Peace among the neighbors
Despite their bottomless despair of losing their homeland, Korea’s independence movement stressed that ending colonialism and regaining sovereignty was an “indispensable step toward the stability of East Asia, which will in turn contribute to the attainment of world peace.” Instead of merely blaming the colonizers, the Proclamation of Korean Independence on March 1, 1919, said that the declaration originates “in the global reform rooted in human conscience.” The statement is touching not only because of its accurate assessment of the situation but because of its honest idealism. Although it was natural for a weak country, a victim of the competition among imperialistic powers, to wish for a new, fair international order, Koreans already had a deeply rooted dream of peace for Asia.
History unfolds with great turning points. The end of the Cold War, symbolized by the 1990 German reunification, has a significant historical meaning. Mikhail Gorbachev’s astonishing decision to dissolve the Soviet Union and the moves to establish cooperative relations between Eastern and Western Europe ended not only the Cold War but also the era of totalitarianism.
China’s development via Deng Xiaoping’s embrace of a market economy made a critical contribution to world history. His decision to join the market economy signaled that a new era had arrived and that the practice of automatically linking a Communist Party’s rule with a totalitarian dictatorship must be changed. Deng’s China was no longer a monolithic totalitarian system, and it became a country operating in a new, experimental way. As a result, the international order at the end of the 20th century faced a period of new reforms and restructurings.
With Deng’s bold decision to join the global market, China rose quickly to become the second-largest economy in the world after only one generation. The rise and fall of countries over the past decade that reshaped the list of economic superpowers are noteworthy. But a more important change in the global order is that the influence of the traditional superpowers is continually shrinking. The United States became the sole, unrivaled superpower after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But it allowed itself to get trapped in the swamp of the Middle East. It is now using a defensive strategy to maintain the status quo.
With the dwindling influence of superpowers, the new international order is clearly dependent upon alliances and communities of countries. Instead of the influence of individual countries such as Germany, France and England, the European Union, which has 28 members, shows a far larger power in the international community.
In comparison, East Asia has fallen into the Asia paradox - economic interdependence paired with diplomatic distrust - although it has the second- and third-largest economies, China and Japan. This is why expectations are high for Korea, which is suffering the pain of the 70-year-long division of the country, to make new and progressive contributions to develop an Asian community for the sake of peace in the region.
It is appropriate for China to propose a new type of great power relations to the United States. But China must remember that the future of international relations also depends on the harmonious development of its relations with the regional community and its neighbors.
Only when U.S.-China relations and China-East Asia relations - particularly the trilateral relations between South Korea, China and Japan - develop smoothly will China’s dream of Sinocentrism be realized. To this end, China must make a more aggressive contribution to removing obstacles such as the North Korean nuclear issue and eventually achieve the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula.
Korea and Japan are the closest neighbors but they have a long history of animosity. Of the 150,000 victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima 70 years ago, 20,000 were Koreans. Japan experienced World War II and Korea experienced the Korean War and not many neighbors more fully share the importance of peace.
Japan must become a table setter with a high batting average - instead of a strong slugger in the international order - and lead the efforts to build an Asian community of peace and prosperity with its unique diligence and creativity. The Japanese people’s courage to break free from history’s shackles will be the key to opening a new Asian era.
About a decade ago, our neighbors shared a feeling that the 21st century was going to be the Asian century. In this New Year, Korea, China and Japan must return to the track of building an Asian community. This is the dream that Koreans have had for a century, and the March 1 Independence Proclamation said, quite rightly, that it is a “grave issue that transcends mere emotions.”
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 5, Page 31
*The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hong-koo