Taking in the view from ShanghaiThe Huangpu River flows across the vast plain of China and reaches Shanghai before it empties into the East China Sea. Hundreds of skyscrapers line the bank of the river. Seoul and the Han River seemed simple and unpretentious. As I was reminded of the fear of being a small country, I heard that Japanese fighters flew over the disputed Diaoyu Islands, and that Chinese President Xi Jinping watched the training aboard the Liaoning, the aircraft carrier of the North Sea Fleet. Recently, North Korea launched surface-to-air missiles, and Korea joined the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces air assault drill.
We must realize that East Asia is the most dangerous region in the world. Among the five spheres of Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, North America and South America, the Asia-Pacific region has the highest likelihood of hosting a war between nations, especially between world powers. What does Asia mean? If there is a substantial meaning to Asia, we may be able to seek peace with one another. Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew emphasized “Asian values” for an obvious reason. He intended to prepare the groundwork for Asian nations to feel homogeneous.
But when it comes to East Asia, there is no Asia. It’s a region where elements of hatred and division, rather than unity and coexistence, are buried like time bombs. Large militaries are in confrontation, and the wounds of imperialism relapse easily. It is a minefield of people who are armed with hostile nationalism and are not reluctant to use harsh verbal attacks. Japan and China may clash in the end, unless the escalating tension is eased.
It may really happen. If a world war breaks out in the 21st century, East Asia is a likely site. While an East-Asian community has been carefully discussed since the 1980s, a union like the EU was not created for clear reasons. The cold war-era division lines and the clear separation of cultures keep the region divided. The cold war line separates China, Russia and North Korea from Korea, the United States and Japan. The cultural divide keeps China, Korea and Japan apart.
In the structure of the division, Japan is isolated. Having departed from Confucian culture through Westernization, it is unclear if Japan acknowledges that it belongs to Asia. Unless it intends to strengthen the image of the “isolated nation” and seeks to revive as a regional hegemon, it shouldn’t take aggressive moves in territorial disputes or exercise the right to collective self-defense. Japan has crossed the line even if it can count on the United States.
I have an ominous feeling that the double division is already tainted with blood. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers were killed at the cold war confrontation line, and North Korea, with clear anti-U.S. and anti-imperialism tendencies, is sitting in between. The cultural divide across the South China Sea and the Straits of Korea is also filled with colonial pains and historical grudges. Even Asahi Shimbun, which used to be relatively critical of Japan, reported the Nanking Massacre as “an unintended incident.” The conservative swing of Japan has turned the cultural divide into a dangerous active volcano. Windows of Japanese-made cars without red flags are destroyed in China, and Koreans are steadfastly defending the Dokdo islets. In Japan, anti-Korean rallies are at their highest. Protesters cry out “Go Japan!” and “Massacre Koreans!” in the streets of Shinjuku, Tokyo.
Japan seems to have departed from its sense of guilt as a war criminal. As the war generation made their exit, memories of the war become faint, and they seem to have gained a victim mentality for suffering through the atomic bombings. As it changed its national identity to the victim from a brutal weapon, the right to collective self-defense and the revision of a Peaceful Constitution became pending objectives.
If “peacefully rising” China does not use its overflowing production capacity on internal developments but diverts it to an arms race, the situation becomes serious. It is a matter of time for the cultural divide to turn into a clash of empires. Japan and China are immature giants, still clinging to the wounds of history. Korea is not much different, as we have yet to include North Korea in the future plan of the Korean Peninsula 68 years after the division.
With the two lines of the China-Japan confrontation running across Korea, our role is very important. Korea needs to step up as a mediator and negotiator, offering a diplomatic detour of freezing the Senkaku Islands and Dokdo disputes at their current stages. How about we broker a peace treaty between China and Japan, hosting a trilateral summit meeting on Jeju Island and operating a permanent diplomatic apparatus for peace in East Asia? The stalled six-party talks can only make progress based on such efforts.
Darkness fell on the Huangpu River. The skyscrapers are twinkling with signs of globalization, and I could see some names of Korean conglomerates.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
by Song Ho-keun