[Viewpoint]A common way forwardGeopolitical location is often an important element in a country’s foreign policy. Don Oberdorfer, noted Korean specialist and author of “The Two Koreas,” described Korea’s geopolitical situation as “a country of the wrong size in the wrong place: large and well located enough to be of substantial value to those around it and thus worth fighting and scheming over, yet too small to merit priority attention by more powerful nations on all but a few occasions.”
Looking back on our nation’s growth over the past six decades, the geopolitical situation in Korea has acted as an opportunity rather than a restriction. Korea was merely one of some 140 nations that gained independence 60 years ago, but now, it is the 13th largest economy in the world and has the eighth-largest military.
Korea ranks around 10th in sports and boasts cutting-edge information technology. In the course of the country’s development, foreign policy has played a big role.
Reflecting on Korean foreign policy over the last 60 years, the nation sought security from the threat of communism in the early days of the republic. Based on this foundation, the government backed industrialization by inviting foreign investment and technology and securing overseas markets. Internationally, Korea is highly regarded as a model of economic growth for a developing country.
As the Cold War era ended, Korea normalized relations with China and Russia through its northward diplomacy and expanded the Peninsula’s influence by joining the United Nations at the same time as North Korea. These accomplishments were made possible because the country had a solid security, economic and diplomatic foundation.
However, in the last decade, we have been hearing voices saying that Korea’s foreign policy has become subordinate to the United States. Critics say this has reinforced the country’s division and leans towards anti-communist ideology.
In my opinion, such views are either based in ignorance or a serious distortion of truth. Anyone would agree that the relationship with the United States was important as Korea pursued trade, invited foreign capital and technology, protected itself from the threat of communism and saved its starving citizens.
I can say with confidence that Korea’s relationship with the United States has always been in the country’s best interest and far from subordinate diplomacy.
President Syngman Rhee made a decision to release anti-communist prisoners of war against Washington’s intention, and President Park Chung Hee had a meeting with U.S. President Jimmy Carter at the Blue House and persuaded him to revoke a plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Korea.
The most negative influence of the last decade is the destruction of consensus concerning foreign policy. It is history’s place to evaluate the June 15, 2000 Declaration and the Oct. 4, 2007 Declaration, which were agreed upon between the heads of state of both South and North.
Changing Korean values, the grand arguments of alliance and self-reliance, changing perspectives on North Korea and sentiment valuing a unified Korea have created a new diplomatic environment.
As a result, consensus on the basic direction of foreign policy among politicians has collapsed, and foreign policy has become an object of political and social discord.
In addition, North Korean policy is approached from the narrow priority of the Korean nation instead of from a broad perspective of international cooperation based on national interests.
For instance, the Korean government has used a double standard on human rights issues, taking progressive positions on overseas issues such as the human rights conditions in Myanmar. Meanwhile, it has been absent, abstained from voting or has voted against resolutions addressing human rights in North Korea. Half-formed ideology, rather than a national consensus based on national interests, had influenced foreign policy decisions.
When ruling and opposition politicians cannot even sit together at the Liberation Day celebration and the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Korea, it is not easy to establish a consensus over foreign policy.
In order to avoid the high cost of discord over North Korea and security policies, the Lee Myung-bak administration should spare no effort to create a new national consensus on foreign policy.
Excessive ideology hinders the formation of consistent policy, so the most urgent task in Korean diplomacy should be reaching a consensus on the direction foreign policy should take.
The nation should return to the basics in pursuit of this consensus. It should include pragmatic values that anyone can agree upon such as security, improving the economy and improving the nation’s status, and not some futile ideology.
*The writer is a distinguished professor at Korea University and the honorary chairman of the UN Association of the Republic of Korea. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Park Soo-gil