[NOTEBOOK]Korea’s proactive world view

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[NOTEBOOK]Korea’s proactive world view

The future direction of foreign relations is the latest trendy topic among the commentators in Korea. Shortly after the legislative election, a series of surveys of newly elected National Assembly members said that most of them believe relations with China are more important than those with the United States. This caused many commentators to wring their hands about the ignorance of the incoming representatives and, by extension, the under-40 voters that put them into office. Complaining about the ignorance of youth does little to explain the texture of the unfolding changes in how Koreans view the world.
The change is more than a change from a U.S.-centric to a Sinocentric world view. Rather, it is a change from a reactive to a proactive world view. Successful economic and political development have given younger Koreans greater confidence in taking a proactive approach to defining the national interest. Over time, probing into the reactive world view that grew out of war and poverty raises questions about the status quo.
The U.S.-centric world view is not the only reactive world view in Korea, but it has been one of the most enduring. Though long questioned by intellectuals, the U.S.-centric world view did not come under widespread critical scrutiny until the 1980s when a new generation began to view the United States as the prime mover behind the dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan. This redefinition of the U.S. as an “anti-democratic” and “anti-reunification” force in Korean affairs contrasted sharply with the official and reactive world view of the United States as the benevolent big brother that protected Korea from the evil North.
If the 1980s were a time of questioning, then the 1990s were a time of transition. Continued progress in economic, social, and political development gave Koreans greater confidence, but much of this confidence came crashing down in the economic crisis of 1997. On the surface, the crisis reinforced the reactive U.S.-centric world view, but the urgency of the crisis forced Korea to become proactive. As the economy and confidence recovered, a proactive world view emerged with multilateralism and economic engagement at its core. This world view demands that Korea be active in developing multilateral approaches to national security.
The question of the moment, of course, is how the new interest in China fits with the proactive world view. The commentators believe that it is supplanting the U.S.-centric world view, but a closer reading of events suggests that it is the latest wave of the proactive world view. A survey of nations around the world would show that, for all the talk of the “end of geography,” most nations rank relations with their neighbors as more important than those with faraway nations. Korea’s interest in relations with China fits this pattern and represents a return to the world norm. The same survey would show that trade patterns have a strong influence on perceptions of the importance of various nations. China is now Korea’s number one trading partner, so here again, recent trends suggest a return to the world norm. Koreans, in short, are interested in China because its strong economic growth stimulates the domestic economy.
Interest in China, however, does not mean that Koreans are giving up on strong relations with the United States. Despite the continuing problems in the military alliance between the two countries, most Koreans favor the alliance and, to varying degrees, the presence of U.S. troops in Korea. The Roh Moo-hyun administration has handled a series of sensitive issues ― differences over North Korea, removal of U.S. troops from the DMZ, and Korean participation in Iraq ― with great finesse. These developments show that Korea believes that maintaining the strategic alliance with the United States is in the national interest.
Japan, meanwhile, ranks low on the various surveys of incoming representatives, but few Koreans believe that Japan is not important to Korea. A survey of the tourist industry would no doubt rank Japan as most important because Japan remains the dominant source of foreign tourists to Korea. Cultural relations between the two countries have strengthened since Korea took the initiative in removing bans on Japanese films, pop music, and other cultural products in the late 1990s.
For all its success, the proactive world view needs more encouragement. Waves of anti-American, anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese feelings that stir anti-Korean feelings in response raise suspicions about Korea’s intentions. For the proactive world view to work well, other nations must view Korea as a reliable and appealing partner. If trust and goodwill fade, then Korea may find itself forced to return to a big-nation-centric world view by default.
This is why political leaders need to state forcefully the case for a proactive world view that focuses on what different countries can offer Korea rather than their historical and contemporary faults.

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.

by Robert J. Fouser
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