[OUTLOOK]Balancing Korea’s role in Asia

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[OUTLOOK]Balancing Korea’s role in Asia

It is very worrisome indeed that the debate surrounding the theory that Korea should play the role of a balancer for Northeast Asia is sinking deeper and deeper into confusion. If we do not make clear our position on the issue soon, not only the Korean people but even the world will be confused about our strategic goals.
The problem can be divided into two points. First, we want to maintain our alliance with the United States, while trying to play the role of a balancer for Northeast Asia. Are these two strategic goals complementary or contradictory?
Second, does South Korea have the national power to play the role as a balancer?
First of all, we must ponder why we are trying to become a balancer. The textbook answer to that question is because our national security is threatened if the balance of power among the larger powers surrounding the Korean Peninsula breaks down and an unstable situation is created.
However, a more specific explanation is that if any one of these big powers gains hegemony over the region, we would sacrifice the most. We are volunteering to be the balancer in order to actively prevent the emergence of a dominating power.
The decision we should be a balancer comes out of the consideration that we are in a special geopolitical position of having the world’s most populated country, China; the world’s largest land owner, Russia; and the world’s second largest economic power, Japan, as neighbors.
However, the most decisive factor is the vivid memory of our country’s history of wretched sufferings due to a hegemonic power in the region.
We do not want to recall the historical legacy of whether our relationship with China ― which occupied the center of Asia until the 19th century ― was appropriate for our pride and status as an independent sovereign country.
Towards the end of the era of imperialism, Japan emerged as a regional power in Northeast Asia by arming itself. Perhaps Koreans will never forget the misfortune of their country’s subjugation in the course of Japan dominating the region.
We will also never forget how the fate of our nation, which is situated at the south of the Korean Peninsula, was precariously threatened at the beginning of the Cold War era when the Soviet Union, as a suzerain state of international communism based on Marxism and Leninism, suddenly expanded its power.
Therefore, it is our strategic goal that we must definitely stop the emergence of a hegemonic power in the region. And it is the reason why we are volunteering to become an inside balancer of the region.
Fortunately, the world’s only superpower and our ally, the United States, has made it its goal based on its own strategic logic to prevent the emergence of a dominant country in Asia. The United States seems to be ready to play the active role of an outside balancer, working with powers in the region.
However, the United States needs to learn the lesson from history that no matter how powerful an outside balancer is, it is hard to reach its goal without the cooperation of an inside balancer.
It will be also difficult for the United States to deny the fact that there is no other country than Korea that can become the inside balancer in Northeast Asia.
Now then, is our national power strong enough to play the role of a balancer? The truth is, a balancer does not need to maintain the same level of national power, especially military power, as those of surrounding stronger powers.
If Korea ― which ranks the 12th in the world for economic capacity and is determined to wage a total war in order to defend freedom and sovereignty ― maintains an alliance with a powerful outside balancer, its power and influence will be very strong. It is that strength and will of Korea that makes the situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula so different than it was 100 years ago.
Asian countries naturally want to come together to talk about the peace and prosperity of Asia amongst themselves.
The East Asian Leaders’ Meeting to be held in Kuala Lumpur in December this year reflects such regional emotion.
However, Asia’s security and economy have already been deeply connected to the global security system and market order. So it is difficult to handle the two separately.
The same goes for the issue of keeping the balance of power in Northeast Asia for peace. We will find a valid solution only when it is linked with the world’s political and economic networks.
Therefore the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting to be held at Busan in November can become a historic occasion for opening a new Asia-Pacific era.
President George W. Bush of the United States will show how he intends to establish international order in the Asia-Pacific region, and President Roh Moo-hyun will have the chance to show how he will create a new balance of power necessary for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.
Both leaders will be standing on a world stage where they can show off their vision and leadership.
I look forward to the United States and South Korea having close consultations.

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

by Lee Hong-koo
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