[VIEWPOINRT]Learning to 'Read' Regional Powers

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[VIEWPOINRT]Learning to 'Read' Regional Powers

After the hardship of the recent Korea -U.S. summit, some politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, and scholars have called for self-reliant diplomacy.

We started using the word self-reliance in the middle of the 19th century as we adopted modern, Western-style international laws and practices.

Through the next one and a half centuries, we made many efforts toward self-reliant diplomacy, but the realities of the world were such that those efforts did not bring self-reliance in our relations with the outside world.

The efforts of 19th-century reformers who called both for the opening of Korea to foreign influences and for self-reliance in order to modernize the Choson dynasty resulted in the dynasty's subjugation to Japan soon after escaping the Chinese Qing dynasty's control.

North Korea, whose primary aim for the past 50-odd years has been self-reliance, has endured many difficulties, and had to rely on outside powers' help in order to sustain the region's lowest level of livelihood for its people.

If we do not want to repeat the tragic history of failed self-reliant diplomacy again in the 21st century, we have to improve our capabilities in information analysis and policy development to the level of international standards. The first step of self-reliant diplomacy should be to read the underlying motives and intentions of other regional powers, going beyond a superficial, textbook level of analysis of our neighboring countries.

In the 19th century, the Choson dynasty could not understand the reasons behind Japan's emphasis on Choson becoming a "self-reliant civilized country." Their intention was to replace the Qing dynasty as soon as Korea was out of Qing's control. Neither did the Choson dynasty fully understand why the Qing dynasty advised "self-empowerment and balancing power" to Choson. They wanted to keep in control of Choson by pitting it against other regional powers. As a result of the naive self-reliant diplomacy of the Choson dynasty, all its planning was undone.

Unfortunately, our level of understanding of regional powers in the 21st century does not much exceed the level of 19th century's. We make narcissistic judgements through the mindset of 1950's conservatism or 1980's liberalism even when we are examining the regional powers of the 21st century.

With an eye on the evolution of politics and political science in the past few decades, we have to try to understand the Bush administration's foreign policy, the new form of American internationalism. We have to think over how to make more maneuvering room for Korean diplomacy by taking advantage of American internationalism.

We have been capricious about whether the Americans favor or oppose Kim Dae-jung's sunshine policy. We have been asking superficial questions, such as whether U.S. foreign policy is in chaos or in adjustment; whether they are double-talking or serious about their comments on North Korea. All these questions are still within the textbook level of understanding of regional powers.

The same level or limit of reasoning appears again and again - in reading Japan's motives for the problem of distorted history textbooks, Russia's after the recent Korea-Russia summit and China's after we established diplomatic relations.

Diplomacy of self-reliance is not possible simply by grasping the true meaning of the diplomatic euphemisms of regional powers. There must be one more step. The failure or success of diplomacy of self-reliance depends on whether we can succeed in developing policy alternatives that can take advantage of regional powers that are relatively stronger than us.

In the Cold War era, several diplomatic initiatives were taken by the Korean government, but the structure of Cold War imposed limits on those efforts. As a result, its efforts were little more than a self-complacent marriage between bureaucracy and conservatism.

As we face a new structure, where the Korean Peninsula is still divided even after memories of the Cold War are fading, our diplomacy again faces great challenges. In this circumstance, if we use the 1980's diplomacy of self-reliance that marries 1980's liberalism and bureaucracy, we might end up far away from what we are attempting to accomplish in the 21st century.

If we want our diplomacy to move toward self-reliance in the 21st century, not just in words but in reality, we have to discard 1950's conservatism or 1980's liberalism as soon as possible.

We need to be able to more deeply interpret the intentions of regional powers, using the liberalism of the 21st century, and we need to develop policy alternatives that can take advantage of our neighbors' intentions.

When our diplomacy can encompass longer time frames and wider spaces than that of surrounding regional powers, and when our diplomacy can grow and expand to use traditional forces and new forces in the 21st century simultaneously and creatively, the way of diplomacy of self-reliance will naturally be open to us.


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The writer is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University.


by Ha Young-sun

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