[INSIGHT]Korea again squeezed by powersRecently, during the huge controversy surrounding Japan's history textbooks, I received a visit from a senior representative of Japan's opposition party. The purpose of the visit was to seek the views of Korean politicians and intellectuals on Korea-Japan relations and relations among Northeast Asian countries.
Our conversation began with a discussion of various posters that were made by students and pasted on the walls of a university building. Contrary to the representative's expectations, most of the posters were propaganda against the United States, not Japan. He wanted an explanation, and I told him the following.
It seems that "Japan-bashing" is now almost passe among Korean college students; they are no longer paying much attention to Japan. Although an argument can be made that this change is limited to only a small number of politically active students, after attending several meetings recently it seems to me that the phenomenon is not just limited to those young political activists.
Intellectuals, politicians and businessmen continue to complain about the Untied States, but Japan is rarely a topic of discussion. On the opposite side is a China boom with the president, politicians, business and media all bustling to establish connections with China and setting up China forums.
The China boom in Korea is mainly attributed to the pursuit of economic benefits from a relationship with China, but the phenomenon is also a reaction to U.S. arrogance and Japan's loss of direction. Thus, the China boom can be seen as a significant change that could completely transform the basic framework of our diplomacy.
The phenomenon did not develop suddenly. After the emergence of the civilian government of President Kim Young-sam, the administration once tested an equidistant diplomacy between the United States and China under the banner of national interests. Because of concerns and restraints imposed by our allies, the United States and Japan, this diplomatic policy faded.
With the emergence of the Bush administration and the Koizumi cabinet, similar concerns and restraints are becoming more obvious. Our China boom is interpreted in Washington and Tokyo as a strategic move to keep the United States and Japan in check.
The concerns and distrust of our allies are not groundless. Our relationships with former enemies China and North Korea have improved, but those with our allied nations the United States and Japan are becoming unstable. Korea is disappearing from the core of American policy and from Japan's economic policy, resulting in a decline of Japanese investment in Korea. That bypassing of Korea by our allies is not a good thing.
A number of intellectuals have compared this phenomenon to the stormy state at the end of the Joseon Dynasty when we had to balance our national interests against the pressures from a maritime power and continental powers.
A realistic choice before us would be one of the two possibilities. One is to maintain the balance of power. The geographical location of our country led us to promote our national interests by playing off maritime powers and continental powers. But if this policy went wrong, we would be distrusted by them all.
Another choice is to secure a predominance of power through a strong alliance. A choice of alliance with a maritime power or a continental power in the future would be a matter of life and death for our country. One of my colleagues, an economist, told me that our choice should be evident, considering that China's GDP is only $4 trillion as opposed to a combined GDP of $14 trillion in the United States and Japan. The problem is whether we can prevent our allies from resorting to unilateralism.
This reminds me of a comment by a foreign diplomat. The fact that the framework established at the Congress of Vienna could keep Europe from war for 50 years depended on French cuisine and wine. Is not there indeed new cuisine and wine that can help preserve peace on the Korean Peninsula, bypassing the task of managing power balances and diplomatic alliances?
The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.
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