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Combining music with academic life : Prof. Thomas Kalinowski

While watching him strumming the bass on stage at Ewha GSIS 15th Anniversary in November 2012, the audience might see Professor Thomas Kalinowski as a playful musician rather than the professor of International Business and Development Cooperation major, who talks about global issues with economic and political science terms.

His love for music came from his teenage years in high school when he started playing the guitar while listening to various German rock bands, and, of course, the British ‘Beatles,’ his most favourite. When he came to be a professor here at Ewha GSIS twelve years ago, he brought this passion with him and played the bass in Ewha GSIS band and his band outside the faculty.

“Unfortunately, my last band dissolved because it was all German expats. We played mostly German rock music.”

Thomas Kalinowski and his latest book

In this lengthy interview, we discussed various issues among his vast interests in the academic field; COVID-19, global financial crisis, democracy, and environmental politics. Some of the students who have taken his course(s) might know that Prof. Kalinowski is the man who can combine economics, politics, and social aspects of international issues into thought-provoking coherent explanations.

“Why am I doing music? Because it’s fun. Like with academics, you need to have a certain enthusiasm.

“Why am I doing music? Because it’s fun. Like with academics, you need to have a certain enthusiasm. You can probably see that I’m not a very good bass player or guitar player as well. I do it because it’s also a way to express yourself artistically. It is great to be on stage to entertain and make people have a great evening.”

Could you please introduce yourself a little bit?

I have been teaching Ewha GSIS for 12 years. Now, I’m teaching International Political Economy, Comparative Political Economy, and Development Cooperation. But also, for a long time, I’ve been in charge of teaching and related activities to Regional Cooperation, particularly in Europe and East Asia. So I’ve been teaching on European integration as well.

Quite recently, I became more interested in issues of environment and sustainability. Last year, I developed a new course on Environmental Politics, which I’m also planning to offer in the future, probably in the Spring semester of 2021.

Next semester, I’m teaching the IS407 Global Political Economy. It is an introductory course to global political economy, so it is suitable for all students. Everybody is welcome, even those who don’t have any previous knowledge or haven’t taken any previous course. We will be talking about the theories of Global Political Economy and then discuss the four different areas; international trade, international finance, multinational corporations, and development.

The first two sessions will be online. So, I encourage students to join by registering for an audit course on the cyber campus, just to see what this course is about and think about joining it later.

Why did you become interested in environmental issues?

Because, first of all, I come from Germany and I grew up there in the 80s-90s. The German environmental movement had been already very strong when I was young. So I was shaped by this. And in [South] Korea, the environment has become an important topic only recently. So, I think that I can contribute something with this development. 

In whole [South] Korea, there is, as far as I know, only one professor who is solely focused on environmental politics. And the other reason is that the area is very much dominated by natural scientists. They tend to look at the problems of the environment and climate change from a technical perspective, right? Because they are engineers and they studied physics. This situation is not just in Korea, but globally. 

The biggest problems of the environment and climate change are not technical issues.

I believe that the biggest problems of the environment and of climate change are not technical issues. I think most of the technical issues are actually already solved. For example, there are gradual improvements in how efficient a solar panel is, how efficient batteries are, et cetera. But basically, we have already technologically solved those problems. The problem is political and economic. So I believe that you need to study much more to understand why, despite the technical technological advancements we have made, it takes so long to implement these changes?

Why did you come so far from Germany to South Korea to be a professor here?

The reason why I came to Korea is because, first of all, the very attractive job offer at Ewha. I’ve not regretted it, and I still really like to work and interact with the students. The great thing about the professor job is that you have a lot of freedom, so you don’t really have a boss who tells you what to do. Ewha provided me with this freedom. That is why I stayed here until today.

Does moving to Korea have anything to do with your academic interest in East Asia?

Yes, definitely. Originally, when I was a student, I had two main interests. One was more related to International Political Economy and International Organizations, in particularly, those dealing with economic governance, like the IMF and the World Bank. I’ve been very much interested in these issues at the same time. 

The question is why do countries develop and why do some countries not develop? If you ask yourself that question, then it’s hard to ignore South Korea. Because South Korea was economically very successful in developing. It’s one of the few countries that has been on the full path from a poor developing country to a fully fledged developed country since World War II.

The great thing about the professor job is that you have a lot of freedom, so you don’t really have a boss who tells you what to do.

That’s one important reason why I initially came to Korea, even before I started working here, for research for my doctoral dissertation, which was on the role of the IMF during the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998. So I came to Korea for the very first time in 1999 to study this and to interview with IMF staff and World Bank staff here, and, of course, Korean government and many institutions and organizations in Korea, including companies, labor unions, NGOs, etc.


