[Outlook]Look both waysFor the past several years, self-reliance has been a central concern of Korea’s relations with the United States, while the U.S. and China have been at the center of our diplomacy. Particularly during North Korea’s nuclear threats, the South has found itself sandwiched between the whims of the United States and China. The decision to take a self-reliant approach when dealing with the United States created some blank space which the Koreas could not control on their own, and China naturally moved in to occupy that space.
Which country is more important to Korea ― the U.S. or China ― has been a source of exhaustive debate. This dichotomy stems from the assumption that the alliance between Korea and Japan will not be shaken, and from the exaggerated and even mistaken perspective that the United States and China occasionally clash even though they cooperate, while Japan and China only compete. However, recent developments tell another story.
First, the United States, which pursues strategic flexibility, has abandoned its hard-line stance toward North Korea, going so far as to present the reclusive country with incentives to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons.
In fact, the United States is actively engaging the entire Korean Peninsula, also signing a free trade agreement with Seoul.
Since the launch of the Yasuo Fukuda administration, Japan has become increasingly diplomatically active in the Asian region. For example Japan is trying to establish a new, closer relationship with China.
Meanwhile, China has made achievements on the global stage with its pragmatic brand of diplomacy, emphasizing noninterference with a nation’s internal politics, while the United States has been preoccupied with the war on terrorism.
President-elect Lee Myung-bak is searching for ways to enhance the Korea-U.S. alliance and to improve bilateral, mutually beneficial relations with the four strong neighboring countries.
It is natural for the new administration to try to patch up and enhance relations with the United States. It will be impossible to go back to the old type of alliance in which one side was always giving and the other always taking. But the emphasis on the alliance between Korea and the United States is very meaningful for two reasons.
First, although the U.S. has revealed many flaws and made mistakes when implementing its foreign policies, it is capable of serving as a mediator between China and Japan, as well as on the Korean Peninsula.
Second, even while Seoul is confronting North Korea, its economy is heavily internationally engaged. In this sense, Korea has far fewer conflicting interests with the United States than some other countries.
The question is China. As Korea-U.S. relations have become less firm than they once were, China, as the host country of the six-party talks aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, has increased its influence over issues on the Korean Peninsula.
But the United States and North Korea are trying to have direct talks and the Lee Myung-bak administration is talking about enhancing Korea-U.S. relations. These moves will certainly damage the diplomatic status that China has so far enjoyed.
If Seoul’s new administration has a North Korea policy at odds with the stability of the North Korean regime that China has promoted as a means of maintaining regional security, China will inevitably lose its power to influence North Korea to some extent.
China is thus closely watching how much effort Korea will put into enhancing the alliance between Korea, the United States and Japan, and how South Korea will respond to the Proliferation Security Initiative and the establishment of a missile defense system.
Judging by the current situation, Korea should maintain the best possible relationship with the United States in order to receive acknowledgment of its strategic value from China.
At the same time, Korea also should keep things close with China to be recognized by the United States for the same reason. Korea must not build alliances based on emotional reasons or by reflex.
Diplomacy is action aimed at maximizing the interests of one’s country on the global stage. Korea’s ultimate goal is diplomacy. In bilateral relations, two countries might have the same primary goal, but they don’t necessarily have the same final aim.
While making our foreign relations policies, we need to use comprehensive, strategic judgment in all our bilateral and multilateral relations.
The new Korean administration must define its logic and prepare plans to secure dialogue channels with both the United States and China.
*The writer is a professor at the Graduate School of International and Area Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kang Jun-young