[FORUM]Pendulum has swung too farThere is such a thing called exception. The past fifty years have been exceptional for Korea. We have managed to lift ourselves out of poverty and made the dream of industrialization come true. Korea also boasts a newly found dynamic democracy. We are so adaptable that we can work in the desert one day and in Siberia the next.
There is another very special exception, and that is our relationship with China. For the past half a century, South Koreans have been oblivious to the Chinese. There was no oppression from China, nor were Koreans submissive to the Chinese. In fact things were quite the opposite. Koreans who visited China after the 1988 Seoul Olympics had an air of confidence and boastfulness. They ate the finest traditional cuisine in Beijing, and enjoyed the sights from the Great Wall of China. This was possible because Korea had become a rich country.
Compared to the thousands of years during which our ancestors felt small in the presence of the Chinese, this was a boastful time. Even at the end of the 19th century, China treated Korea as if it were a subject country. The leaders and intellectuals of the Joseon Dynasty were helpless before the authority of Yuan Shikai, a military leader and politician of the Qing Dynasty. He was only 26 years of age, yet no Korean dared to stand up against him. This was all due to a weak army and exhausted economy. Considering the old days of scorn and humiliation, the last 15 years have been unique. In contrast to the sorrow of our ancestors, it has clearly been a blessing in history what our leaders and people achieved over the last 50 years. People in their fifties to their seventies now are the ones who played an important role in this historical change. Most of them realized the fate of a divided country surrounded by big powers. They realized that a healthy economy was necessary for democracy and the development of culture. So they used the Korean-American alliance to sustain security at a low cost and focused on selling lots of goods before China could get on the train of capitalism. Their approach toward nationalism and independence was strategic. That is why we have been able to live oblivious of the Chinese.
But those good times are coming to an end. China the giant has reappeared. It has become a country that has great influence over the Korean Peninsula. If China simply sneezes, Korea catches a severe cold. The “China shock” recently showed the power of their huge economy, but a large part of the shock was brought on by ourselves. Korean businessmen left the country, feeling sick and tired of being neglected and of labor disputes, and headed for China in search of cheaper labor. The China shock showed Korea’s excessive reliance upon China and the tiredness of an economy that has lost its competitiveness.
In matters of national security, we feel the power of China even more. It has come to the state where it is difficult to handle the North Korean nuclear problem. Our government called for Chinese participation. That was because it wanted a different option from relying entirely on the United States. In short, the six-way talks are actually using China to convince North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons. There is no chance that China will pass up this opportunity. China wants to gain back the influence it had on the peninsula before losing the Sino-Japanese war a century ago. “Hide the light and nurture the dark,” has been the motto of the Chinese leadership since the days of Deng Xiaoping. They are now showing off the power they secretly built up in the dark.
Sixty-three percent of the legislators-elect of Our Open Party chose China as the first country to consider in diplomatic relations. Only 26 percent chose the United States. The trend has moved to favoring China and distancing ourselves from the United States. It is the general disposition of the left wing and the 1980’s democracy movement leaders who are now at the core of political power in Korea. They are experimenting with a new diplomatic approach, damaging U.S.-Korea relations and focusing on China.
China is an opportunity and a challenge for Korea. We have to put all our energy into entering the Chinese market. We need Chinese help in stabilizing the peninsula and need to use China as a pivot of multilateral diplomacy. But our new leadership and their mainstream political force are too much tilted toward China. They don’t even have a blueprint for making the country rich and building a strong army. They look to America and speak of an independent foreign policy, just as they did in the 1980’s for democracy. One thing is clear. If their experiment fails, we will become a peripheral country stuck next to China on the Asian continent. The next generation, youths in the teens and twenties now, will have to live according to how the wind blows from China.
* The writer is the deputy managing editor in charge of political news of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon
More in Columns
Time for pragmatism
How do we spell relief?
A battle over fiscal control
Time for a ceasefire