[Viewpoint] Korea must reassert itself

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[Viewpoint] Korea must reassert itself

The late autumn has been packed with major summits in Asia: the Asean Plus Three in Hanoi late last month and the Group of 20 on Thursday and Friday in Seoul, followed by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Yokohama over the weekend. They provide excellent opportunities for Korea to exert regional leadership and redefine its role in the world.

Koreans cannot help themselves from basking in pride as world leaders strive to thrash out guidelines to rebalance the global economy in their capital, especially when they recall their past as a poor, conflict-plagued nation. More than a few of us have received congratulations, including an e-mail I received from a veteran Japanese journalist who has covered global summit conferences. He described Japan’s longer involvement in global decision-making conferences so that Korea may avoid some pitfalls.

Japan was a member of the first global summit of world powers in 1975. Japan was exhilarated to see its national flag next to four European standards and the American stars and stripes in front of the Chateau de Rambouillet, France. The event dominated news in Japan, as the G-20 is doing in Korea now.

But the Japanese journalist wanted to say something else. He pointed out that Japan may be stagnating today partly due to its involvement with the rich club of the G-8. It believed nothing could go wrong if it stayed shoulder-to-shoulder with its rich and powerful pals, mainly the United States.

The press cared more for the ceremony and formalities than the conference details. What mattered most was the picture of the prime minister standing next to the American president. The same pattern played out year after year for more than two decades. But the conventions of the old school no longer work in the new global order of the G-20 and shared hegemony between the U.S. and China.

The Democratic Party of Japan, now in power, has accentuated the country’s need for a new national strategy. Tokyo tried to pull away from an over-reliance on Washington and seek independent footing for Japan on the world stage. But the country so far has been proven inept in its solo act in the new global environment. Japan now stands awkwardly aloof from the U.S., bullied by China and provoked by Russia.

Korea has been there too, especially five years ago when we tried to be more vocal against global powers. We bear a sad resemblance to Japan in that we, too, lack any realistic plan for greater independence. A veteran politician shakes his head in private as he watches policy makers weighing which partnership can benefit the country more: with the U.S. or with China? We are stuck on the fence, incapable of deciding which side to choose as the U.S. is our crucial partner in security and China in economic matters.

But few seem to be deeply concerned about debating which way to head. In security as well as economy, to quote The Wall Street Journal, “The stunning strategy is nearing the end of its useful life. And replacing it won’t be easy.” The politician mentioned above all the fear we may repeat the disastrous mistake of the late Joseon Dynasty when it surrendered sovereignty to Japan. He may be stretching the point. But we cannot afford to sit around naively expecting the best.

We have a handful of imperative challenges ahead. We must work with China and solve the North Korean nuclear conundrum. We must make China understand that North Korea cannot last without our help. The time calls for an entirely new direction in diplomacy and security. And we must build the edifice on the foundation of strong, but not stagnant, Korea-U.S. ties.

The redefining of our relationship with the U.S. may demand sacrifices. But in the new multinational order and G-2 hegemony, the convictions of the old days may prove delusional. Our future depends on how we well we redefine and reassert ourselves. The government must take the initiative to start grand discussions. The G-20 has provided the momentum.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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