SAIS U.S.-Korea Institute closes due to lack of funds

By BRIANNA DANG | May 3, 2018

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BANYAN TREE / CC BY-SA 3.0 The South Korean government withdrew its funding from the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS.

The School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) announced that its U.S.-Korea Institute (USKI) will be closing on May 11 due to insufficient funding. 

The Korea Institute for International Economic Policy (KIEP) withdrew its financial support for the Institute following disagreements over staffing and operations. KIEP is a research institute funded by the South Korean government, which studies how global issues impact the Korean economy.

USKI, which is located in Washington, D.C., was founded in 2006 to foster Korea-related education, research and policy discourse within SAIS.

USKI Chairman Robert Gallucci said that KIEP provides just under 80 percent of USKI’s budget. According to him, KIEP was dissatisfied because it did not believe USKI was thorough enough in reporting its finances and expenditures. 

However, Gallucci believed the reports were thorough, explaining that both the USKI director and assistant director had reviewed the reports sent to KIEP over the past five years.

“The Korean government, through KIEP, was asking for information and details, some of which were beyond the normal reporting requirement,” Gallucci said.

Gallucci and SAIS Dean Vali Nasr received a request from KIEP to replace current USKI Director Jae H. Ku and Assistant Director Jenny Town. After USKI denied this request, KIEP withdrew its funding. 

According to Gallucci, Nasr believed that there was no cause to replace Ku or Town, and he found the request unreasonable. 

“The request was inconsistent with the normal requirements of a funder,” he said. “They were in fact seeking to have influence over the operations... of the institute and its staffing, which was inappropriate.”

Earlier this year, Nasr and Gallucci received a letter stating that the Korean government would be terminating its support for USKI and withdrawing KIEP’s funding from the Institute. Nasr consequently determined that USKI did not have enough funding to stay open.

For Gallucci explained USKI’s closing especially unfortunate given the recent summit between North and South Korea and between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

“I found this outcome to be unfortunate and magnificently poorly timed,” he said.

Town agreed, adding that USKI was an active player in D.C. and had a large impact on its policy community. At the time of the Institute’s creation, it was one of two institutions focused on U.S.-Korean policy. She said that the second institution, the Korea Economic Institute, was an extension of the Korean government, which made USKI unconventional for its independence from the Korean government.

Town explained that Korean policy issues were important to her and Ku, stating that they were looking forward to seeing an increase in attention and importance given to the topic in policy circles because of USKI’s work. Over the years, she said, she and Ku helped the institution grow to make an impact on the Korea policy community and in policy debates.

Since then, Town said, USKI has helped other institutions become more involved and interested in Korean policy. 

“We were elevating the discussion and making sure that Korea was a bigger player and that it was a more prominent issue in Washington [D.C.] during the time,” Town said.

Town explained that the Institute had a three-part mission: education, research and outreach. She compared USKI to a research institution or a think tank with an academic focus.

USKI also sponsored the Korea Studies Program at SAIS. Though the Institute did not run the program, it provided funding for professors’ salaries, student fellowships and programming for Korea Studies students.

The second pillar of USKI’s mission was outreach, which Town said involved public events revolving around key issues on the U.S.-Korea agenda. She listed global issues that the Institute discussed, for instance when South Korea hosted the G20 Summit. 

Inhyok Kwon, a SAIS student with a Korea Studies concentration, was a 2016-2017 USKI student fellow. He wrote in an email to The News-Letter that he was surprised by the Institute’s closure and was unaware of the news until recently. 

“[USKI] helped form a discourse about Korea-related issues amongst students, scholars, practitioners and policy makers in D.C.,” Kwon wrote.

Kwon participated in USKI’s monthly meetings because of his interest in international policy, particularly Northeast Asian politics. He wanted to learn more about neighboring countries’ perspectives and interests on Korea-related issues. According to him, D.C.-based think tanks could help fill the gap USKI’s closure would leave in the discussion about U.S.-Korean politics.

Town explained that the third pillar that USKI focused on was research. According to her, the Institute was best known for providing greater analysis on North Korean policies and North Korea’s relationship with the U.S., and it held numerous public and private roundtable events to provide analysis of policies. 

Town believed that USKI was successful in carrying out its three intended missions. 

“[Korea] is an important player,” she said. “This is an important geopolitical situation. The importance now is greater than it has been in the past, and the attention to this issue is even greater than it ever has been.”

Town emphasized the importance of USKI in D.C. through its impact on the policy community and support of the Korea Studies Program at SAIS.

According to Town, a lot of young people in Washington, D.C. working on Korea Studies began as USKI interns.

Shan Wu, a SAIS Korea Studies student and 2016-2017 USKI student fellow, expressed her concern over the possible effects of the Institute’s closure on both the policy community and on relations between Korea and the U.S.

“The purpose of it is to promote constructive U.S.-Korea relations, and the closing of it and withdrawal of the funding for it will have complications for future development in the relationship,” Wu said.

In an email to The News-Letter, Jaehan Park, a PhD candidate in Japan/Asia studies at SAIS, addressed differing explanations for the closure of the Institute. 

“Generally speaking, progressive newspapers find the USKI’s purported financial problems liable to its closure, whereas their conservative counterparts are pointing to alleged political interference from the high offices,” Park wrote. 

Park noted that 38 North, USKI’s signature publication, has been widely read by students, government officials and independent analysts across the Pacific. According to him, it has become a staple for those interested in inter-Korean affairs. 

In addition to 38 North, Park listed USKI’s sponsorship of the SAIS Korean Student Association (KSA), Korea Club and the Sejong Society as examples of the Institute’s support for Korea-based student organizations.

According to Gallucci, there is little hope that the Institute will be reestablished following its closure. 

“The metaphor might be Humpty Dumpty,” Gallucci said. “I think that the staff, both senior staff and others in the Institute, must look out for their own futures, and they are trying to make plans to go off and do other things. I don’t believe that there’s a way to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

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