[VIEWPOINT]To learn from history, look to the future

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[VIEWPOINT]To learn from history, look to the future

Visiting a graveyard to pay tribute to the deceased leads one to think many things. Recently, I visited the grave of Kim Ok-gyun (1851-1894), an ambitious politician in the late Joseon Dynasty, at Aoyama in Tokyo. The visit was a bit special in that I was not alone, but in the company of about 20 would-be Kim Ok-gyuns of the 21st century.
The inscription on the gravestone that greeted us started with, “Alas! Though gifted with extraordinary talent, and met with an extraordinary time, without any extraordinary achievement, he just came across an extraordinarily tragic death.” The passage touched my heart with the force of unexpected pain and grief. Before the untended grave, heartbreakingly overgrown with weeds, I talked about the emergency situation on the Korean Peninsula in the 19th century and that of the 21st century with the young protagonists of our 21st century.
Kim Ok-gyun was one of the failed political leaders who prevailed in the last attempt to reform the Joseon Dynasty in the latter half of the 19th century. In a sense he resembles the so-called “386 politicians” of today. The term “386 politicians” means young political activists who are in their 30s, were born in the 1960s and attended college in the 1980s.
There is a reason why our group should have endeavored to visit this graveyard over 100 years after the death of its occupant. In contrast with the 386 generation politicians of the 21st century who have no vision of coming changes and simply indulge in fussing with with the bygone past, Kim Ok-gyun was fully aware of the transitional nature of the times he felt he was in charge of. The zeitgeist was how to gain military and economic superiority rather than moral ethics in international politics emphasized by conventional wisdom. Then, why should he meet with a “tragic extraordinary death without any extraordinary achievement?” In short, he failed to mobilize capabilities, both at home and abroad, that could carry out his vision. Externally, he could not utilize the new powers of Europe and America that emerged as new protagonists in place of China, the conventional center of the Asian world, which had lost its military prestige since its defeat in the Opium War. In despair, he turned to Japan for help, but it was like entering a tiger’s den voluntarily. Domestically, he failed to cooperate with the conservative political forces led by Min Yeong-ik and fell in the trap of political life and death. A hastily planned coup d’etat, named Gapsinjeongbyeon (1884), brought about the weakening of reformist forces and their political and physical demise.
President Roh Moo-hyun, at a luncheon with marine police officers last Thursday, reportedly said, in connection with our maritime sovereignty over the exclusive economic zone in the East Sea: “Be prepared with the combat capability to respond to the emergency situation in the East Sea, and leave the rest to politics.” On the Dokdo issue, he explained, “As there is a limit in solving the problem with quiet diplomacy, we are in a situation where a head-on confrontation is inevitable.” Both at home and abroad, people are busy trying to tease out any hidden meanings behind President Roh’s remarks.
The answer can be easily found in a lecture he gave under the title, “Let’s prepare for the future with a strategic way of thinking,” at a meeting with major military commanders on June 16. Although there are problems in the choice of words and the lack of consistency in the logic, the lecture showed the president’s vision and strategy quite well. Historically in Northeast Asia, which surrounds the Korean Peninsula, there have been confrontations between continental forces like China and Russia and maritime forcessuch as the United States and Japan as well as the United Kingdom ― with the Korean Peninsula usually caught in the middle. In order to escape from the repetition of such a geopolitical vicious circle, Korea has to strengthen its national power, get rid of dependent ways of thinking and, lastly, think strategically. Those were the points that the president emphasized.
Mr. Roh stressed that vision and strategy should be based on a historical view. He is right. However, to read “the future in the past” and “the past in the future” properly, we have to study history really hard. First of all: the conventional and Asian international order before the invasion of Western forces, the modern international order after Western forces came and the complicated international order of the 21st century do not operate on the same principles of thinking and action. The wars fought in the era of tradition, in modern times and in the 21st century are not ones that can be compared.
Thus, a proper vision and strategy for the 21st century can be attained by foresight rather than hindsight, by looking to the future much more than in indulging in retrospective reading of bygone past affairs. That is, if we want to strengthen national capacity, we have to strengthen it for the 21st century. With a “big mouth diplomacy” based on experiences in the 19th century, it is difficult to gain supremacy over the “comprehensive diplomacy” of the fast-moving superpowers of the 21st century. We need a diplomacy of sustained determination and perseverance that goes beyond displays of indignation to other countries. Let us provide a new vision and strategy that concentrate on strengthening our comprehensive national capacity in the present century. Speaking repeatedly about dependent ways of thinking might be a reflection of our inferiority complex about being at the margins of the main stream of human history. Let’s get rid of it. Lastly, let’s make best use of neighboring superpowers by being in step with “the comprehensive way of handling diplomacy.” Then, Kim Ok-gyun will sleep in peace.

* The writer is a professor of international relations at the Seoul National University.


by Ha Young-sun
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