Kowtowing on Dalai Lama’s Visit

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Kowtowing on Dalai Lama’s Visit

Spiritual, Cultural and Ethical Values to Consider

To Buddhist followers around the world, the Dalai Lama is not simply a spiritual leader of Tibet, which is being oppressed by the Chinese communist regime, but also the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and a profoundly wise, benevolent and perceptive apostle of the spiritual world.

It is only natural for Korean Buddhists, living in a society rife with vice and corruption, to yearn for a direct blessing from the Dalai Lama revered as the manifestation of Avalokitesvara, a revered holy man responsible for selecting those worthy of reincarnation to serve the people.

The conflicts between the South Korean government and the nation’s Buddhist over the Dalai Lama’s visit to Korean stem from the government’s lack of understanding about the religious passion of the latter. It is a case of political concerns riding roughshod over religious ritual.

The government maintains that the Korea’s economic ties with China would suffer if the Dalai Lama is allowed to enter the country. It is true that China is strongly opposed to his being granted entry to Korea, and the economic interests of the two countries are closely intertwined.

Every week, 150 flights shuttle back and forth between the two countries, and about 1.5 million Chinese tourists visit Korea each year. Last year, Korea exported $13.7 billion worth of goods to China, imported $8.9 billion, and enjoyed a trade surplus of $4.8 billion.

Its investments in China amount to a total of $6.9 billion in approximately 5,500 projects. As such, China is a huge market not to be ignored or, in this case, slighted.

The government’s decision not to issue visa to the Dalai Lama for the time being in the national interests of South Korea raises two pertinent questions.

The first is the fact that economic pragmatism is not the only national interest that a country pursues in its relations with other members of the international community. There are also spiritual, cultural and ethical values to consider, and a level of pride that a sovereign state has go maintain.

The second factor to consider is that there are always conflicts of interests among countries, which are dealt with through diplomatic means.

The government’s current attitude towards the Dalai Lama’s visit is to simply postpone the issue instead of resolving it.

The government has failed to honestly address the primary reason for its reluctance to allow the Dalai Lama’s visit, i.e. its concern over the possibility of China’s turning into a spoiler, obstructing improvements in inter-Korean relations should South Korea-China relations take a turn for the worse over the Dalai Lama issue. A considerable part of these concerns are groundless.

While it cannot be denied that China has a great influence in North Korea, the interests of the four major powers in the region over the Korean peninsula are going through fundamental adjustments at the moment.

China is no longer alone in its influence and relations with North Korea. The anticipated normalization of North Korea-U.S. and North Korea-Japan relations should be a serious challenge to China. As such, China also wishes to avoid strained relations with the South.

The government’s decision not to allow the Dalai Lama’s visit to Korea last April was not entirely unrelated to President Kim Dae-jung’s Berlin Declaration. Looking forward to a positive response from the North to its overtures of peace and reconciliation, the government would not have wanted to rile China at such a crucial time. This is understandable.

What is not so comprehensible is why there have not been changes in the government’s position even after Seoul-Pyongyang relations have been placed on the right track.

The government has postponed its decision on the Dalai Lama’s visit until the heads of South Korea and China meet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Brunei, the “ASEAN plus Three” meeting in Singapore in November, and the APEC meeting to be held in Shanghai in May next year. Its decision is firm, and it is not going to bow to public pressure, or offer a defense against accusations that it is bending backwards in deference to China.

It would be within the bounds of reason, however, if the government made a firm promise to the Buddhist that it will allow the Dalai Lama to visit sometime in the second half of next year. For the past six month, the foreign ministers of South Korea and China have held three discussions on the issue – discussions which bordered on hot disputes – and China is said to have tacitly admitted that the Dalai Lama’s visit to the South is inevitable in some ways.

If the government has its way, Korean Buddhists will most likely have to wait until the second half of next year to see Dalai Lama – asking them, in effect, to practice the virtue of self-restraint that he teaches.

Moral justifications and practical interests often collide in foreign policy.

This is why a balanced foreign policy pursued by an accomplished diplomatic team is necessary. Sacrificing the specific demands of the people at the altar of abstract national interests does not illustrate an apt approach to foreign policy.

The writer is a senior columnist of the JoonAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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