[OUTLOOK]Korea in the Northeast Asia agePresident Roh Moo-hyun is known to have a way with words, but that talent was not on full display in his inaugural speech on Tuesday. As the president rambled on about the “Age of Northeast Asia,” the speech seemed oddly out of step for the sobriety of the times.
Where did the “Age of Northeast Asia” come from? The idea of an “Age of Northeast Asia” has been around for a long time. In the first half of the 20th century, Japan used the pretext of an “Asian Co-prosperity Sphere” to justify invasion and colonial rule across Asia. In the 1980s, Japan again took an interest in Asian unity as a counterweight to American pressure on trade.
As the “Asian flu” spread in 1997, many nations in the region supported the idea of an Asian Monetary Fund as a counterweight to the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund. China has recently shown an interest in greater regional cooperation as its economic ties with Korea and Japan have expanded.
In Korea, interest in the “Age of Northeast Asia” is relatively new, having developed only since the 1997 economic crisis. Relations with Japan were greatly strained during the Kim Young-sam administration (1993-1998) and economic relations with China had only begun to take off. The shock of the 1997 economic crisis, which many Koreans believe was created by the United States as a ploy to buy Korean companies at bargain-basement prices, made Koreans take a new look at their neighbors. Former president Kim Dae-jung moved quickly to repair relations with Japan, and economic ties with China continued to deepen as China remained the sole engine of growth in the region.
In one of the most interesting lines in the speech, President Roh said, “For a long time, I had a dream of seeing a regional community of peace and co-prosperity in Northeast Asia like the European Union.” For all its idealistic appeal, the idea is painfully naive. The EU grew from a strong commitment by France and West Germany, the two major continental powers of Western Europe, to end the cycle of war between them. This political commitment was strong enough to support the evolution of the EU from a free-trade zone into a political entity with a common currency.
For regional cooperation in Northeast Asia to become “like the European Union,” China and Japan, the two major powers in the region, will need to work together as France and Germany have.
Korea may be able to create opportunities to bring the two nations together, but political reality makes it difficult for Korea to take the lead because leaders in China and Japan will want to take the credit for doing so. History also makes it difficult for China and Japan to let Korea take the lead in regional integration because both nations view themselves as the natural leader of the region. This view is reinforced by statistics that, by any measure, rank the aggregate “national power” of China and Japan far above that of Korea. These attitudes may be changing in Japan as it suffers from a crisis of confidence, but China clearly views itself as the rising power of the 21st century.
With China and Japan holding the keys to regional integration, the best that Korea can do is to support the efforts of one or both of those nations. This profound reality makes one wonder why President Roh devoted so much of his speech to the “Age of Northeast Asia.” Was it realpolitik, repackaged nationalism, or reformulated anti-Americanism?
What Korea can do, however, is to improve itself, as President Roh mentioned near the end of his speech. “Our society must remain healthy and future-oriented if we are to build a structure of peace on the Korean Peninsula and usher in the era of Northeast Asia.”
The president went on to enumerate a broad domestic agenda of reforms. He became passionate at the end of the speech, suggesting, reassuringly, that his heart is focused on domestic reform rather than on the “Age of Northeast Asia.”
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser