[Viewpoint] What would Dasan do?

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[Viewpoint] What would Dasan do?

The answer to the question that came to mind a few years ago when I was looking around Kaesong, the capital of the Goryeo Dynasty, appeared in an unexpected place. I did not find it out in the open space, but rather in a fort deep inside a mountain.

Jeong Yak-yong, a philosopher during the Joseon Dynasty who was better known by his pen name Dasan, had said that the rugged mountainous terrain of Pyongyang and Kaesong would not help the region cultivate national power and thus were not appropriate places for a dynastic capital.

During the Three Kingdoms Period, the trio of powers that ruled the land at the time and struggled to dominate the Korean Peninsula all eyed the Han River basin as a strategically important place for production. The fertile plains of the Han River provided a natural environment that could shift the balance of power among the ancient kingdoms. Dasan’s historical geography book “Abanggangyeokgo,” which connected the fortune of past dynasties with their natural environments and productivity levels, is known for its presentation of a geopolitical “wealth of nations theory,” or better yet a “topography theory” in modern terms.

There is no government foolish enough to construct a new city on mountainous terrain in this age of developed wisdom and culture, but that does not mean the environmentalism theory established by Dasan has become invalid. Rather, it is just the opposite.

If Dasan had a say in the Sejong City problem, he would probably have said, “The topography of a 21st century city does not depend on the natural environment, but the international environment.” He likely would add, “If the intention is to build an ambitious planned city with the precious money of taxpayers, be prepared for the age of a great China, which will be created when that country stands up and roars with its population of 1.3 billion.”

The fact that the original purpose behind Sejong City has been buried under the justification of domestic governance - including the spreading out of the population and balanced development - while ignoring the power structure of 21st century East Asia is an error that requires self-reflection.

Although it is recognized that “spread and balance” are common values, the fundamental point of the dispute was that there was no certainty that the new administrative-focused city would benefit Chungcheong or the lives of people in general.

The original plan is caught in a trap and sealed off from the exit because of the theoretical insistence of the pro-Park Geun-hye camp on getting the agreement of political parties, often at the expense of facts. This is what is causing internal cracks in the government party on this issue.

The disputes and cracks are all tied up in desires of domestic governance, yet they totally eliminate an international relations mind-set that looks for a development strategy and city model to adapt to China’s emergence on the global stage.

If Dasan had heard about the revised Sejong City plan announced yesterday, he would probably have been satisfied that it no longer involves a division of the capital. But he would have found the counteraction to the age of a great China quite unsatisfactory.

And that is indeed the right way to look at this.

We should have been nervous about the start of a new 21st century empire when China called the main stadium of the 2008 Beijing Olympics the “bird’s nest” and announced it would cover all of civilization with things Chinese. This apprehension isn’t tied to the fact that China is set to divide world domination with the United States. Nor is it pegged solely to the reality that China is a factory of the world and has a strong grip on the Korean economy.

Rather, China has changed to such a superstate that neither economics, nor politics nor sociology can fully explain the Chinese phenomena. Has there ever been a capitalist country in history where a population of 1.3 billion works busily in unison? The problem is that smoke spewed out by a giant empire is covering the skies of the Korean Peninsula, but we are acting like racketeers, focusing only on internal profit-and-loss statements while making decisions on important national matters. Local municipal organizations asking about their status, local residents crying out for the administration to move, and factions taking on the role of guardian angel of political party politics are all being foolish.

If things continue this way, clearly Korea will end up flying to the Chinese nest like a small bird, just as Joseon easily fell off when the greedy Japanese empire flapped its wings over 100 years ago.

Where have discussions on the history of civilization gone? Why are we not discussing the future of the Korean Peninsula, one that will have to live in between the roaring new empire of China and the economic powerhouse of Japan? Perhaps it is because China was a “metaphor of despair” and a “sample of barbarism” to Korea since the late 19th century.

During the past 100 years, the closer Korea got to its goal of establishing an independent country economically and socially, the more distanced we became from China, an “eternal other.”

However, with the new China emerging as a world-dominating country and the lord of the Asian cultural sphere - including the Korean Peninsula - things need to change.

We have continued to promote a pro-U.S. and anti-Japan attitude. Now we need a new co-China strategy and a new cultural theory to capitalize on the potential of China and support its weaknesses. Songdo, Incheon and Sejong City can become the foundations and models of this strategy.

If Songdo is going to be made an international business area and Sejong City an education and science specialist area anyway, it would be best to add cultural duties to the Sejong City plan. This would involve having the city play a key part in Chinese supremacy and establishing a joint Korea?China cutting-edge science base that absorbs all the Chinese talent going to the United States.

This way, Sejong City will become the scientific “eye of the hurricane” in the region and the heart of East Asia. The Sejong City discussions should be lifted out of the swamp of domestic governance and placed in the sea of civilization.

The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Song Ho-keun
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