[OUTLOOK]Alliance versus self-relianceAfter the minister of foreign affairs and trade was suddenly replaced, the focus of debate has moved on to the issue of self-reliance and alliance with the United States.
Should our foreign policy be driven by self-reliance or the alliance? Choosing one side might be unrealistic and extreme, but Koreans are debating where the center of gravity should lie.
In international relations, it is realistically impossible for any country to be completely self-reliant. No nation can deny the inevitability of co-existence, dependency and cooperation.
Considering Korea’s geopolitical location, surrounded by the four great powers ― Japan, China, Russia and the United States ― Korea would find it hard to be neutral or to advocate self-reliance. So diplomacy has a unique and special meaning to Korea.
Not every Korean has the same perspective on the Korean War. However, the government and the majority of citizens agree that we were fortunate to have warded off aggression by the communists, so that we could save our national sovereignty at least on the southern half of the Korean peninsula and safeguard freedom and democracy. We cannot deny that the help of the United States was indispensable in the course of rebuilding the nation, when the entire country was devastated from the war.
We are grateful for the help of the United States, and maintaining and developing a close diplomatic friendship with the United States has been the major axis of Korean foreign policy.
But the problem is that even the closest allies might not always agree on everything. Also, the interests of two friendly nations might not coincide all the time. In the case of a friendship between two individuals, the two would feel disappointed and angered because of a conflict of interest and personal estrangement would follow. In a relationship between two nations, similar disagreements would bring a diplomatic chill.
Korea was disappointed in several of the things Washington has done, and sometimes it has reacted more vehemently than it should have. Even if there are small disagreements, we don’t have to altogether give up the alliance and pursue a policy of self-reliance. Of course, I do not mean that we have to follow the United States blindly because we are alllies and out of gratitude for its help during hard times. We should not blindly revere the United States. As a partner in the alliance, Seoul has to persuade Washington, maintain its positions and advocate its national interests, if necessary. It is unfortunate that the recent resignation of the foreign minister made it look as if the Blue House had triumphed over the foreign ministry on the issue of diplomatic direction, because the Blue House has emphasized self-reliance, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has valued the alliance.
It’s no use crying over spilled milk, but at least we should try to do some damage control. The crucial point is how we react in the days after the explosion.
The president has named a veteran career diplomat with ample experience in dealing with the United States as foreign minister, a move that probably took into account the uncomfortable atmosphere in the ministry and the apprehension that Washington could well be feeling right now. Fortunately, the new minister has made it clear that he would do his best to bring Korea-U.S. ties to a higher level.
Saying something is always easier than actually doing it. In unfolding a new level of friendship, the minister needs to prove his diplomatic ability to harmonize the spirit of self-reliance with the strategic alliance with the Untied States. We should no longer be limited to a choice of either self-reliance or alliance. It would be also undesirable to lean too far in one direction. In any given circumstances, Korea should maintain friendly, cooperative, and balanced relations with the United States and pursue their mutual benefit. From the peaceful resolution of the nuclear threat posed by the North to the nation’s survival and prosperity based on strong security and a thriving economy, Seoul has too many reasons to hold hands tightly with Washington.
Both Seoul and Washington have to keep in mind one thing. The weak might feel ashamed to follow the powerful, so the party with more power needs to be careful in its speech and conduct in order for its weaker partner to feel comfortable. The generosity of power is what we expect of the United States.
At the same time, Koreans should prevent their policy from going too far toward being exclusive. We need to hold fast to the spirit of self-reliance but should not break the valuable alliance. I hope to see that the future of the Korea-U.S. alliance proves that ties get stronger after discord.
I hope the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade can win the confidence of the president under a new leader and pursue a wise, strategic diplomacy with the United States.
* The author, a former minister of foreign affairs and minister of unification, is the president of the Foreign Policy Association. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Choi Ho-jung
More in Columns
With Lee behind bars
No gray zone anymore
Clues on Biden’s foreign policy
Losing the vaccine race
The problem is internal division