[Viewpoint]Know thy neighbor

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[Viewpoint]Know thy neighbor

The Beijing Olympic Games have come to an end. I am truly proud of the outstanding performances of Korean athletes. During the Games, I cried several times. When the national flag, the Taegeukgi, is hoisted and the national anthem, “Aegukga,” is played, I cannot hold back my tears. You are supposed to rejoice in moments of victory, but I suspect that my DNA is encoded to respond to Aegukga with tears.

I did not experience the oppressive occupation of Japan. Nevertheless, I inherited the devastation of poet Lee Sang-hwa, who sang “Does spring come to a lost land?” and the longing of Sim Hun, who said, “When the day of [liberation] comes, I will be happy to knock my head against the brass bell in Jongno and break my skull.”

I am imprinted with the shame of King Injo of Joseon, who kneeled in front of Huang Taiji of Qing China, bowed three times and dropped his head nine times. I have also inherited the frustration of King Gojong as he was overpowered by Yuan Shikai, who insisted that Joseon belonged to Qing. The king had to get permission from China to dispatch delegates abroad.

Maybe, I still haven’t gotten over the starving days from my childhood when it was hard to get through the winter. I do not want to pass this tearful DNA down to the next generation. They should be able to experience happiness without tears. The athletes and the children of the young generation are already changing. The older generation has a duty to protect the liberty and confidence of the youngsters. In order to do that, we need to preserve the country’s integrity.

It is crucial for Korea to maintain good relationships with its neighbors. The problem is that Korea is a small country and the relationships are beyond its control. The desires of neighboring nations often overpower Korea because its neighbors are more powerful.

Therefore, if we are going to preserve our integrity, we must build up power. Our fate cannot be left at the mercy of our neighbors any longer.

Let’s look at the case of the Dokdo dispute with Japan. We cannot play it down as a provocation of Japanese right-wing extremists. Japan already has a wide sea and countless islands but it still insists that it owns Dokdo. If the right-wing extremists come into power in Japan, there is no guarantee that there won’t be a war over Dokdo, just as Japan started the Pacific War.

Think about the attitude of the Chinese toward Koreans during the Olympics. It is eerie how the Chinese rooted for the Japanese baseball team instead of the Korean one.

Given the forces at play, a diplomacy of balance sounds plausible. Korea can survive by maintaining balance between China, Japan and Russia.

President Roh Moo-hyun advocated playing the role of mediator in the region. However, a mediator has to have power as well. Britain was able to play a decisive role in the contest of power between Germany and France because it had influence in Europe.

There was an attempt at mediation during the Great Han Empire. Korea deliberated siding with Russia and rejecting China or using the influence of Japan and China to block Russia. In the end, Joseon was powerless and China, Japan and Russia discussed dividing the country along the 39th parallel. Being stuck among powerful nations, Korea needs something more than mere power.

China, Japan and Russia might all be neighbors, but Korea has to prioritize its national interests. When determining diplomatic policies, we need to keep in mind several principles. The first is whether the country in question shares Korean values. The spirit of Korea’s constitution is to respect individual liberty and human rights, to practice parliamentary democracy and defend the market economy. Second, we need to refer to historical experience. We should consider which of these nations has obstructed Korea’s self reliance and independence in the past. History is bound to repeat itself.

Third, we need to solemnly look at the reality of power plays in international politics. Why does Ukraine want to join the EU and NATO when Russia is located right next to it, and why does Georgia want to hold hands with the United States? No matter how friendly and nice a giant might be, you will live in fear if it lives right next to you. You need another powerful friend close in order to curb your neighbor.

Chinese president Hu Jintao and Korean president Lee Myung-bak declared a strategic partnership between the two countries. I wonder whether the Korea-China strategic partnership does not collide with the Korea-U.S. alliance. The country should not be divided into pro-China, pro-U.S., pro-Russia and pro-Japan factions like it was 100 years ago. The pro-China and pro-U.S. crowds have already started to fall out.

We are helpless if the country collapses from within because internal division will strengthen the hands of external forces. The government should not confuse its citizens in the name of pragmatic diplomacy.

*The writer is the vice publisher and chief editor of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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