[Outlook]The way out of the sandwich

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[Outlook]The way out of the sandwich

The idea of our nation becoming “sandwich Korea” haunts many people. The term was coined by Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee. He said that Korea is being sandwiched between China and Japan. This feeling of being squeezed by our competitors goes beyond manufacturing industries like electronics, automaking and shipbuilding, into service sectors such as tourism, financial services, medical treatment and education.
Japan and Australia recently signed a joint security statement, which has raised concerns that, with regard to our national defense, we will also find ourselves sandwiched.
Due to the geopolitical location of the Korean Peninsula we have been repeatedly squeezed by foreign powers throughout our history. The current situation on the Korean Peninsula is similar to the position of the Korean empire 110 years ago.
After Japan won the Sino-Japanese War, Queen Myeongseong, the wife of King Gojong, attempted to establish closer relations with Russia in order to keep Japan in check. The Japanese saw her as an obstacle, so they murdered her. Feeling insecure and afraid, King Gojong sought refuge in the Russian legation, and one year later he returned to his palace, proclaimed the Korean empire and became its emperor. Surprisingly, while it was being sandwiched between threats from overseas and from the continent, the Joseon dynasty was able to become the Korean empire.
In his inaugural speech in 2003, President Roh Moo-hyun presented a vision of Korea rising to become the hub of Northeast Asia, meaning that the Korean Peninsula would be able to function as a bridge connecting the ocean and the continent in the post-Cold War era.
Four years later, however, many feel that we have failed to become a hub and have been sandwiched instead. President Roh’s plan for Korea to hold the balance in the Northeast Asian region has turned out to be wishful thinking. The events since North Korea conducted its nuclear test made us realize that we are not in control of the destiny of the Korean Peninsula.
Is there a way to end the vicious cycle in our history? We can look at the theory of Yu Gil-jun, a reformist politician from the late Joseon dynasty. He suggested that Korea become a neutral country 120 years ago, and we can find insights in his theory that will enable us to survive independently.
Yu studied in the United States and learned that the country was a good friend when it comes to trade, but it would not always rescue us if we were in trouble. He thought we could lean toward China, and become neutral. Yu expected China to help us establish neutrality by persuading other nations, such as Britain, France, Japan and Russia, that we were interested in acting as a go-between; just as China hosted the six-party talks and served as a mediator.
Today, North Korea handles international relations and has China as a guardian, which proves that history repeats itself. However, under the agreement reached during the latest six-party talks in February, North Korea opened a channel for direct talks with the United States, which suggests that structural changes will take place in the politics of the Korean Peninsula.
The goal of establishing Korea as a neutral country in the 21st century can be accomplished by our becoming the economic and diplomatic hub of Northeast Asia.
We have taken the first step by signing a free trade agreement with Washington. By expanding bilateral trade, we can become a hub.
Adam Smith said that, in the modern era, people should not beg for protection but should build relationships with others according to their self-interest. This can be applied to countries as well. When countries have economic interests in common, a strong security alliance can be formed.
Human beings create history. But as Karl Marx pointed out, humans can only create a beneficial history when certain conditions are given to them.
Korea has produced the secretary general of the United Nations. Korean athletes have become the world’s best. In this year’s presidential election, we need to elect a leader who can transform our geopolitical conditions. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as the hapless filling in someone else’s sandwich, and take steps to become the central country in the region.

*The writer is a professor of history at KyonggiUniversity. Translation by JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Gi-bong
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