[FORUM]Ethnic sentiment is hurting usA day after a series of surprise rallies by the student group Hanchongryon at three different U.S. military bases, I received a telephone call from a Korean War veteran living in Maryland. Jeff McLaghclan told me that a training camp is a simulated battleground and that he couldn’t understand how a rally could have been held in such a place.
Having served in the 7th Infantry Division for eight months as a signal corpsman during the Korean War, Mr. McLaghclan is an enthusiast for Korea. He attended the ceremony in Washington on July 27th commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of the war as the representative of his union. Perhaps because of his experience as a young man risking his life, Mr. McLaghclan said in association with his memories, he felt proud of Korea’s development and progress after the war. As if shocked by the news of the student rallies, Mr. McLaghclan put several questions to me.
“The Korean government is said to be holding the U.S. forces in Korea, asking them not to leave. But the government’s attitude towards this student group that has been holding anti-American rallies in a radical manner is ambiguous. Wouldn’t the Roh Moo-hyun government’s attitude towards the United States be called two-faced?”
The opinions expressed by Mr. McLaghclan could be said to represent the general doubts that most Americans have observing the occurrences in Korea. Pointing out the overflowing ethnocentric sentiment in parts of Korean society, the Americans never fail to make this observation. “It is understandable that South Koreans approach North Korea’s nuclear issue from an ethnocentric view.
However, it’s a mystery how South Koreans, with all their professing of ethnic solidarity, can be so indifferent to the hunger and political oppression of the North Koreans.”
Ethnicity is a noble thing. In the Korean culture where honor and emotion comes foremost, the influence and the potential destructive force of the word “ethnicity” is enormous. The pro-North leftists of the South Korean society have used this fact to shake up society from time to time. They took advantage of the pure ethnocentric sentiments of the people and applied these sentiments ingeniously to an anti-American, pro-Kim Jong-il position to hide their real intentions. Because of this, the word “ethnicity” has become tainted with negative nuances such as exclusivity, xenophobia and megalomania. From this distortion rises the double-faced attitude of averting one’s eyes to the misery of the North Korean residents and supporting the nuclear threat of the Kim Jong-il regime.
The side effects of this distortion are serious. Anti-American nationalism has undermined the U.S.-Korea alliance recently. The South Korean government has shown lukewarm support of the U.S. pressure tactics aimed at eliminating the North’s nuclear program. This, in turn, has led to the United States distrusting the government in Seoul and giving them the temptation to withdraw from Korean affairs and let the Koreans figure it out by themselves.
Twenty years ago during the Chun Doo Hwan government, the Korean government asked Japan for $10 billion in economic aid. The logic we put forward at the time was that Japan was a “free-rider” in the regional security matters of Northeast Asia. With all the benefits Japan received from the U.S.-Korea military alliance, it was “obliged” to lend us money. A tug-of-war between Japan and Korea began and the United States took Korea’s side. At the time, the U.S. and Korean interests coincided in checking the rising Japanese power.
Now it has become difficult to stop Japan from becoming a military power. The U.S. presence in Korea no longer works as a restraint on Japan. North Korea’s nuclear crisis is an opportunity for Japan. It is impossible to check Japan with Korea’s economic and military power alone. Moreover, the United States has put Korea to the side in favor of Japan as a willing ally.
The radical ethnocentric advocates of our society have been making loud noises without even the means or power to prevent Japan from turning ultra-right. The Roh government’s susceptibility to this atmosphere has made its foreign policies ever more inferior to those of the Chun Doo Hwan government that it so despises.
A six-party meeting will be held in Beijing to discuss North Korea’s nuclear issue. It seems that the future of the Korean Peninsula will be decided by the four neighboring powers. We have brought this on ourselves by failing to deal properly with North Korea’s nuclear issue having been hindered by clumsy ethnocentricity. With our present diplomatic capabilities, we could hardly make an impression on the six-party meeting.
The word “ethnicity” must be redefined. We must set right what has been distorted into exclusivity, hypocrisy and outdated ideologies. We need to recast ourselves with an open ethnicity, a pure ethnicity, an ethnicity on good terms with our neighbors.
That should have been the mission for the healthy mainstream of our society as we celebrated the independence day of our country Friday.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyun