[VIEWPOINT]What Korea can learn from PolandWhere does Europe’s heart lie? England, France or Germany may be the answer in terms of politics and economy, but Poland is the geopolitical heart of Europe. Poland is surrounded by seven countries, including Russia on its east and Germany on its west. Poland is the gateway to Eastern Europe and the fortress of Western Europe.
Because of such a geographical fate, it has experienced enormous hardships such as wars, divisions and the Holocaust. In Korea, the concept of making the country a balancing force of Northeast Asia was recently raised, and many are comparing Poland’s past with Korea’s.
In the past, Poland was a strong European power, controlling the area that is now Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. In addition to a series of hardships at home and abroad, the country had to suffer through foreign rule.
After experiencing the agony of losing their land for 123 years, the Polish people were able to rebuild their country after World War I. War hero Jozef Pilsudski became the leader of the country, and Poland tried to regain its lost territories and honor and to escape from the influences of superpowers.
At the time, Poland’s foreign affairs and security were determined by three axes: the Peace Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations and the France-Poland alliance. As time went by, Poland was afraid of possible retaliation from its neighbors, Germany or the Soviet Union, or becoming dependent on them if Warsaw formed closer relations with one or the other.
In 1932 and 1934, Poland formed non-aggression pacts with Germany and the Soviet Union, respectively. Poland tried to keep the balance of power with the two nations by pursuing an “equi-distance” foreign policy.
Trusting too much in the country’s military capabilities and alliances with others, the Polish Foreign Ministry openly proclaimed that the Polish people’s pride was far more important than a humiliating peace, winning enormous support from the public.
But while the Polish government let down its guard, Hitler and Stalin secretly formed a Germany-USSR non-aggression treaty, practically agreeing to allow each other to invade, divide and even liquidate Poland.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany sent 1.8 million soldiers to attack Poland, claiming that Germans in the country were being abused. Only 17 days later, the Soviet Union began its own attacks against Poland, justifying its involvement as a move to protect the Ukrainians and the Belorussians. The era of power equilibrium, so desired by Poland, lasted no more than five years.
The French and the British, allies of Poland, did not immediately intervene in the conflicts, and that remains one of the unsolved mysteries of World War II history. After the invasions, Poland was divided into west and east, and the German and Russian occupations began. The Polish people had to endure a great deal of suffering.
During the six years of war, Poland lost 600,000 soldiers. About 22 percent of the nation’s population of 6 million died, and 1 million became orphans of war. About 38 percent of the country’s assets were destroyed, and Warsaw, the country’s capital, was destroyed. About 1.5 million Polish people were sent to Siberia to labor camps, living lives as virtual slaves.
The dream of the Polish leadership, which failed to accurately grasp the reality of international affairs, ended up being a nightmare for the Polish people as well as for the entire world.
The tragic history of Poland in the early 20th century reminds us of the importance of military capabilities, diplomatic abilities and alliances for a country surrounded by superpowers.
In world history, there are happy endings, as in Germany, which was once a defeated nation but emerged as a reunified country after it regained the trust of neighbors and restored its power. But there are also tragic endings, as in Poland, which attempted to lead the region without sufficient national power and ended up being betrayed and isolated after failing to win the support of its neighbors.
The Korean War is not officially over. The situation on the Korean Peninsula is unstable due to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, as well as issues associated with Japan and China. Under such conditions, presenting the goals of Korea’s foreign affairs and security must be done with extreme caution. A wide range of factors, such as the realignment of U.S. Forces in Korea, the discord among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, the rise of nationalism and the concept of a developing Korea as a balancing force in the Northeast Asia, must be carefully handled.
After overcoming the aftermath of wars, divisions, dependencies and socialism for the past six decades, Poland has become a truly independent country. However, Poland is putting its fate in the hands of the trans-Atlantic alliance with the United States, leaving behind all of its European neighbors. Why is the country doing so? To us, that is extremely suggestive.
* The writer is a professor emeritus of international relations at Sejong University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Joung-won