[FORUM]We’re being shown to the doorThere is a circular intersection called Logan Circle in Washington D.C. where 13th Street and Rhode Island Avenue meet. At this intersection stands the building in which was situated the former legation of the short-lived Daehan Empire, as Korea was called a century ago shortly before its annexation by Japan. The building is northeast of the White House and about 10 minutes away by car. Here is a piece of Korean history that is almost unknown to Koreans. The building is a Victorian-style three-story brownstone; the front of the building is exactly as one sees it in the old, faded pictures of a century ago. It is an emotional sight.
The legation was bought for $25,000 in 1891. That was an enormous investment at the time for impoverished Joseon. The purchase was significant, a symbol of feudal Korea’s determination to free itself from the intervention of China and Japan. China, of course, was not obliging and interfered with all its haughty airs in the affairs of what it considered its vassal country. Acting under a promise to provide “good offices” under the U.S.-Korea Friendship Treaty in 1882, the United States helped Joseon convince China to allow a Korean diplomatic mission there. China agreed, under three conditions: that the Joseon envoys would sit at the lowest seat of the Chinese delegation in Washington, that they would be accompanied by the Chinese when visiting the State Department and that any diplomatic negotiations would be preceded by consultation with the Chinese embassy. The Korean Embassy on Logan Circle was a diplomatic achievement born amidst humiliation. This building was handed to the Japanese for a mere $5 in 1910, when Japan annexed Korea.
The building, where the legation of Korea’s last dynasty was situated, reminded me of the diplomatic passion to be independent and the frustration of being a week power our officials had to endure at that time. Strolling around the Logan Circle vicinity, I asked myself, “Will history repeat itself?” The Korean Peninsula today is yet again a tragic arena of struggle among the world powers, just as it was a century ago. Korea has grown in power greatly and advanced in its status in international society, but the basic pattern is still there.
Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo visited Washington recently after meeting Kim Jong-il in Pyeongyang two weeks ago. Mr. Dai has presented himself as the mediator of the North Korean nuclear issue. As a result of his shuttle diplomacy a new formula for talks ― three-way talks among China, North Korea and the United States first, which will be followed by five-way talks including South Korea and Japan ― is under study. Staged multilateral talks is a new option. It might look like a brilliant idea, but the process would be uncertain and arduous. Essentially, it has brought the neighboring world powers to the Korean Peninsula again. This amounts to depending on foreign powers to solve a Korean problem on which our fate as a race is at stake.
China is taking advantage of this political situation. North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program has provided Beijing with a good opportunity for taking the diplomatic initiative. China is trying to recover the influence over the Korean Peninsula that it lost a century ago. The U.S.-Korean alliance is in poor shape. The Korean government, starting from the president himself, is begging China to persuade North Korea. What better chance could there be for the Middle Kingdom? Mr. Dai’s shuttle diplomacy symbolizes this opportunity. There is no such thing as a free lunch, especially in international society. China’s influence over the Korean Peninsula is getting stronger, and we should be all the more watchful for it.
There is also Japan, which would not miss this chance for anything. Japan is building up a formidable military capability, citing North Korea’s nuclear threat. Japan almost seems to be discarding any guilty conscience over its invasion of the Korean Peninsula, using North Korea’s nuclear threat as an indulgence. The United States supports Japan’s drive to become the center of Northeast Asia. The South Korean government has been too much of a nuisance for Washington, always siding with the North. The question now is how South Korea can face Japan as a newly rising military power. Until now, Korea has kept Japan in its place, more or less with the help of the United States, but this has become difficult now.
How have we gotten ourselves in such a pitiful situation? This is the price for having abandoned our role as a concerned party in North Korea’s nuclear problem. The incompetence of our government, the lack of scale in leadership, a contorted sense of history and the pro-North, anti-American streak in our government have worked together to bring this result. Since the Kim Dae-jung administration, we have put emphasis on ethnic unity and independence in our North Korea policy. Ironically, the increasing involvement of the world powers in Korean affairs has created the most anti-ethnic and foreign-dependent situation possible.
It is still not too late to take our place in the front lines. We should not wait for roundabout multilateral talks. We must confront Pyeongyang and demand that it give up its nuclear program. We must tell Kim Jong-il that if he gives up his nuclear weapons, we will help with all our might to save North Korea’s economy, and if not, we have to warn him that North Korea will fall into economic chaos and we will be forced to build up our military power.
Let’s hope President Roh Moo-hyun has the courage and wisdom to do so.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyun