[Viewpoint] It’s security, stupid!Factional feuds brought disgrace to the Joseon Dynasty and led to its eventual demise. Scholars argue that the power struggles among aristocrat families and different scholarly factions provided checks on an omnipotent monarchy. But court feuds wore down Joseon and eventually made it vulnerable to foreign invasion and colonization by the Japanese. When Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi demanded Joseon make way for his troops and navy in the late 1500s to invade Ming China, the Joseon court sent two envoys to Japan to study Japanese intentions. They delivered contrasting reports upon their return. Hwang Yoon-gil described Hideyoshi as a sharp-eyed, confident samurai. The other envoy, Kim Sung-il, put him as a mousy type who needn’t be feared. One sensed war, and the other brushed aside any threat.
Kim was from the ruling eastern faction while Hwang was from the opposition in the west. Admitting the possibility of war posed a risk to the easterners; they felt that they would lose their power to the westerners. Their hold on power mattered more to them than the danger looming over their country.
The malaise of the Joseon Dynasty’s power players has returned to haunt their modern political descendents in this election year. On the issue of national security, there should not be any ruling or opposition side, conservative or liberal camp. If ideological interests interfere with the nation’s national security, today’s politicians are no different from the Joseon court statesmen who were too busy wrangling over their interests to notice the Japanese headed toward their shores.
The Democratic United Party has formerly declared opposition to the construction of a naval base on Jeju Island. It argues that Jeju, dubbed the “Island of Peace,” could come under threat of military attack if it is home to a naval base. That argument is ridiculous. Peace does not exist in name alone; it should be accompanied by power and the means to ensure the country’s defense. That is why the construction of a base was initiated by President Roh Moo-hyun and, at one time, advocated by Han Myeong-sook, head of the DUP, who served as prime minister under Roh.
But with April elections drawing near, people lose their memory, and sometimes on purpose. Southeast Asian nations are building up their military power and arms as a deterrence to China’s rising naval power, and China has built its own aircraft carrier that could soon roam around the Yellow Sea. But the opposition in our country still wants to stop construction on the base. To them, China’s naval prowess does not matter. National security could be at stake, but that’s not as important as opposing any and every project supported by the incumbent government.
The situation is exactly the same with their opposition to the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. When Korea signed a free trade pact with the European Union on similar terms, the opposition ratified it without question. But they are vehemently against the one with the U.S. They are not merely opposing a few contentious clauses; they are just not comfortable with an agreement with the U.S. Could it be because the conservatives are pro-American? Does that justify them going in the opposite direction on such a vital issue?
China’s economic and military might is expanding rapidly. Whether we can genuinely trust China is an important question for our future security. The Chinese have ignored international treaties and our strong pleas not to repatriate North Korean defectors in their country. Their arrogance will only worsen as their power strengthens.
We must have some kind of leverage to contain China. In order to keep its power in check, we need America’s help and power. For security reasons, we cannot let go of the alliance with the U.S. Why does the liberal camp ignore this obvious geopolitical logic and want to undermine ties with the U.S.? As a small nation encircled and sandwiched between global powers, we must somehow maintain a domestic consensus on security issues. We cannot divide ourselves into pro-China, pro-U.S., pro-Russia and pro-Japan camps as the Joseon politicians did during the last stage of their dynasty. We must get our security perspective in focus. We must place national interests ahead of personal ones.
We can modify welfare policies as we go along, but there must not be disputes over security. There is still time to build a castle and time to fight. If we screw this up, we may find ourselves in an irreversible disaster. Finances are important in defense strategy, so we cannot be too extravagant in welfare spending or harsh on the large conglomerates that drive the economy. Political parties must discuss security issues thoroughly. The ruling party must speak its mind, and the opposition must be explicit in where it stands. Security should not be shunted aside or undermined for campaign purposes.
by Moon Chang-keuk
* The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.