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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on April 12)

All Headlines 07:05 April 12, 2018

Regret over USKI row
: Government should respect academic freedom

It is a regret to hear that the US-Korea Institute (USKI) will close next month due to a decision by the government here to stop funding the think tank affiliated with Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

This is all the more so as the closure comes amid South Korea and U.S. efforts to denuclearize North Korea as well as a looming trade war between Washington and Beijing. We believe the Washington, D.C.-based USKI will have more to do as a research center at this critical juncture.

However, the think tank has allegedly been thrown into a row with the liberal Moon Jae-in administration. Reports have it that the presidential office had demanded SAIS dismiss USKI Director Jae H. Ku because of his conservative inclinations. Such a demand was forwarded through the state-run Korea Institute for International Economic Policy (KIEP).

Cheong Wa Dae strongly denied the reports. Instead, it cited a lack of accounting transparency at the USKI as the main reason for deciding to halt the provision of a financial grant to the institute. It also raised a problem with how the USKI selects visiting scholars and interns.

But, some USKI sources told a different story. They said the reports are true, adding that the Seoul government had asked the institute to fire Ku and another official in a bid to control the think tank.

The row between the Moon government and the USKI has gone from bad to worse as conservative opposition parties and their members are accusing the presidential office of trying to replace the conservative director with a liberal figure close to the President.

If the accusation is correct, it would damage the reputation of the Moon administration. It would also undercut the President's efforts to root out the corruption and deep-rooted evils that led to the ouster of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye.

The closure of the USKI might also have a negative implication on the country's endeavor to promote Korea and its interests through public diplomacy. It should not serve as a negative factor in Seoul-Washington relations, especially before the April 27 inter-Korean summit and the summit between the U.S. and North Korea due in May or June.

The USKI was set up in 2006 under the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Since then the government has injected 2.1 billion won ($1.87 million) in annual funding into the institute through the KIEP. The purpose of the funding was to contribute to research activities related to Korean studies.

Korean officials and lawmakers have often expressed their discontent not only at the USKI's loose accounting but also at what they claimed was poor research results. But they have also been blamed for a lack of understanding about a U.S. think tank.

The government needs to learn a lesson from the USKI case to avoid a recurrence of the same mistake. In any case, it should respect academic freedom and independence for any research institute, be it domestic or foreign. It had better refrain from excessive interference in the operation of a think tank.

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