As you said in your book that South Korea’s development depends much on export, what do you think about its economy after the pandemic?

On the one hand, of course Korea has been very successful in dealing with the pandemic, compared to Germany, and also to other European countries and the US. In Korea, there was never really a lockdown in the sense that people had to stay at home. In Germany, for example, restaurants were closed, bars were closed for a longer period of time. This never really happened in Korea, and was never really necessary in Korea. In other countries, like France or Italy, even workplaces shutdown. So, you can imagine that this will have a much bigger impact on the domestic economy. In Korea, everything remains largely open, except for large events, schools, and universities, which were moved online.

On the other hand, Korea is a very export-dependent economy. So, it is also affected by the crisis in other countries. And I think there is also the price that Korea pays for successfully dealing with the pandemic. Even now, South Korea remains very closed. While in Europe, for example, now the borders are open more or less. Korea basically chose the option to close itself or to the world in dealing with this pandemic. And I think it’s now very difficult for Korea to get out of this strategy. So, my fear is that while Korea so far has been more successful and the effect on the economy was less than in Europe, I think in the following months, it will be very difficult for Korea to reopen its economy to the world and make it easier to travel. This is just speculation, of course. You can clearly see that Korea has been very fast in reacting to the crisis initially, but it is now very slow in going back to normal.

In Europe, the goal was always to control the spread. In [South] Korea, the goal was really to eradicate the virus, which is, of course, much more difficult. So it will be very difficult for Korea to pull back from this ‘closing to the world’ strategy.

Some people have predicted that COVID-19 will make states more reluctant to embrace globalization, and that discourages national collaboration. What is your opinion about this?

We have to distinguish between the economic globalization, which I think in many ways has gone too far, and political cooperation. 

Our economic globalization has gone too far. For example, production of medicine, masks, or medical equipment. It is not good if we have, globally, just one producer of these products or major producer of these products. So we need to produce essential goods that are necessary for a health system to work, nationally or locally as much as possible. I think the medical sector should not be guided by profits and by cheap prices, but by the kind of reliability to provide stable health systems. So in this sense, I think COVID-19 is a wake up call. It can lead to some good developments, by having a little bit less globalization economically. 

Not just countries turn back to national economic production in many areas, but they also will be more reluctant to cooperate politically.

However, politically, I think that we need more cooperation. That is the big concern now. Not just countries turn back to national economic production in many areas, but they also will be more reluctant to cooperate politically. And that would be a big problem and potentially disastrous. However, in Europe, we have seen more regional cooperation within the European Union on health issues, which was very much underdeveloped in the past. So this move is also positive. We will have the US presidential election later this year and I hope this will be a strong signal in the US re-engaging more with the world.That is my hope.

It also depends on the leaders, right?

It always depends on not just the leader. It depends on the elections. They are about platforms and about programs that leaders are presenting to the electorate. And, unfortunately, in the last US presidential election and in many other elections as well, a nationalist narrative, for example, America first, Germany first, South Korea first, was unfortunately successful and attractive to many voters. The important thing is to not just the leaders. It’s important to make a persuasive argument and persuade the people that international cooperation, or working together with others, is the better way.

Why International Cooperation is Failing

In your recent book, you gave an extensive detail about the cause of current failures in international cooperation, in terms of financial regulations. Could you tell our readers more about this?

Very generally, what I’m trying to do in this book is to explain problems of international cooperation from a structuralist perspective, which means a perspective where leaders do not play the most important role. I’m not saying that they don’t play a role. But there are other forces behind the back of leaders that are more important.

And I’m arguing that it is a competition of different models of capitalism; a US finance-led capitalism, European integration-led capitalism, and East Asian export-led capitalism that leads to different preferences for international cooperation. These models tie the hands of leaders in international negotiations and make it difficult, but not impossible, to achieve successful international cooperation. I’m trying to offer an alternative.

Photo by Tyler Tornberg on

There is an unfortunate tendency when you open the newspaper that there’s a lot of reports about what president Trump tweeted, what did this government announce, and in Korea, the announcements of governments take up a large part of what you read or hear in the news. I believe we have to dig a little bit deeper if you want to understand, for example, the US or South Korea. You really have to understand how the domestic political economy works. And then you can understand why leaders are announcing this, or tweeting this or that.

So you challenge the idea of nationalist leaders about national advantage?

Absolutely, Yes. I show in this book that it is not possible. Because the different kinds of domestic political economies, or the different models of capitalism, are interdependent globally. So, if you want to really create fundamental changes, this would require not only changes within one country, but also changes in other countries, which makes it very difficult to achieve. 

