pave a gradual path to regime change; for Cha, engagement could be used to test whether Kim Jong-il would truly disarm.
The co-authors also agreed that the North Korean regime is not sustainable and that a unified Korea was inevitable. Given this, they said it would be beneficial for the U.S. to redefine its alliance with South Korea based on their shared principles, and not just their common threats.
A 13-city book tour gave them a chance to share their views with a diverse audience, from foreign policy followers to listeners of talk radio.
“The most important thing was for there to be two people talking about this in a very rational, educated way that the general [public] could understand,” said Cha, “so they wouldn’t think [North Korea] is just a crazy country, period.”
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Cha would go from writing and teaching about U.S. foreign policy to advising the president from the White House—three years he would spend sleeping with a Blackberry on his chest. As an Asian specialist for Bush’s National Security Council between 2004 and 2007, he was responsible for policy to South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations.
He would have a chance to harness his deep knowledge about Korea when he became the deputy negotiator at the North Korea nuclear talks,assisting then-chief negotiator Christopher Hill. Although hawks are known for pressure tactics, Cha is credited with convincing Bush to allow bilateral talks with the North as a way to test the regime’s intentions, marking a major shift in the Republican administration’s policy.
The once self-professed ivory tower academic would also take his first trip to North Korea in April of 2007, joining New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to negotiate the return of the remains of U.S. servicemen killed during the Korean War. After three days in Pyongyang, they drove to the DMZ and then took a helicopter into Seoul, its skyline replete with high-rises.
“I’d seen the Seoul skyline a million times, but I remember at that point, I really felt it,” described the New York-born Cha, whose late father studied business at Columbia and mother trained at Juilliard. “I thought, these Koreans in the South and I are not genetically any different from those in the North. It’s not like people in the North can’t do the same things; it’s just politics that have prevented them from doing it.
“And I knew all the stats—I can recite all the demographic data on why North Korean children who are my sons’ ages are a few inches shorter or many pounds lighter than South Koreans. But that one experience of having just driven from Pyongyang, past these completely barren fields, and then to view Seoul from the sky … I felt both anger and sadness at the same time.”
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When Kang says things like the United States, not just North Korea, failed to uphold its end of the bargain as part of the 1994 nuclear accord, falling behind on opening a promised light-water reactor, for example, he notes that to some, it sounds like “you’re apologizing for or defending North Korea.”
“It’s a heinous, hideous regime, which I, like anyone, would like to see disappear,” said Kang. “If North Korea is afraid of capitalism and afraid if more of its people learn about the outside world, the weaker the regime gets, then we should saturate them with capitalism. We should be doing everything we can to trade with them. North Koreans learn about the outside world, and incomes rise. That would be the best, most easy transition.
“I’ve always believed that if you solve the North Korea problem—the economics, the openness of the culture—that’s a way to make progress on the nuclear issue.” The Northern California-reared academic grew up hearing stories from his physicist father about the latter’s hometown in Chongju, in what is now North Korea, from which his family fled in 1947. “One of my biggest dreams would be to take Dad and drive from Seoul up to see his home,” said Kang, whose mother is white and notably has studied Korean language and history.
Although he’s done briefings for the State Department, CIA and National Security Agency, the former Dartmouth professor says he cannot picture himself working directly for the government, as Cha did. Kang has leaned more toward academia, and in fact, while his peer was working for the White House, Kang taught as a visiting political science professor at Stanford, wrote a book about China as a rising power in East Asia and was elevated to full professor at Dartmouth.
Upon returning to Georgetown in 2007, Cha apparently took notice.
“I was only an associate professor, I was a book behind him, and he had another article published in one of these top political science journals,” recalled Cha, as Kang erupted into laughter.
“My wife said, ‘But you just worked for three years in the White House.’ I said, ‘That means nothing in academia.’”
The former Bush advisor could have continued working solely in the policy world, but Kang’s scholarly accomplishments helped nudge him to re-engage fully in academia.
“I think I push [David] to do more in the public policy realm,” said Cha, whose third, even-scoring book incidentally was published in 2009. “It’s a collaborative relationship, but we also push each other.”
* * *
It’s also a relationship that sometimes operates on telepathy. About two years ago, after Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke, speculation that the North Korean regime would collapse abounded. Without coordinating with each other, Cha, in an editorial for a Korean newspaper, and Kang, at a forum in D.C., raised the same concern: Although governments, including the U.S. and South Korea, have prepared short-term military contingency plans should the North collapse, no one was analyzing long-term social, economic and political issues associated with the integration of two vastly different countries.
