[OUTLOOK]Korea as a ‘balancer of peace’There has been a lot of talk about the “balancer of Northeast Asia” theory. This idea was presented by Korea as a national security strategy, with the future order of Northeast Asia in mind.
It is therefore natural that the Korean people and the world should be looking on with curiosity and concern. For this idea to evolve into a complete, long-term regional security strategy, it has to go through a process of open discussion.
Right now, there is both support for the “balancer” theory and concern about it. Those who are concerned about the idea criticize it from the balance-of-power perspective. The United States is the strongest power in the Northeast Asian region. China will soon overtake Japan to take second place, and Japan is strengthening its alliance with the United States out of fear of falling into third place.
In terms of military power, the United States, Russia, China and Japan rank first, second, third and fourth in the world, respectively. Korea is below 10th in the world, economically and militarily, so how are we supposed to create a balance on our own, outside the alliance with the United States? At the core of the concern is the fear that this idea could create a fission in the Korea-U.S. alliance.
But this concern overlooks the government’s explanation that it wants to base its “balancer” role on its alliance with the United States.
There is no other country in the world with which Korea could form an alliance that exceeds the United States in strength. The United States has never shown territorial interest in the Korea Peninsula, and has continuously provided us with security against the threat of North Korean invasion.
It is in this respect that the Korean government intends to play the role of a “balancer.” The idea is, therefore, based on a realistic acknowledgment of the balance of power in the region.
This theory is quite different from the “balancer” idea that is promoted by some anti-American groups. These groups claim that if the United States withdraws from Northeast Asia, Korea will be able to serve as a regional balancing force between China and Japan.
But it is totally unrealistic to think of telling the American superpower to take its hands off Northeast Asia. A national security strategy cannot be based on an unrealistic supposition, and that is why the government’s “balancer” theory is grounded in the alliance with the United States.
In short, there is no contradiction between the government’s “balancer” theory and the Korea-U.S. alliance.
Those who are in favor of the “balancer” theory insist that, in light of Northeast Asia’s experience with invasion and colonization a century or so ago, we should turn present-day Northeast Asia into a stage of peace rather than war, with the firm determination that such history not be repeated. Because Korea has never invaded another country, we are morally in an better position to talk about peace.
South Korea is also uniquely qualified to talk about peace because it is the only Northeast Asian country that has kept to a policy of denuclearization, not just in terms of its actual capacity, but in terms of what it has attempted.
Looking toward the mid-21st century and the possibility of a change in the regional security structure: If China pursues supremacy in Northeast Asia, or if Japan challenges China with the backing of the United States, Korea, as a peace-loving country, intends to stop such conflicts by siding with whichever country is more interested in pursuing peace. In other words, being a “balancer” ultimately means being a balancer of peace.
With this new idea of being a balancer of peace, we can play the role of a catalyst, making the United States, China, Japan and Russia pursue peace and cooperation together. Our geographical position as a link between China and Japan makes us particularly suited for this role of urging cooperation rather than reckless struggles for power.
We can see that hidden within the “balancer” theory is the diplomatic strategy of urging surrounding countries to stand on the side of peace. So is the intention to achieve regional economic cooperation, through partnership in information technology and economic efforts.
Looking at the “balancer” theory as referring to a balance of peace, not a balancer of power, the many changes in military diplomacy that have been carried out by the Ministry of Defense become clearer to the eye.
While maintaining the Korea-U.S. alliance as its main axis, the ministry is carrying out military diplomacy with Japan, China and Russia, in consultation with the United States. Military cooperation with the United States is well established, systematic and solid.
Our military diplomacy with Japan, China and Russia, by contrast, is at the level of crisis prevention and confidence-building. Therefore, this multiple military diplomacy, all of which is being carried out in the context of a strong Korea-U.S. alliance, should not be viewed from the perspective of balance-of-power diplomacy.
For the good of peace in Northeast Asia, Korea could request that a clear line be drawn in the Japan-U.S. alliance, one that would prevent Japan from using the alliance for its own militaristic ambitions. We could ask China not to pursue regional supremacy in the future.
For Korea to become the balancer of peace in Northeast Asia, we must enhance the Korea-U.S. alliance while continuing to strengthen our national power, our diplomatic power and our independent national defense capability.
* The writer is the director of the Research Institute of National Security Affairs at Korea National Defense University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Hahn Yong-sup