If every country just follows US-first, Korea-first, or Germany-first policy, in the end, everybody will be worse off. This is one of the messages of this book. We have seen this in the 1930s. That is a time we should study very carefully what exactly has happened, where everybody country was just concentrating on ‘being first’, and putting its own interests exclusively first. In the end, all countries lost, and the consequence was a nationalist race to the bottom, which then formulated in WWII.

Do you think capitalism will collapse soon on the global scale as it might be challenged by inequality, even in developed countries, and natural degradation?

Many things are possible, but I think it is unlikely at all that capitalism will collapse. If capitalism collapses, we would need alternatives, right? I think the real question that we should ask is not is capitalism going to collapse, but how do we want to live in the future? I would say, from my perspective, a world where capitalism plays a smaller role. I do believe that capitalism will always play a certain role, but certainly, and hopefully not as dominant as it is today. And I think in this sense, there has been a lot of progress in the last decade or decades, where alternatives to capitalism are much more discussed right now. I think this is what we definitely need to do directly after the collapse of the Soviet union. There was the debate about the end of history, that there is no alternative to capitalism. Of course, there are always alternatives. 

The real question that we should ask is not is capitalism going to collapse, but how do we want to live in the future?

Capitalism is a historical phenomenon that emerged in Europe in the 15th century and then became dominant in19th and 20th centuries. It started at some point, and it can come to an end at some point, at least in its dominant form right now. All economies today are more or less mixed economies. We have a state sector and a capitalist sector. We also have other economic sectors, for example, small family-owned companies, shops, and cooperatives. We have all kinds of ways of working together that are not capitalist. And I think we have to strengthen these sectors of the economy. The goal is not likely a collapse of capitalism, but should be to make capitalism redundant in most of the economy.

And that must be changed through the political system too?

Yes, absolutely. First of all, it has to change in the minds of the people. This is always where you need to start. If you want to have fundamental changes, you need to start with the people. Political leaders are opportunistic, and they will do what the electorate wants if they want to get elected. That is the good thing about democracy. Of course, leaders also have ways to manipulate the general public. But in the end, I strongly believe that if the majority of the population strongly wants something and demands something from the leaders, they will get it.

How do the public have the right perspective about how the economy system should be? 

To use the word right or wrong might be problematic. What needs to be done is to educate. Back with everything that you live, you need to learn math, you need to learn physics. You need to learn about how our economy is organized and what are the good things about the way it is organized, and what are the prominent problematic things of the way it is organized. This education needs to be covered much more in schools and at universities. I see myself as a part of it, as I am trying to explain, from my perspective, how our world economy works and what are the problems of this, and then potentially, what could we also do about this.

If you want to have fundamental changes, you need to start with the people.

Education is very important. Then, it is also very important to also take people seriously. It’s not enough in a democracy that people go to elections every four years and elect a new leader. I think people need to get involved in much more decision making everyday in their companies, or in their university when it comes to students. There is a broad discussion going on about what is the right way to make decisions at the university, in companies, at the national level, and at the global level as well. So we need more education, but we also need to practice this kind of deliberative approach to decision making.

To GSIS students

Do you have any tips for future scholars or current students about doing research or pursuing academic achievements?

The most important advice is that you really need something. You need a topic or a problem that really interests you. The topics that you really are curious about and want to find out more about what is beneath the surface of what you read about a certain problem every day in the newspaper, or even in most academic articles. 

Academic scholarship is always related to your own opinions and politics.

But this is also very different for different people. There are some other scholars who just deal with one topic over their whole career. For me, it has been different. I have been finding a lot of things very interesting. As I mentioned recently, I’ve also been very much interested in the environmental issues. Academic scholarship is always related to your own opinions and politics. I believe that environmental problems and climate change are one of the big problems that humanity needs to solve. But my role as an academic is to find out more about how global environmental governance works, where it does not work, and where it can be improved. We cannot just easily say that we have incompetent leaders or evil leaders. It’s much more complicated than that. I think that is the passion you need as an academic to dig deeper. And I also certainly believe that in the end, our work should contribute to creating a better world world as well. 

Note: Prof. Kalinowski is now looking for members to form his new music band.

About (from

Thomas Kalinowski studied political science at Philipps Unversitaet Marburg and Freie Universitaet Berlin. He received his Ph.D. from Freie Universitaet Berlin in 2004. Since graduation, he has been a visiting fellow at the East West Center Hawaii, a lecturer at Humboldt University Berlin, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California in Berkeley, and a visiting assistant professor at Brown University. He joined the Ewha GSIS faculty in 2007. He is interested in international political economy and development with a focus on the East Asian region. Recent publications include works on IMF structural adjustment in East Asia after the Asian financial crisis, financial liberalization in Korea, democratization and market oriented reforms in East Asia.

Published by Khing Amatyakul

Thai, Working at SuperPlanet, IR grad from Ewha GSIS | @khingamat

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