[OUTLOOK]Mating, for the 21st century

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[OUTLOOK]Mating, for the 21st century

The governing Uri Party is in a pickle of sorts after their defeat in the Oct. 26 legislative by-elections. The party should comfort itself that this election was not a presidential race, or it would have suffered a devastating blow, having failed to recapture the government. If the governing party does not want to relive the Oct. 26 nightmare, it should find a way to restore people’s confidence quickly by reviewing overall state affairs, instead of trying to figure out who is to blame for the defeat.
The most pressing issues it must deal with are the domestic economy and foreign policy. Of the two, there is a wide gulf between the governing and opposition parties’ assessment of South Korea’s foreign policy achievements. While the governing party hails the foreign policy deeds of the past two years as a success that exceeded expectations, the opposition party thinks the opposite, and is scathing in its critique. If the governing party fails to understand the reason for the perception gap and think of ways to narrow it, foreign policy may become a hot issue that dogs the Uri party in the next presidential race.
In order avoid that, the ruling party must first know how to read the hearts and minds of the surrounding superpowers. South Korea, which has never been an empire, suffers from a syndrome of naively and self-centeredly interpreting the crafty words and actions of powerful nations. While South Korea remains trapped in that unfortunate habit, the 21st-century mating dance goes on.
Let’s look, for instance, at the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeeza Rice, in her September speech at Princeton University, reiterated the advance of freedom and democracy in this transitional period as a core U.S. foreign policy principle. With that in mind, it’s notable how much stress the U.S. is laying on three-way security talks with Japan and Australia. Robert Zoellick, the powerful U.S. assistant secretary of state, has emphasized the importance of a tightly woven network for 21st-century foreign policy, replacing the 19th-century balance-of-power and 20th-century Cold War models. As for North Korea, which is identified as being in the outermost realm from the concentric circles of democracy and freedom, the United States asserts that the North must resolve the nuclear issue first, and then tackle broader economic and political reforms before ending the half-century armistice on the Korean Peninsula. The United States has yet to publicly comment on just where it places South Korea on the concentric circles of democracy and freedom.
For its part, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in August, identified “peace, development and cooperation” as three main ideas in China’s new foreign policy as it looks to build “socialism with Chinese characteristics” for its people. Accordingly, while China balances a cautious cooperative relationship with the United States, it also manages the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a six-nation body including Russia, which aims for a multi-polar world. In East Asia, it is seeking an aggressive role for itself to promote stability and prosperity in the region. But if China achieves its economic growth goals by 2020, and proposes a greater East Asian sphere, we cannot rule out the possibility that it will replace its current cautious stance of dealing with what it can with the attitude of an omnipotent China that is capable of anything.
Japan, wary of China’s fast rise, has picked the United States from early on as its mate for the 21st century. At last week’s meeting of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee held between the two countries’ foreign and defense ministers, the allies demonstrated, as they had in February, that they are almost like one country in their cooperation.
In parallel to the intimate cooperation with the United States, Japan maintains strained relationships with China and South Korea that are hard to mollify because of historical animosity. Nevertheless, Japan cautiously touts the political rhetoric of building “an East Asian community.” As you can see, mating in the 21st century has begun in earnest in East Asia. But South Korea’s foreign policy, which aims at cooperative independence and a role of balancer in the region, rests on the ideals of 19th-century balance-of-power and 20st-century post-Cold War theories. It lacks what is required for 21st-century mating.
The world is changing fast, demanding that we think outside the box. South Korea would do well to engage in a multi-centered, tightly woven network diplomacy that charms other players in the East Asian region. More importantly, we should figure out how South Korea’s network can spread and spur a vibrant wave throughout the region as South Korea’s popular culture has done, amid the larger webs already woven by neighboring superpowers such as China and the United States.

* The writer is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University. Translated by JoongAng Daily staff.

by Ha Young-sun
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