[OUTLOOK]Asian hub: desirable, needed

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[OUTLOOK]Asian hub: desirable, needed

Korea has dreamed of becoming the hub of Northeast Asia for many years, and now this is officially our national goal. A lot of people harbor a feeling of anxiety mixed with hope and a worry over this goal.
People worry whether our country, which has gone through many hardships surrounded by powerful countries and still under the pain of being divided, could actually become the center of Northeast Asia.
Therefore there is a need to let the people know that this goal is not a hopeless dream but a strategic choice for securing the safety and prosperity of Korea in the present international situation. We have to let people know that this strategy has both an offensive and a defensive side.
The situation in Northeast Asia today shows signs of hope for continuous peace and prosperity more than ever before in history. The political flexibility of the area allows countries like China and Vietnam, which are ruled by Communist parties, to exist together with democratic countries like Korea or Japan without any big conflicts.
There is continuous tension on the Korean Peninsula and across the Taiwan Straits; but since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, regional peace without any large-scale military action has been maintained. It is this atmosphere of peace and prosperity that has given us the chance to become a center of Northeast Asia.
In a circumstance where the tension is high between powerful countries, the range of movement for a minor power such as Korea can only become smaller. In the opposite case, when peace is maintained as it is now, we have a chance to be active and try an offensive strategy. The point especially to be noted is that peace in Northeast Asia is being maintained because the countries in the region share a common denominator: They give first priority to economic growth with the generalization of the market economy.
There is no need to explain that the attitude of China, concentrating on fast development and nothing else, is the biggest reason for peace in this region. So if economic growth is the basic role and driving force for peace in Northeast Asia, Korea has the experience, accomplishments, confidence and reason to unfold an offensive strategy. After all, we are the protagonists who achieved the “miracle on the Han” of leaping from a national income per capita of $100 to $10,000.
If a Northeast Asian community is to be born not through competition based on the bigger population and military, but through a competition of creativity and economic competitiveness, it makes sense that Korea should choose an offensive strategy to take a leading role.
The problem is not in setting the goal of becoming the center of Northeast Asia, but in the methods of implementation and the political choices to support it. In other words, if we dream of becoming a leading country in Northeast Asia without throwing all our energy into an economy-first policy, especially one that focuses on creativity and competitiveness, our dream could end up as a hopeless fantasy.
Our offensive strategy can only be justified if we show boldness and concentration that aims at beating the Chinese leap forward and the potential power of Japan.
So what is the defensive side of becoming the center of Northeast Asia?
Peace is being maintained, thank goodness, in Northeast Asia at the moment, but this does not mean that geopolitical conditions have changed fundamentally.
The geopolitical conditions of Northeast Asia are that China dreams of becoming first in everything ― not just in population and economy.
Russia is a country of vast land space and resources that spread across Europe and Asia.
Japan is the second largest economic power in the world and intends to stay that way.
These countries are all close together, so the region could turn into an arena of struggle between dangerous powers if circumstances change. In this case, Korea could become the first sacrificial offering. Therefore, the defensive dimension of becoming the center of Northeast Asia is that we would volunteer a leading role in securing a stable power balance between the world powers, and this would be a strategic guarantee of our survival.
Will our small country be able to become a central country that can maintain a balance of power among China, Russia and Japan?
We need to increase our independent strength. But it is just as important for us to keep an alliance with a country out of the region that has the same interest in keeping the balance of power in Northeast Asia. That country is the United States.
The first step toward the goal of becoming the center of Northeast Asia must start with affirming that economic growth and alliance with the United States are our highest priority goals, and by strengthening a national consensus on the matter.

* The writer, a former prime minister, is an advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Hong-koo
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