[GLOBAL EYE]How Korea can be a ‘balancer’

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[GLOBAL EYE]How Korea can be a ‘balancer’

Much attention, both domestic and international, has been drawn to President Roh Moo-hyun’s notion of Korea’s role as a “balancer” in Northeast Asia.
Conservative critics question whether Korea really has the necessary weight to affect the balance of power in the region. Some on the political right ask whether Korea is actually thinking about abandoning its alliance with the United States.
Nor is the progressive side without its critical voices. The progressives’ biggest concern is whether the statement “We need to strengthen the self-defense capability of our military forces” really means “South Korea is going to participate in an arms race.”
This debate starts with how one defines the concept of a “balancer.” Students of international relations often point to 18th-century England as a model for such a role. One might well question whether Korea has the kind of power that can be compared to England’s at the time.
But others would argue that such analogies are the result of being stuck in a Cold War, militaristic way of thinking. Their point is that maintaining a balance of power is not solely a question of military might. We are no longer living in an age of imperialism, when military power trumped everything else. There are also those who protest that Korean power, when seen as including economic and cultural sway as well as military power, is too often underestimated.
Some also believe that Korea can do much as a sort of “balancer of peace” in Northeast Asia, where the North Korean nuclear problem persists and tension mounts between China and Japan. These people say that it isn’t right to criticize those who try to pursue such a role for the country, as though they were doing something wrong.
A high-ranking government official, someone who deals with foreign affairs and national security, offered me his own explanation last Friday. “The concept of a ‘balancer’ came about in our search for a diplomatic national security order, to be pursued with the goal of opening an era of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia,” this official said.
“This concept recognizes the situation that has been created in and around the Korean Peninsula as a result of friction and confrontation among world powers,” the official continued. “To speak in more detail, it especially takes the conflict between China and Japan into consideration. It is a strategic idea more than a theoretical one.”
With Korea at the center of an international dispute, it is essential that we adopt a policy by which we can be kept from being swept to one side regardless of our wishes. The questiion is how the surrounding powers will gauge Korea’s ability and intention to assert its will.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s view of Northeast Asia is that it is a region that has not formed an order of its own since the Cold War. With that kind of understanding of Northeast Asia, what kind of order does the United States plan to create in the region?
Many people believe that in the long term, Northeast Asia will come under the influence of China. The situation that prevailed during the last century, in which Japan acted as if it represented Asia while China was largely excluded from the picture, was actually an exceptional period in Asian history.
Under such circumstances, the policy of the United States appears vague. Seen from outside, it looks like attempting to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance. But it does not seem to have a war with China in mind either. Yet the Japanese right wing seems interested in boosting a military alliance in order to preserve Japan’s vested interests.
It is not good for the future of Asia, or the world in general, that the United States and Japan should confront China by excessively bolstering their alliance. Both the United States and Japan ― Japan in particular ― need to come up with a new way of thinking, to counteract the dynamic environment of Northeast Asia.
South Korea is a democratic country that succeeded in establishing freedom, democracy and a market economy with the help of the United States. Unlike Japan, South Korea has never started a war, and it has little reason to be hostile to China.
South Korea is an ally of the United States that shares its core values. Generally speaking, it also has an amicable relationship with Japan, despite the controversies of recent weeks.
If South Korea manages to advance the cause of Northeast Asian cooperation by neutralizing the rivalry between China and Japan, and if, as a model, it leads China and North Korea toward a market economy and toward the safeguarding of human rights, then South Korea would indeed be serving as a “balancer of peace” in Northeast Asia.

* The writer is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Seok-hwan
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