[Viewpoint] Omniscience isn’t enough

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[Viewpoint] Omniscience isn’t enough

According to the old adage, knowledge is power. But sometimes knowing is not enough for individuals or the state. Even when an end is self-evident, we can be pulled down a path by irresistible circumstantial forces. And then we are forced to sigh in regret when we fall into a pit with eyes wide open.

It wasn’t because they were ignorant that leaders a century ago lost their sovereignty to another nation. The senior state officials and intelligentsia of the final Joseon Dynasty were fully aware that their country was at risk. Even the poor masses knew the dangers looming over the country and seized the moment to stage a public uprising. But the leaders lacked the wisdom and energy to control the situation and allowed the Japanese occupation with their eyes wide open.

The year 2010 has been full of headline news from Northeast Asia. China overcame Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy in terms of gross domestic product. A bowl brimming with water inevitably spills over, and the Chinese bowl has become full. Japan suffered a public blow from China in a recent spat over islets in the East China Sea claimed by both countries.

Pay-back time came for China 115 years after its humiliating defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War, which ended in the Shimonoseki Treaty that severed China’s influence over Korea and nearby regions. Just as the region feared Imperial Japan in those days, it now fears Chinese expansion.

Some pundits say neighboring countries may become “Finlandized” - in reference to Finland’s policies toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when it allowed the superpower to meddle in its domestic and foreign affairs to avoid challenging a powerful neighbor. But there’s little to be done about China’s rapid strengthening.

Today’s North Korea is a sad reminder of the late Joseon Dynasty. In 1890, a high government official, Yoon Chi-ho, realized the sun was setting over the dynasty and predicted it to fall under the power of China’s Qing Dynasty, especially since internal reform and revolution appeared to be out of the question.

He wrote in his diary that Queen Min did not care what happened to the country as long as “the three” (the king, the prince and herself) were safe. In North Korea, Kim Jong-il’s family has now carried out a second father-to-son power succession, caring little about the country and its people as long as its dynasty continues to rule. Syngman Rhee, while imprisoned for nationalism at the age of 29, wrote on the “Spirit of Independence,” foretelling the dark future of the ailing Joseon Dynasty.

The pro-Chinese elite turned to Russia after the Qing was defeated in Sino-Japanese War. They offered rights in mining, railroads, forestry development and fishing to Russians in return for their promise of protection. History repeats itself: North Korea has awarded China exclusive rights in mining and port development. As in the late Joseon days, the North Korean regime is relying on China for survival.

As China becomes stronger, so will its influence over North Korea. The question is: What will we do? We will become helpless if we let ourselves be swept up in that historical current. If North Korea emulates China’s opening and reform, its regime may sustain power as a satellite state of China. Unification will move further away from our reach.

Will unification then become possible if the young heir fails to retain power? China won’t tolerate sharing a border with a single Korea in close alliance with America. The U.S. also wouldn’t risk irking China by defying its wishes once nuclear weapons in North Korea are completely dismantled. We may have to watch North Korea’s sovereignty virtually turned over to the Chinese with our hands tied.

We must face reality and act wisely. China may be a security threat, but at the same time it’s a necessary partner in trade. Our economy may depend on robust Chinese demand for many years. We inevitably must keep neutrality on any China-Japan dispute. As the two fight over the East China Sea islets, we have the same kind of territorial issue with Japan over Dokdo.

We cannot take sides in any territorial issues in the region. But in the broader global context, we must firmly take side with the U.S. If we lose the U.S., we, too, can fall under Chinese influence. It will be the late Joseon days all over again with an internal divide between pro-American and pro-Chinese forces.

But what about North Koreans? They, too, would have to decide where they stand. We cannot know if their day of choice will come soon - when the dynastic succession fails - or later. But when the day arrives, we must make them choose us instead of the Chinese. While raging against the Pyongyang regime, we should show compassion for the North Korean people and awaken their solidarity with their Southern brethren.

We must encourage unification from the bottom-up instead of top-down. Koreans on both sides of the border must share the same belief that we cannot allow foreign forces to intrude on our land. Knowing the future isn’t enough. Reality demands us to act. Reaching out to North Koreans and moving their hearts are a start.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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