Dealing with the neighbors

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Dealing with the neighbors


Park Soo-gil

Relations among the nations of Northeast Asia since World War II have become progressively more complicated as time has passed. In the immediate postwar period, North Korea’s attempt to reunify the peninsula by force drew outside powers into a bloody war. But as we began to rebuild, the regional political situation was simple: It was us-versus-them, godless communism against the free world. That simplicity disappeared, and instead of a “peace dividend” after the Cold War, we saw a more aggressive North Korea with a strategy based on what the political scientist Joseph Nye called “the power of weakness.” Its adventurism, based on a threat that China must support it or risk the consequences of Pyongyang’s own collapse, has been a powerful bargaining chip. When ignored, the North lobs missiles hither and yon and rattles its sabers, rudimentary nuclear weapons.

Also, a self-confident and economically powerful China now seems determined to avenge its centuries of helplessness and return to what it sees as its natural role as the Middle Kingdom, including a muscular reassertion of its territorial claims out to its “nine-dash line,” which encompasses the bulk of the South China Sea. Japan, stung by its relative decline as an economic power, has put a nationalistic, populist government in office and seems intent on antagonizing its neighbors by symbolically asserting its absence of guilt for its savage imperialism of the first half of the 20th century. From further away, the United States has taken at least rhetorical steps, its “pivot to Asia,” to reaffirm both its national interests to access to Asian sea lanes and its treaty obligations to its allies Japan and Korea.

I sometimes wonder how Korea was able to prosper and become an important middle power in the looming presence of our larger neighbors. But the days are long gone when we used analogies about shrimp and whales to describe our situation. We have maintained our independence by developing our economic power and our democratic institutions. The economic power and democratic principles we share with the West have also bolstered our alliance with the United States.

How, then, should we proceed during these unsettled days, where the “us” is steady but the “them” seem more fluid?

One of our highest priorities should be to maintain the trilateral relationship among Japan, Korea and China, no matter how unsteady that relationship seems at the moment. Our geography has resulted in a history of not only conflict and unrest, but also of trade and cultural exchanges that give us a basis for good relations.

Regarding Japan, we have to recognize that the current tensions are a result of the policies of one administration - and administrations change. Perhaps Japan will never see an era of German-style repentance for its invasions, colonizations and World War II. But I can foresee a time when Japan will cease to rebel actively against its history. Without the regular, mostly symbolic provocations that administrations like Abe’s instigate, our next generations should also be less likely to nurse our grievances.

This line of thought translates, I think, into a policy of keeping our lines of communication with the Japanese open and nurturing our shared democratic values. While President Park Geun-hye has good reasons for remaining cool to Japanese overtures until they are accompanied by steps to address our concerns, we should not reflect that frosty atmosphere at all levels of the government. Our relations with Japan do not begin and end with comfort women and textbook issues, no matter how important they are, and it is the job of our diplomats and businessmen to keep cooperation alive where possible. Times ? and administrations ? change, and we do not want to be alienated from our nearest neighbor forever.

Japan and North Korea are edging closer to an agreement on Japanese abductees, with the normalization of diplomatic relations a still-distant but tantalizing prospect. Despite suspicions here concerning Japan’s motives, I see the prospect of Japan-North Korea ties as a positive development. Such links would be an additional spur for North Korea to become a more “normal” nation, even if the idea of a Pyongyang Spring is still fanciful. I would envision some intense consultations among Tokyo, Seoul and Washington in advance of such settlement talks.

China is a more complex and also a more important problem. So far we have avoided any major collision with Beijing’s new assertiveness even though problem areas remain. China is our largest trading partner by far and we have a sound political relationship with Beijing. Those ties are, however, complicated both by China’s disinclination to keep North Korea in check (at least to the degree we desire) and by our alliance with Washington, which wants to keep China’s territorial ambitions and regional influence under control.

If North Korea is an irritant in our relations with China, it is also an incentive to continue developing closer ties of our own with Beijing. Our importance to China as an economic partner may not outweigh its fear of chaos on its border if the North collapses, but it gives Beijing a strong incentive to rein in Pyongyang’s adventurism, which could itself trigger such a collapse.

The only caveat to deepening our ties with Beijing is that we must also reassure Washington about those ties. We must be candid with our American friends about our goals and the steps we are taking to reach them and take their concerns into account. We cannot afford to weaken the trust we have built up with the United States even as we assert our interests in relations with China. Our alliance will not be harmed by disagreements and debates, but it will be undermined by secret dealings and surprises.

* The author, former ambassador to the United Nations, is president of the World Federation of United Nations Associations.

BY Park Soo-gil

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