“Whether [reunification] happens tomorrow or 50 years from now, thinking about these issues is important,” said Kang. “The day after, we’ll have to deal with internal migration: Will 22 million North Koreans want to move to China and South Korea, or will they stay [where they are]? How do you deal with that, with public health [issues]? If a ‘North Korea’ disappears, what happens to its treaties?”
“What do you do with the North Korean military?” added Cha, referring to its one million-person army.
This year, the scholars launched The Korea Project, a research initiative focused on examining these complex issues. Over two days in August at USC, they hosted a private conference, matching Korea scholars with experts who have worked on such issues as transitional justice in South Africa, reform of state-owned enterprises in China, resolving ethnic tensions in the former Yugoslavia and post-war reconstruction in Iraq, to see what lessons might be useful for the peninsula. Cha and Kang said many people tend to focus on the German reunification model, but the case of Iraq after the U.S. invasion may
be more instructive.
“One of the lessons from Iraq was that the lack of Iraqi voices [in the rebuilding effort] was a huge mistake,” Kang said, referencing comments made by a conference attendee involved in Iraq reconstruction efforts. “In this [reunification] process, you need to have North Korean voices, not just leaders, but finding out at the village level, what does the community need.
“We know from the post-war Iraq example that no planning leads to chaos.”
By the end of what they anticipate will be a three-year project, funded in its first year by the Korea Foundation, an independent organization affiliated with the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cha and Kang plan to have a set of papers covering problems and solutions on a wide set of reunification issues and tasks for Korea, the United States and other concerned parties in the region.
Cha said the government doesn’t have the time to do this kind of research, though when the time comes, policymakers will need the data to help make sound decisions. “If [reunification] happens, it will be the most important change in Asia since the revolution in China,” he said. “Imagine a peninsula with no tension, how positive that is.”
* * *
The collaborators’ approach to contentious foreign policy issues appears to be setting a new countertrend in an age of separate cable news stations for the political left and right. Borrowing from Nuclear North Korea’s bipartisan playbook, two other scholars present their dueling views in India, Pakistan, and the Bomb: Debating Nuclear Stability in South Asia, released earlier this year.
Cha and Kang, in fact, will be reteaming on a revised edition of their trend-setting book, updating events since 2003—a period that has seen North Korea conduct its first nuclear test, heightened tensions on the peninsula and stalled nuclear talks with the U.S. As this issue was going to press, a North Korean foreign minister announced to the United Nations General Assembly that the regime plans to bolster its nuclear arsenal to deter a U.S. threat. Just a day earlier, at a major
political convention in Pyongyang, the youngest son of Kim Jong-il was elected to his first leadership posts in the ruling Workers’ Party. The move confirmed for many North Korea watchers that the ailing leader is paving a path for dynastic succession for son Kim Jong-eun.
Cha is also working on a separate book explaining the enigmatic North Korea for a general audience, while Kang releases his latest about international relations in Asia pre-19th century this month—marking each scholar’s fourth text, not that either is keeping track.
As strategic as this pair’s partnership has proven, a genuine friendship anchors it. They correspond almost daily and enjoy a chemistry that has them often finishing the other’s sentence and engaged in mutual ribbing. Cha attended Kang’s wedding and has met most of the latter’s extended family, though he joked he doesn’t let his colleague, who has one daughter, near his own wife and two sons.
John S. Park, a senior research associate on Northeast Asia issues at the United States Institute of Peace, recognized the relationship as unusual. “You look at how things are quite partisan today—people tend to focus on broad ways of negating or dismissing the other’s viewpoints,” Park said. “But [David and Victor] have maintained a friendship as well as a professional relationship. They can be frank about each other’s viewpoints and do so in a constructive manner.”
Noting their “shared goals of peaceful denuclearization and reunification of the peninsula,” he called their dynamic “old-school, in a good way.”
But don’t expect these old-school colleagues to share the same sports field. Cha called soccer, Kang’s personal obsession, the most boring to watch.
“Nine people running around chasing a white ball,” said the Georgetown Hoyas football fan dryly.
“Eleven,” Kang corrected his colleague.
Fittingly, the USC professor used a sports analogy to characterize his relationship with Cha: “We’re both used to competing really, really hard and then leaving it on the field.”
Indeed, perhaps what this pair shares is a rivalry, after all. But the way this hawk and dove play, there are no losers.