Lessons from Cairo DeclarationThe Korean Peninsula is a delicate place largely because of geopolitics. With the dynamics behind Northeast Asia being complicated and subtle, Korean diplomacy requires insightfulness. But wisdom can be found in history. History can teach foresight and sensitivity in diplomacy.
On Nov. 22, 1943, 70 years ago, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China held a four-day conference in Cairo to outline the Allied position against Japan during World War II and the postwar order in Asia. In the Cairo Declaration issued on Nov. 27, the Allied leaders agreed that “in due course, Korea shall become free and independent.” Some say it was thanks to Chiang that Korea’s independence from Japan was guaranteed. But, in fact, he merely played a supporting role to Roosevelt.
I visited the venue of the meeting — the residence of the American ambassador to Egypt — to investigate the truth of the matter from the records. I discovered China’s real intentions. The Cairo meeting was primarily focused on the restoration and return of territories Japan has stolen from China since the beginning of World War I. According to the diplomatic papers at the Foreign Relations of the United States — a book series published by the Office of the Historian in the United States Department of State — Roosevelt suspected that China had broad ambitions to reoccupy Korea.
The Korean government in exile had been under the protection and support of the Chinese Nationalist Government led by Chiang. We must acknowledge his government’s role in helping the Korean government and liberation army. But his help left much to be desired. He turned down the plea by Korean independence leader Kim Gu for legitimate recognition of the Provisional Government of Korea in Chongqing.
Again, according to the records, Cho So-ang, foreign minister of the provisional government of Korea, suspected China wanted to keep Korea under its control after kicking out Japan. China wished to return to the status quo of pre-Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) when the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) had been at the mercy of China. China’s superiority and dominance over Korea had been deeply rooted throughout history. The records showed the two faces China had toward the Korean government-in-exile after Japanese colonization.
China’s defeat to Japan in the Sino-Japanese War had been China’s biggest shame and humiliation. It was stripped of its influence over the Korean Peninsula for the first time in history. In the book “Red Star Over China” by Edgar Snow, Snow cited a memoir by teenage Mao Zedong, when Mao lamented and worried about his nation after reading a prophesy about the fall of Greater China and the waning of Chinese influence over Joseon, Taiwan and Indochina due to the rise of Japan in the region.
Chiang lost the civil war with Mao, but the two shared the same imperialistic perspective and aspirations over the Korean Peninsula. His descendants still faithfully uphold that legacy.
North Korea remains under the economic patronage of China. The North Korean economy would crumble without aid from China. The Pyongyang regime under its young leader Kim Jong-un is reckless and ferocious in its nuclear weapons ambition. Fifth-generation Chinese leader Xi Jinping has promised to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and he indicated Beijing’s changed attitude toward Pyongyang in summit talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye. The rock-solid alliance between North Korea and China has begun to show fissures and Beijing’s rhetoric and attitude toward Pyongyang has cooled. But China safeguards the strategic value of North Korea. Bejing uses it as leverage in China’s rivalry with the United States. The nuts and bolts that make up the North Korea-China relationship remain intact.
Nothing is free in international politics. China wants rewards for its part in controlling North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. It seeks a loosening of the traditional Seoul-Washington alliance. China wishes South Korea to move away from the United States. The Korea-U.S. alliance has stood in the way of Chinese ambitions in Northeast Asia. The equation for Korean diplomacy gets trickier. With China being our largest trading partner, South Korea needs to expand economic exchanges with China.
In the meantime, America and Japan have become closer. They have joined forces to deter China’s ever-growing military expansion. America chose to side with Japan by endorsing Tokyo’s call for “collective self-defense.” U.S.-Japan ties are turning tighter than the U.S.-South Korea alliance. As exercising the right to collective self-defense translates into beefed-up military power, Korea must be on alert.
The trilateral security framework among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo is in jeopardy. The Korean diplomatic team must take a stand. If it dithers, it could lose its position between the U.S.-Japan twosome and China. Seoul does not have many options. It cannot stand up for itself as a “middle country.” Powerful nations tend to disdain the naivety of such middle countries.
The Shinzo Abe Cabinet continues with its blatantly irksome streak. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga publicly defamed Korea’s most famous independence activist Ahn Jung-geun. As Seoul immediately issued a protest, Beijing joined the chorus. But self-interest comes first in historical issues. Korea and China, too, have confrontations over historical records and interpretations. The Asian Paradox is that multi-faceted and intricately complicated.
China and Japan are walking on thin ice over territorial issues. But Beijing has turned practical. Xi’s foreign policy separates politics and economics. A Seoul-Beijing joint stand against Japan would, therefore, be limited.
The security front in Northeast Asia is at a critical turning point. The Park Geun-hye administration has to get used to the sophisticated and delicate mind games. Our priority on foreign policy should be North Korea’s nuclear threats. Seoul must be responsive, quick and flexible in prioritizing and aligning political, military and economic policies. Northeast Asia has turned into a pivotal stage for a powerful game of national interests among global powers. We must draw wisdom from the Cairo Declaration.