[OUTLOOK]Reading the signs correctlyWhen we fail to read the changing trends of the world correctly, not only the situation surrounding the nation but also we will deteriorate and the future of the nation will become difficult. Koreans pride themselves on being situated in the center of the Northeast Asian region, but at the same time they show an amazing level of disinterest and indifference to the changes in their neighboring Asian countries. Recently, even Singapore’s prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, made a public comment on the indifference of Koreans. This is no trifling matter.
The prime minister expressed wonder at the lack of concern shown by the Korean and Japanese peoples over the heightening tension over the Taiwan Strait, a situation that could surpass the threat of the North Korean nuclear problem. Should Taiwan’s democratically elected government, driven by the public sentiment for independence, pursue an amendment of its constitution, China will not stand idly by.
It would be ready to take drastic action even at the risk of damaging its economy. No one can assert whether Taiwan’s principle of democratic self-determination and China’s principle of “one China” can be reconciled to avoid military conflict and permit coexistence. What’s for certain is that the efforts to avoid such military conflict depend not only on the two parties and the United States but on the neighboring Asian countries as well. Korea and Japan, in particular, need to show a more active interest in the matter.
A second issue that the prime minister said Korea needs to pay more attention to is the safety and security of the Straits of Malacca. The threat of piracy and terrorist attacks has risen alarmingly in the area in recent years. The straits are part of the transport route for oil from the Middle East that fuels our economic growth and our most important trade route. Korea needs to reconsider its present attitude of delegating all responsibility for security to the three adjacent countries, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and the United States. It is only right that we show a more active interest in plans for joint countermeasures.
Also, Korea and its Northeast Asian neighbors should show more understanding and support for the trials of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) members battling Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. We need to note that in Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi won a crushing victory in the general election, successfully suppressing militant fundamentalist forces, and that Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Philippine President Gloria Arroyo are each battling terrorist forces in certain Muslim-populated areas of their countries.
We should certainly pay attention to the fact that Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, has been showing steady progress toward a complete separation of politics and religion. Indonesia’s presidential election scheduled to be held on July 5 could very well determine the progress of that country.
Last year, we exported more than $20 billion worth to ASEAN countries. The region is our third biggest export market. We have started negotiations on free trade agreements with Singapore and other ASEAN countries, vying with China and Japan. Yet, for ASEAN nations, even more important than economic relations is the possibility of cooperation with South Korea on a long-term security strategy. With the growing political and economic pressure from the two Asian powers, China and Japan, ASEAN leaders are already concerned about how to manage their foreign policies to maintain regional stability and national autonomy.
Not only would ASEAN countries be happy to borrow from our wisdom and experience of having lived between China and Japan for milllennia, but also to establish a balance of power that guarantees peace by linking with Korea, the world’s 12th biggest economy. Taking it a step further, cooperation between Korea and the ASEAN members would help smooth the relationship between the United States and China, which is fundamental to the region’s security.
Thus, our Asian neighbors, while having high expectations of us, show wonder at the relative indifference that we show. It is time to give our minds and thoughts to our neighbors in earnest. If we act like a loner in international society, we will soon wake up to find that we have no one to turn to for help in our direst hours.
* The writer, a former prime minister, is an advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo