[Viewpoint] Asia returns to its rightful placeAsia has gone through the most dynamic changes in the first decade of the 21st century. China has emerged as one of the G-2, and India has assumed a major role on the international stage. Vietnam is enjoying the fruits of reform and opening. It should only be a matter of time before Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, becomes a superpower in international diplomacy. It’s no coincidence that Japan’s Democratic cabinet, which came into power in the first post-war regime change, is placing its foreign policy emphasis on Asia. Barack Obama, who prides himself as “America’s first Pacific President,” has declared broader engagement with the region.
Asian heads of state meet several times a year at the APEC meetings, the East Asian summit and Asean+3 summit to enhance the chemistry among Asian countries. The Korea-China-Japan summit has become a regular meeting. At the end of 2009, the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization, which is to become an Asian version of the International Monetary Fund, was established with a total of $120 billion.
From the Indian Ocean to the North Pacific, Asia has been swept up by a tsunami of change. The external conditions for what President Lee Myung-bak referred as “the bigger Republic of Korea” in the Liberation Day address has been sufficiently prepared. In the morning of the New Year amid revolutionary changes, let’s contemplate the zeitgeist of Asia. We already know the answer. With the changes of the last two decades after the end of the Cold War, Asia is no longer the object of history, but has made a comeback as the subject of history it was before the 16th century.
Asians now have the cultural and moral confidence that the period where the West, which makes up 12 percent of the world’s population, swayed the fate of Asia, which has 55 percent of the world’s population, is now over. The region with the advanced culture that invented paper, gunpowder, movable type and Arabic numerals has awoken from 500 years of hibernation and had rediscovered its lost “self.”
In 1405, Chinese explorer Zheng He led a fleet of 317 ships with 28,000 crewmen and made an expedition across the Pacific and Indian oceans. The voyage took place 87 years before Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria “discovered” America. In the late 1400s, China prohibited marine activities and expeditions, and the “Sea Ban” became the turning point that separated Asia’s fate from that of the West. When China deserted the sea, the West sailed across the ocean. China’s long continental retreat became a condition for Asian countries for five centuries. Looking back, Zheng He’s great expedition and Genghis Khan’s unification of the Eurasian continent might have been the best antidote for the Western imperialism that Asians unwittingly tolerated.
Korea has unlimited opportunities before it. With the good news that we are hosting the G-20 summit meeting and have won a $20 billion nuclear reactor construction project in the Middle East, Korea is making an auspicious start to the second decade of the 21st century.
The problem is internal conditions. Former Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee criticized Yeouido as “the scene of third-class politics,” and Liberal Forward Party Chairman Lee Hoi-chang called this “the age of savagery.” Backward politics might ruin corporate and government accomplishments. It might be a miracle that young Koreans are so successful in pop music, television, sports and international organizations when their politicians have no vision, leadership, negotiation skills or shame. Regrettably, the lawmakers do not even deserve to be labeled “third-class.”
Opportunities do not come often. President Lee Myung-bak said we need to hold the hands of those next to us and create a bigger Republic of Korea. Who are the ones next to us? Not just friends and allies, but also those who are on “the other side” in terms of political parties, ideology, class and age. Foreign workers and wives and North Korean defectors are all around us. North Korea is also next door. Koreans are trapped in the myth of a “single-race” nation and reject “the others.” President Lee said Korea’s national prestige will be enhanced by hosting the G-20 summit, but if we cannot embrace others, the Olympics, World Cup and even the G-20 summit won’t be enough to elevate Korea’s status.
If we add up the denominators of national strength, including the North Korean factor, by promoting active communication with others, they will become small enough to resolve domestically and internationally. Overemphasizing the homogeneity of a society goes against the demands of diversity, a survival condition for modern nations.
A tree might stand in the same place and refuse to share root space with other trees around it. But a nomadic tree would spread its roots underground and interweave, communicate and traverse with those of others. Korea’s politicians, diplomats and inter-Korean policy makers need to become spiritual nomads and pay attention to the wisdom of the forest.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie