[OBSERVER]The Koreans have a word for it

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[OBSERVER]The Koreans have a word for it

The participatory government that preens itself for the bold, assertive spirit it has brought to Korean foreign policy apparently is still too timid to deal with the Dalai Lama.
The Buddhist leader accepted invitations to two gatherings in Korea this month. One is a conference of 20 Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa and, of course, Korea’s own Kim Dae-jung. The other would bring together 50 leading world religious figures from 20 countries. These are the sorts of high-profile events that could focus favorable attention on Korea.
Instead, the big headline will be the absence of the Dalai Lama. Foreign Ministry officials said last week that no “official” decision has been made ― but unofficially he will be barred from Korea “in consideration of South Korea’s relationship with China.” The invitations ran afoul of sadae.
Sadae ― “serving the great” ― was the formula for Joseon Korea’s relations with China. Sadae acknowledged the Celestial Kingdom’s paramountcy and Korea’s dependency. Korea sent regular tribute envoys to China, and at times its royal princes had to marry Chinese (or Mongol) princesses. But for the most part, sadae worked. Korea did nothing to annoy China, and China left Korea alone.
The refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa ― or even to “officially” deny one ― shows sadae’s lingering sway. “Do nothing to annoy China” is still a cardinal rule of Korean policy. China would surely be displeased if the symbol of Tibet’s cultural uniqueness were honored in a Chinese vassal state.
Would that the Blue House had as much respect for the 11 million Korean Buddhists, who might be elated to see the world’s best-known Buddhist welcomed in their country.
The Korean government’s stance is not surprising; it has barred entrance to the Dalai Lama before. But it does make a mockery of the Roh Moo-hyun administration’s pretensions that it is making the world respect Korea.
President Roh’s chest-pounding threats of “diplomatic war” against Japan and his finger-wagging lectures to Prime Minister Koizumi about Japanese imperial history turn out to be juvenile boasting. Telling off the Japanese is cheap, because it is risk-free ― unless it inadvertently sets off an anti-Korean backlash that could kill the “Korean wave” of cultural exports to Japan. (Has the participatory government thought of that?)
Allowing the Dalai Lama to attend a goodwill gathering is more ticklish. He has denounced the Chinese “occupation” of Tibet, which was annexed in 1959. Korea understandably does not want to be put in a position of appearing to endorse Tibetan separatism.
Diplomats finesse such problems all the time, with agreements to avoid political polemics, for example, and they could this time as well. China would still be displeased, but what could it do? Refuse to accept any more Korean business investment? Be unhelpful on the North Korean nuclear and refugee problems? (Oh, wait, it’s already unhelpful.)
China often is hard to deal with, and Korea often has little leverage. Japan can be hard to deal with, too, and also the United States and Russia. Koreans feel frustrated, bitter and helpless, and the inability to resolve these emotions they call han, a word, they proudly insist, that cannot be translated into other languages.
One sympathizes with the Koreans, but han is not always constructive. It is surely a virtue to understand the limits of one’s situation, rather than to wage suicidal campaigns against fate. But in some cases resignation to fate has become a comforting habit that helps Koreans excuse themselves. A particularly poignant example is the “comfort women,” the Koreans who were forced into sexual slavery to the Japanese army during World War II. It is true that Japan has not yet properly acknowledged this national sin. But it was only about 15 years ago that Koreans began to press the matter by mounting weekly demonstrations outside the Japanese Embassy. For four decades after World War II, the han-induced sense of shame was too strong for Korea to acknowledge what had happened. Now that the event has receded into history and only a few very old comfort women are still living, Korea feels strong enough to rage against Japan.
Today in northeastern China, Korean women ― refugees from North Korea ― are being sold into brothels or forced marriages for the equivalent of $200 a head, a problem widely reported internationally but not acknowledged here. The shame of han combines with the habit of sadae. How, after all, can a shrimp like Korea confront a whale like China?
Perhaps in 40 years today’s shame will have receded into history, so that Koreans can stop bemoaning their victimization and go on a rhetorical offensive. Then there will be demonstrations outside the Chinese Embassy.
Meanwhile, Korea might take a first step toward overcoming sadae by issuing a visa to the Dalai Lama. There is little to fear from China except a huffy diplomatic note and a few postponed meetings. The gain in self-respect would be immeasurable.

* The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at Yonsei University’s GSIS.


by Hal Piper
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