[Viewpoint] Korea is not another FinlandDreamers of hopeless dreams sometimes need a good kick in the pants to regain their senses. When North Korea detonated a nuclear device, we looked to China to play some kind of positive role. We waited for years, yet we kept on hoping.
We had our hopes raised when President Lee Myung-bak sat across from his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao in Shanghai, expecting China’s encouragement and help in addressing the attack on our naval ship in the waters near the sea border with North Korea.
But instead China embraced its ideological brother, North Korea, accepting its call for greater ties. It may be possible that the truth behind the Cheonan mystery may now never be known.
When China became our largest trading partner, we harbored a romantic dream. We started dreaming that China may help convert a recalcitrant North Korea and create a mood for eventual unification. But the reality was a different universe.
After the financial meltdown in the United States and other parts of the world, China emerged as a formidable pillar of international order, standing equal to the United States. The U.S. was tumbling down from its pinnacle while China scrambled up its own.
With the recent North Korea-China summit, China has manifested its ambition to anchor its leadership status and clout in East Asia. Some are skeptical that China’s ascent will be unstoppable as minority racial disorder, the wealth gap and pressures for political reform and democratization will constrain its continued growth.
But more prevalent is the view that China’s unique mix of a market economy and single-party system will emerge as the new state model for other Socialist countries. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov recently rated highly the accomplishments of the Chinese Communist Party. Russia should study the Chinese experience, he said.
If Russia, staggering through an identity crisis since the collapse of Communism, decides to emulate China, world hegemony may split between market economies with democracy and market economies with single-party rule.
North Korea is mostly likely to line up behind China and potentially wage another ideological conflict with us. Then the unification of the Korean Peninsula may be pushed back by another century.
For the first time in our 5,000 years of history, we were ahead of China during the last several decades. We forged ahead while China descended into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. China cannot ignore us as long as it needs our technology, management know-how and keen edge in global markets.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Korea Christopher Hill advised that South Korea must strive to be one step ahead of China, but noted that China, despite its great size, moves quickly while Korea, despite its petite size, moves much too slowly. He may have been addressing our lack of strong leadership.
Under the circumstances, Korean enterprises well adapted to the global jungle are our strongest assets. But they must prepare themselves for change by diversifying their exports and investment - currently centered on China - to India and other potential markets, as well as the G-20 platform.
To compete with a mammoth country of 1.3 billion people, we must build the strength of our manpower - with each worker capable of matching up to 30 Chinese. If we continue to force uniformity in education in fear of envy and competition among ourselves, we will face a bigger defeat. Therefore, we should enhance elite education.
At the same time, we need stronger political leadership. China picks leaders through internal competition in the Communist Party, whereas we choose them by votes. Our leadership is voted in on popularity while China’s is installed based on its capabilities. The Chinese leadership may be corrupt, but our democracy is depraved.
In order for a small country to beat a giant, it needs consolidation. A needle, though small, can burst a balloon.
A society with opportunities open to all and systems operated fairly can muster consolidating force. Whenever a crisis comes upon us, critical and dissident groups rush for aid from outside. We then make ourselves vulnerable to foreign rule, as in the late Joseon Dynasty.
That’s why we must mute internal conflict and complaints, and the leaders must set an example in terms of sacrifice. We should, most of all, strengthen our military power.
But in the current situation, it’s tough to attain equilibrium in military strength through our own force alone. So some say we should maintain neutrality, sandwiched as we are between powerful countries. But for a small country to be neutral only suggests abdication.
Some compare South Korea’s geopolitical relations with China to that of Finland’s with the former Soviet Union. But declaring neutrality, or a “gray zone” between the Soviet Union and Western societies, Finland in the end allowed the Soviets to interfere in its internal affairs. We, too, may be tempted to turn our land into a gray zone in order not to upset China.
Of course, the U.S. forces in South Korea still help maintain our leverage, but the balance of power may break once they leave. A century ago, the Korean Peninsula was annexed to Japan. Dark clouds again loom over the peninsula.
We won’t know what the storm could do to us if we remain unprepared. It is important to reaffirm our determination to defend at least our half of the peninsula.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Moon Chang-keuk