A Korean-Australian Scholar of Australia-Korea Relations

15 October 2021

Dr Peter K. Lee reflects on his PhD journey with the Bell School’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) at the Australian National University.

As two of the region’s leading ‘middle powers’, Australia and South Korea have the potential to work together in addressing many challenges. Dr Peter K. Lee’s PhD thesis sets out to examine what has shaped this relationship over the years and what it tells us about prospects for closer cooperation among the region’s middle powers. In this interview, Peter shares some thoughts on his PhD journey at the ANU Bell School’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

Why did you choose Australia-Korea relations for your thesis?

As a Korean-Australian, I’ve always been interested in Australia, Korea, and their place in the world. On some things, like national power or love of sport, they could not be more similar; on others, like responding to US-China competition or popular culture, they could not be more different. While many scholars have studied Australia and Korea in a comparative context, I felt that we knew far less about how they behaved towards each other. For me, this was the crucial link in answering some of the region’s big strategic puzzles. My thesis set out to answer why Australia and Korea had sometimes cooperated with each other in the past, what the relationship might be missing today, and how we might nonetheless forge a closer partnership into the future.

What are some of your career interests?

I have always been motivated by the simple proposition that middle powers should be able to realise their own aspirations and destiny, free of coercion or pressure. I do not just study them as objects of great power ambition or as junior alliance partners. When you look at Australian or Korean history, very rarely have they been coerced into decisions by great powers; more often than not, they act in accordance with their national interests, howsoever defined. I imagine that my career will be devoted to studying and explaining why middle powers make their own decisions based on their unique strategic cultures, even as others reduce everything they do to great power politics.

Why did you choose to study at the Bell School and SDSC?

I was attracted to the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) because of its reputation for bridging academic scholarship and policy impact. The SDSC’s scholars have been at the forefront of exploring regional security cooperation over many decades, exemplified by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP). I hope that my thesis makes a modest contribution to this larger endeavour. Likewise, most of my SDSC PhD colleagues are from think tanks and government roles across the region and bring a rich diversity of perspectives to common topics of interest. It has been an honour to study alongside friends who I have no doubt will go on to great things in the coming years.

Peter Lee CSCAP Korea

How did your participation in Bell School activities shape your PhD?

My PhD supervisor, Dr Andrew Carr, has a clear philosophy that a PhD should be an apprenticeship in becoming a scholar as much as it is about completing a thesis. So even though I was initially hesitant about teaching students, I somehow ended up teaching every semester, including eventually convening my very own course on Korean security. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I made, as I reflected in a Faces of ANU interview. I also ran a writing support group for postgraduate international students, helped to edit the SDSC’s flagship Centre of Gravity series addressing some of the big strategic questions facing Australia, and participated in numerous workshops and events. The Bell School also funded my participation at a methodology workshop and fieldwork in the United States, from which I brought back exciting new ideas to share with my colleagues.

What are you currently working on?

Despite ongoing suffering in far too many parts of our region, we have also avoided the inter-state wars that we see elsewhere or that have overshadowed our region’s past. But we are entering a period in which unresolved national grievances as well as rising prosperity and military power increase the risks of potentially catastrophic conflict. The strategic choices of non-great powers will have an increasingly significant bearing on the future of our regional order. As the rest of Asia finally rises, we need to seriously grapple with the consequences of multipolarity. My research is thus focused on safeguarding the legitimate security interests of all states while enhancing cooperation and preventing conflict.

What advice would you give to students thinking about studying Asia-Pacific security?

A Confucian four-character idiom I live by is yeokjisaji, which means to put yourself in another’s shoes. Whether an ally or adversary, friend or foe, we need to truly understand how others see the world if we are to find common accord or know why we disagree. As I tell my students, this is the time to fully immerse yourself in the region. Travel widely, make friends and savour everything from food and culture to white papers and local politics to understand how the world looks from someone else’s perspective. It might be hard at times, but keep an open mind to alternative viewpoints, especially when they clash with your own values and beliefs. Finally, find role models who push you beyond your comfort zone because you have no idea what you are yet capable of. As a Korean saying goes, starting is half the task.

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