Robert Gallucci, the chairman of the institute, said the move was a direct result of the managers’ refusal to follow instructions from the South Korean government to fire the institute’s director and assistant director.
“It’s utterly inappropriate for a foreign government, and an ally by the way, to threaten an American academic institution this way,” said Gallucci, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator. “It’s just incredibly and wildly inappropriate.”
The decision comes as the South Korean president prepares to meet the North Korean leader later this month, a precursor to a summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump. Gallucci and several of the institute’s top researchers are ardent advocates of diplomacy and have firsthand experience negotiating with North Korea.
South Korea’s presidential Blue House strongly denies any attempt to censor the institute.
USKI was established by former Washington Post correspondent Don Oberdorfer in 2006, when South Korea was led by Roh Moo-hyun, who promoted engagement with North Korea.
The South Korean government has provided the overwhelming bulk of the institute’s funding, totaling about $19 million over almost 12 years, through the state-run Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, or KIEP.
But in 2014, some South Korean lawmakers began complaining about the way the institute was accounting for its expenditures. USKI was sending a two-page breakdown of its accounts to the National Assembly, South Korea’s parliament, consistent with the way all SAIS institutes report to their donors.
The complaints gained momentum last year after Moon Jae-in, who had worked as Roh’s chief of staff, became president.
When Gallucci, who was dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service for 13 years after leaving government, became chairman of the institute in September and heard about the concerns, he ordered Johns Hopkins to conduct an internal audit. It found no irregularities or lack of transparency, he said.
But South Korean government representatives repeatedly told Gallucci that he must fire Jae H. Ku, the director of the institute for the past 11 years and someone who holds more conservative views than Moon’s government.
“I have been directly pressured, in writing and orally, to fire Jae and was told that if I did not, all funding would be cut off,” Gallucci said.
A South Korean newspaper published a leaked email that showed KIEP officials briefed Blue House officials on the issue.
Kim Joon-dong, who was KIEP’s vice president at the time and wrote the email, said the issues stemmed from the lack of a full-time dedicated professor of Korea studies at the institute. KIEP wrote to SAIS asking it to replace Ku “according to the school’s own procedures,” Kim said.
“Briefing the Blue House about the happenings with USKI is not an anomaly but standard practice for a state-funded research institute,” Kim said in an interview.
But two people familiar with the discussions said the government wanted to run the institute like a state think tank.
Government research institutions in Seoul are highly politicized, with any new administration generally installing leaders who share the new president’s views. The change in the political environment was particularly notable last year because President Park Geun-hye, a conservative, was impeached in a corruption scandal, and the progressive Moon was elected to succeed her.
The heads of several government-affiliated think tanks have been replaced since Moon took office. Lee Jae-young, who is also on a panel advising Moon on the inter-Korean summit, was appointed KIEP’s president last week.
Also last week, KIEP informed the institute it would withdraw its funding next month because of the National Assembly’s insistence on greater transparency.
KIEP had allocated $1.9 million for the institute this year, accounting for three-quarters of its budget.
SAIS will close the institute on May 11 after giving staff the required one-month notice. 38 North, which receives separate funding, will continue to operate.
Noting that engagement with North Korea is especially topical right now, Gallucci, who led the U.S. team that brokered a landmark nuclear deal with North Korea in 1994, said this is a “magnificently stupid time” for such a decision.
Other academics focusing on the Koreas lamented the closure of the institute.
“There are no imaginable circumstances in which an educational institution should have its academic freedoms trampled upon,” said Victor Cha, chair of the Korea program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. “Bob Gallucci and his institute practiced such freedoms, nothing more nor less.”
KIEP granted the funds to SAIS, not the U.S.-Korea Institute, and was “entitled to recommend” how the money was spent, said Shin Jee-yeon, a spokeswoman for the South Korean president. KIEP had told SAIS to expand its Korean-studies program after noting that USKI had failed to comply with minimum audit requirements for 10 years, she said.
However, the decision to stop funding USKI came from the National Assembly, not the president’s office, Shin added, noting that the Blue House would have wanted the institute to be more vocal, not to silence it.
If the pro-engagement Moon administration had any influence over the matter, it would have encouraged the institute to speak out and would have given it more money, Shin said, “since 38 North has been often considered one of the most vocal and active proponents of the policies that this administration is supposedly going to pursue.”
Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.