[Outlook]Sandwich politicsThe Korean Peninsula has suffered frequent military attacks throughout its history and has had to fight off competing powers for hundreds of years.
Even after Korea shook off its colonial ruler when Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in 1945 at the end of World War II, the nation quickly became divided by barbed wire and fear.
We became sandwiched between two powers: the United States and the Soviet Union.
It is sad that Korea is still divided and it is natural that Koreans remain deeply affected by the tragic circumstances.
Therefore, it should be no surprise that emotions often affect the way Korea relates to other countries.
History remains at the forefront of Korea’s outlook on the rest of the world and influences its relations with other countries.
However, if Korea allows its heart to rule its head, it is easier for our country to make errors in judgment.
If we act rashly when dealing with an impending diplomatic matter and allow sentimentality to govern reason, we invite problems that cannot be tackled easily.
An individual might become a patriot by upholding social justice and laying down his life for his country. However, it is foolish for a nation to behave in such a way.
We must look dispassionately at reality and reach strategic decisions that are based on national interest rather than knee-jerk emotional responses.
A small country like Korea that is surrounded by great powers should make every effort to tackle diplomatic affairs wisely.
We should proceed as if we are skating on thin ice, especially when the fate of the nation hangs in the balance.
Gwanghaegun, or Prince Gwanghae, was an outstanding administrator and a great diplomat in mid-Joseon Korea.
He determined how Korea should respond when the Qing usurped the Ming Dynasty in 17th century China. He hoped to gain the most benefits for the Korean nation.
In 1623, King Injo staged a coup and dethroned Gwanghaegun, angry at his diplomacy.
King Injo held fast to the political strategy that Joseon should support the Ming Dynasty. This decision, though, led to huge problems for Korea.
The second Manchurian invasion of Korea was led by the Qing emperor in 1636 at the head of a large force.
The blameless Korean people had to endure a sharp pain.
Looking to Europe, France’s Prime Minister Cardinal Richelieu laid a firm foundation to take France to a higher level at the beginning of the 17th century.
He prioritized national interests, even though people were still deeply controlled by religious ideologies.
Richelieu was a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, but he plunged his country into war with the Habsburg empire.
The Habsburgs had tried to unify central Europe to support Germany, which consisted of 300 religious factions, many of which were Protestant.
As a result, France became a powerful controlling force in Europe because Germany remained divided and weak.
Germany didn’t gain strength again until 1871 and the birth of the German Empire.
Even now, power politics characterizes international affairs, even though the world has globalized rapidly and is driven by economic factors.
It is worth listening to the “soft power” story, which underlines the importance of the power of ideas.
However, we face a far more urgent task: How should we calmly deal with the physical “hard power” game surrounding the Korean Peninsula?
For example, the United States is trying to prevent East Asia from coming under the influence of any specific nation, especially China, which wants to maintain influence in East Asia.
So both the U.S. and China cooperate more because it’s in the interests of both nations.
Even though Japan is concerned about China’s growing presence in Asia, it is also taking steps to fortify alliances with the United States.
Meanwhile, Russia is striving to erode American supremacy by collaborating with China.
Nevertheless, the amount the U.S. spends on defense amounts to 40 percent of the world’s total war expenditure.
That’s nearly seven times as much as China and far more than the total military budgets of nations ranked second to 15th.
How can we achieve our shared goal of peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula in such critical circumstances?
We must face reality and conduct discussions on such impending issues in a calm and constructive manner.
Korea has developed into an industrial powerhouse and it’s the world’s 12th-largest economy.
But the nation still acts like the victim when dealing with diplomatic issues in the international arena.
I hope that Korea can refrain from allowing a sense of moral obligation and ideology to cloud its relations with other countries.
We have to recognize the complexity of the diplomatic game and identify causes and consequences.
I also heartily hope Korea remains cautious in its dealings with other nations.
It must consider logic versus empty moral disputes, self-reliance versus pro-Americanism and national independence versus international cooperation.
If Korea has one of the most powerful economies in the world, it is high time we stopped crying, as we did under Japanese colonial rule.
We need to stop bemoaning the outcome of international agreements, such as the Uruguay Round.
It is worth looking to what is happening in Vietnam. It is possible for Korea to draw historical and political parallels with this Southeast Asian nation.
The Vietnamese people are sparing no effort to put past grievances behind them.
They are trying to strengthen Vietnam’s relationship with the United States and Korea and they are seeking economic development and looking to manage diplomacy in a pragmatic fashion, all in the nation’s best interests.
Korea can learn a valuable lesson from Vietnam.
*The writer is a professor of international politics at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.]
by Yoon Young-kwan