[OUTLOOK]Balance is not just about power

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[OUTLOOK]Balance is not just about power

Recently, people are paying a lot of attention to Korea’s “balancer” role in Northeast Asia. I questioned whether or not the idea of a “balancer” is appropriate, but I stressed the importance of balance of power in my book, “Strategy for Survival in the Age of Change.”
The survival strategy for Korea in the 21st century is the strategy of keeping the “balance” in Northeast Asia. In the 21st century, when the bipolar system of the Cold War era has collapsed and competition among the four surrounding powers is heated, Korea needs to stabilize the balance of power in the Northeast Asian region in order to sustain her political independence.
Whether a balance will be stabilized objectively or one particular strong power will hold hegemony in the region is not a matter that Korea can decide. However, Korea cannot simply take an attitude of a spectator in the problem related to the order of Northeast Asia. We need to make efforts to influence our surrounding environment, even if we have limited capability. It is necessary for Korea to exert a high standard of creativity so that a system of balance can be maintained in Northeast Asia.
The problem is, considering the political culture, diplomatic experiences and ideological characteristic of Korea, the idea of “balance” is one that is very foreign to Korea and Korean people.
In international relations, Korea traditionally has pursued a policy of acknowledging the order of rank and hierarchy that starts with China at the top, rather than a policy of “balance.” Korea could not imagine equality among countries, and international order was thought to mean a system of rank and hierarchy just like domestic order. The European idea of national sovereignty is unfamiliar to Asian countries. We never imagined that countries could claim to have equal rights.
Korea followed the pattern of traditional international relations even in the latter half of the 20th century. The only difference was that China, which was at the top of the hierarchy, was replaced by the United States. The logic of the system was the same as when China was at the top, in that the United States was the new superpower and suzerain state in all international relations.
In the domestic order, too, Korea could not imagine the structure of “balance” in which the power is decentralized and the system of checks and balances works under the prerequisite of basic human rights. Koreans believed the only legitimate order was the hierarchical structure where the king stood at the top with absolute power and the members of society were linked together with the king in the center. Any social groups, the basic elements of a pluralistic society, were not recognized as social forces.
The traditional absolute monarchy of Korea was succeeded by the developmental dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. It was a system of concentrated power rather than decentralization, and one of monopoly rather than balance. The difference from the traditional authoritarian system was that by choosing a market economy, a window of opportunity to pluralize the political power was opened, too.
It can be said that the authoritarian system was one that could have been functional to strategic goals of the time, such as anti-communist diplomacy, anti-communist security, and low-wage/high-growth economic development.
However, our environment is changing rapidly. The Korean economy has passed the age when it could secure international competitiveness by restraining wages in labor-intensive industries by force. Also, Korean companies now have to compete with international companies, even in the domestic market. A bureaucratic authoritarian system that was necessary for low-wage/high-growth development strategy is no longer effective.
The system Korea needs even domestically is a “balance system,” in which power is decentralized and decentralized powers keep check and balance one another. In political science, under the prerequisite of the separation of three powers, keeping “checks and balances” has been considered to be the essence of the democratic political system.
By experience, however, we can tell that the separation of three powers does not work realistically. Power is divided in a far more complex way. It is not a division of the legislative, judicial and executive branches, but a division of systems. Also, power can be divided according to space rather than function. This is the political meaning of local self-government.
If Korea is to carry out a subtle and delicate strategy of balance in an unstable world, we need to first of all change our system into one that acts on the idea of balance. Also, in order to effectively maintain a balance system through mutual restraint and compromise, we not only need to make balance a part of our political system, but also a part of our people’s awareness and everyday life.

* The writer, a former ambassador to the United States, is a professor emeritus at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Kyung-won
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