[VIEWPOINT]Northeast Asia trying the U-turnWill the 21st century be the era of Asia?
In 1985, the appreciation of the Japanese yen and a troubled American economy seemed to assure that the 21st century would be the era of Japan and Japanese culture. But around 1989, with the Cold War over, the United States set out on the road of economic revival through information technology. On the contrary, Japan entered the "Lost Decade" as its economy began to ail.
But recently the United States has seemed to be deeply hurt by technology failures, the Andersen-Enron accounting scandal and the fuss during the last presidential election. Above all, I am skeptical of America's future after the attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11. Is there peace for America? What are the norms of transparency and sound accounting in America? Is it possible for American citizens to live in peace with others?
Korea, Japan and China are a world apart from Arab and Islamic cultures. These three countries are not greatly affected by the world's religious and ethnic conflicts. Moreover, economic forecasts project that the size of China's economy will exceed America's around 2020, stirring pride and passion nourished by nationalism in the coming era of the Yellow and East Seas.
Northeast Asia is already the biggest production base for major manufactured products, such as automobiles, ships, semiconductors and computers. The area is a competitive logistics base. Twenty years down the road, Northeast Asia might be ahead of the United States in information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology. But the region still will not qualify to be called the "center."
At present, Northeast Asia is the center of a global problem. Modernization of the region has caused a shortage of energy and water, higher levels of carbon dioxide emissions and heaps of garbage. Bunshi, located in the Manchurian province of Liaoning, is one of the most notorious cities in the world for air pollution. The Yellow Sea is the second most polluted body of water in the world, and more than half of the 10 most polluted cities are located in Northeast Asia. If China had the same ratio of people to automobiles as Korea (one out of every 4 Koreans has a car), China would have 300 million cars. Global oil production could not be increased enough to support China's gasoline consumption.
The "U-turn theory," commonly used to explain the problems of developing countries, is fading in its logic. According to the theory, in the initial stage of economic growth, the income distribution, the environmental situation and social integration become worse, but higher growth can solve these problems. But the theory is based on the experience of only America and Western Europe over 230 years, a period of time during which they had no more than 10 percent of the world's population of 1 billion to 2 billion at the time.
Inevitably, we will face a paradigm shift in economic, social, political and national security concerns when the 1.5 billion people in Northeast Asia, 25 percent of the world's population (the figure surges to 60 percent when the countries around the Indian Ocean are included) try to achieve a standard of living comparable with that of the West in a period of four to five decades.
Economic growth and democracy in Northeast Asia have a tendency to drive people in the region into more selfish actions instead of consolidating autonomous communities and sealing public virtue. Japan is turning to the political right, Korea is tilting toward left-leaning nationalism and the fourth generation Chinese leaders are only concerned with their nation's domestic economy. These are all signals that the region faces being bogged down in chauvinistic, populist and ultranationalistic swamps.
Then, what can lead the region to develop peacefully and sustainably? A "Northeastern peace system" is the only answer. It implies developing options to today's methods of farming and transportation and other energy sources. And consumption should be governed by need.
Northeast Asia is an area where the world's problems are concentrated. To solve the problem, we must be citizens of a global village.
The writer is the chairman of World Peace Forum.
by Kim Jin-hyun