[OUTLOOK]Is balance role an ugly duckling?Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Ugly Duckling,” has moved the hearts of millions of children. Children sympathize with the duckling because the poor bird was so big and ugly the whole farmyard laughed at him. The ducks pecked at him, the chickens beat him, and the girl who fed the fowl kicked him. He faced terrible ordeals. Hence, the term “ugly duckling” is used for someone who has dropped out of a group or who becomes an outcast or misfit.
The idea of South Korea playing the role of a geopolitical balancer in Northeast Asia is now being hotly debated. After President Roh Moo-hyun brought it up in a speech at the Air Force Academy on March 8, senior officials, including Unification Minister Chung Dong-young, have repeatedly emphasized the theory as a new paradigm of foreign policy South Korea should follow.
In brief, the theory provides a new diplomatic approach that will replace the “bloc diplomacy” of the Cold War era: the Communist bloc vs. the democratic bloc. The officials, especially prominent members of the National Security Council, think the South Korea-U.S.-Japan alliance is a remnant of the Cold War era. They accept that the triangular alliance was necessary as deterrence to another alliance to the north of the peninsula ― North Korea, China and the former Soviet Union, when Russia was a powerful Communist state. They think South Korea should break out of the confrontational structure of triangular alliances and transform them into a structure with which we can pursue regional security collectively.
The policymakers deny, however, the criticism that the balancer theory contradicts or loosens the South Korea-U.S. alliance. They insist that South Korea will play a balancing role in tandem with maintaining the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
But the leader of the opposition Grand National Party, Park Geun-hye, doesn’t agree with the new policy initiatives. “Although [President Roh] said that the government will strengthen the South Korea-U.S. alliance simultaneously, while trying to play the role of a balancer of Northeast Asia, the two are contradictory to each other,” she has said.
Intellectuals, academics and some in the press have also sharply questioned the balancer theory. They worry over the future of national security and South Korea-U.S. ties. Their concerns may be summed up in two points: First, we will lose old friends while failing to make new friends. Second, we will only end up bringing ridicule upon ourselves by volunteering to play the role of a balancer that does not match our national power.
That is to say, we will be treated like “The Ugly Duckling of Northeast Asia.”
According to government officials, President Roh has an understanding that the current situation in which the United States and Japan are strengthening ties, while tension with China rises, is similar to the situation in Northeast Asia 100 years ago. Seoul officials believe South Korea will find it difficult to side with either of the two, if Japan and the United States collide with China.
They insist, therefore, Seoul needs to break out of the South Korea-U.S.-Japan alliance in order not to be swept into such a clash. The alternative is to create a multilateral security system.
What is important is not the logic over regional security, but whether the timing of the government proposal to change the paradigm is right, and whether the proposal was made through proper procedures domestically as well as internationally.
National security, not to mention regional security, can’t be experimented with. On it depends the fate of the whole country. On a regional basis, the fate of countries depends on security and the huge population would be affected. One has to be careful in dealing with issues related to security, especially in a region.
The government should reflect whether it is the right time to anno-unce that South Korea will step away from the United States and Japan at a time when the North Korean nuclear problem is deadlocked, when our alliance with the United States is in a precarious state, when China is trying hard to improve relations with the United States for economic reasons and for U.S. help over the Taiwan issue, and when Japan is exerting a major effort to strengthen its alliance with the United States during the Bush administration.
The Roh administration must contemplate whether the United States will gladly cooperate with South Korea after Seoul’s announcement that it will break out of the alliance with Washington and Tokyo.
The government has to also reflect whether it is proper to announce a major change in regional security without consulting with our allies in the region. And we, the people, have to question our government whether it has ever asked our opinion on such a grave issue like changing the paradigm of regional security.
“The Ugly Duckling” became a graceful and beautiful swan only after enduring all the miseries and privations over a hard winter. First thing he felt, before he realized that he had become a beautiful swan, was that his wings were strong. He flapped his wings and rose high into the air. Everything looked beautiful, in the freshness of early spring.
If South Korea wants to be a swan, not a duckling, it must wait until its wings are strong enough to fly. If not, the country will suffer the sorrow and tribulations of “The Ugly Duckling.”
* The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo