[Viewpoint] Korean diplomacy at a crossroads

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[Viewpoint] Korean diplomacy at a crossroads

Imagine two bridges hanging between high cliffs. One is a ten-lane steel bridge, while the other is a single-lane log bridge. The steel bridge can endure storms and harsh weather, but the log bridge trembles even in mild wind. If you get into a fight on the wide, solid steel bridge, you would not have to worry about falling off. But when you cross the log bridge, you have to focus on keeping your balance.

Now consider this analogy: “If the United States is a country on a steel bridge, Korea is a country on a log bridge.” Though rather unpleasant and exaggerated, it seems to fit today’s political situation, at least in the eyes of the Machiavelli of the 21st century.

Last week, John Mearsheimer, a professor of international politics at the University of Chicago, visited Seoul. He discussed the effect of geography on the political security of Korea and the U.S.

He said that the United States has a secure vantage point with two oceans protecting it. There is also no local power in the region that could pose a security threat to America. Therefore, even if the U.S. makes mistakes in its foreign policy, as President George W. Bush did, the United States does not need to worry about its physical safety. It has a sufficient buffer to absorb shocks and make up for mistakes.

By comparison, according to realist political theory, Korea and Poland have the most disadvantageous geopolitical locations in the world. If Korea takes one step off its bridge, it will fall. Korea does not have much room for mistakes, according to the professor. Therefore, he advises that we should refrain from wishful thinking and employ a strictly strategic and realistic perspective on international relations, especially when it comes to China.

Realist theorists agree that the peaceful emergence of China is none other than wishful thinking. Yan Xuetong, a professor at Tsinghua University and one of the most prominent realist theorists in China, said that China cannot silently build power forever. Its rising strength will eventually manifest itself, and the peaceful emergence of China is not possible. Mearsheimer shares this view.

Economic growth in China is bound to lead to reinforcement of military power, which will consequently lead to pursuit of regional hegemony. Not willing to compromise its superior status in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States will not tolerate China’s attempt to seize hegemony in East Asia. Therefore, experts consider discord between China and the United States inevitable.

With this in mind, Mearsheimer said that Korea has become America’s most important ally. As the United States looks for ways to check China, Korea now has the strategic value that Germany once had in the midst of the cold war. Therefore, it was only natural that President Barack Obama offered President Lee Myung-bak a most cordial reception during the Korean president’s recent six-day state visit to the U.S.

Just in time for Lee’s visit, the U.S. Congress passed the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. The Blue House described it as a platform to elevate the Korea-U.S. alliance to a multilayered strategic alliance, and the relationship is, indeed, evolving into a multilevel alliance in the military, security and economic sectors. According to the Blue House, the latest visit to Washington marks the climax of Lee’s foreign policy emphasis on relations with the United States.

Beijing did not hide its discontent with the Lee Administration’s apparent inclination to the United States in foreign policy. In May 2008, when Lee visited China, the spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry called the Korea-U.S. alliance “remains of the old era” just before a summit meeting between Lee and Chinese President Hu Jintao. Beijing practically invited a guest and slapped him the face. It is not happy with Korea’s double play, making money in China while strengthening its alliance with the United States.

If China becomes even more powerful, how will it respond to the Korea-U.S. alliance? Will the Chinese government just express its discontent? What if Beijing demands that Korea choose a side? In order to resolve the nuclear issue and attain reunification, Seoul desperately needs the cooperation of China. There is no guarantee that China will not shake the log bridge, using regional influence as leverage.

The conclusion is obvious. As we strengthen our alliance with the United States, Seoul must also make sure that it does not provoke China.

At a press conference with American media, Lee made some imprudent remarks that could potentially be interpreted negatively by China. He should not have said those things if he cares about Korea’s risky political situation. Even on the tails of a state visit to the U.S., we need to watch out for Beijing. A splendid party always leaves a bad hangover.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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