A vision of trilateral cooperationIntellectuals from the late 19th century actively engaged in discussions on the trilateral relationship among Korea, China and Japan as well as peace in Northeast Asia. Late Qing dynasty diplomat Huang Zunxian published “Korea Strategy” and proposed plans for maintaining a balance of power.
Japanese intellectual Fukuzawa Yukichi advocated the “Escape from Asia” theory, urging Japan to be a Western nation, not a Northeast Asian country. Korean independence activist Ahn Jung-geun also reflected on pan-Asianism in his essay “One Peace in East Asia.”
1.) In June 1880, Chinese Ambassador to Japan Huang Zunxian met Korean diplomat Kim Hong-jib in Tokyo and delivered a document advising Korea on its foreign policy. In his book “Korea Strategy,” he defined Korea’s geopolitical situation as “located centrally in the world” and “of strategic importance in Asia.”
He also saw that the biggest threats in the region were Russia’s entry into the Far East and its southward policy. Korea was likely to be the first target, and Huang recommended staying close to China, forming an alliance with Japan and having an active tie with the United States. In other words, by keeping a close relationship with China, Korea should let the world know that the two countries are like a family, and “give up small suspicions and pursue greater plans” to form a union with Japan.
Huang defined the United States as a country that does not desire other countries’ lands or intervene in political affairs, so Korea should pursue an active alliance. An alliance among Korea, China, Japan and the United States was Qing’s response to check Russia. However, he underestimated Japan’s ambitions, though the 32-year-old diplomat had a broad world view. It’s a great insight, even by today’s standards.
2.) Five years later in March 1885, Fukuzawa came up with the Escape from Asia theory. It was published as an editorial in the Jiji Shinpo. Fukuzawa, the founder of Keio University, considered China and Korea hopeless, describing them to be “shut in a room and going against the enlightened trend of Western civilization,” further predicting “collapse and division in a few years.”
He wrote, “We do not have time to wait for the enlightenment of our neighbors so that we can work together toward the development of Asia. It is better for us to leave the ranks of Asian nations and cast our lot with the civilized nations of the West.”
At the time, Korea was in a turmoil after the Imo Rebellion of 1882 and the Gapsin coup of 1994, as well as the confrontation between the conservatives and reformists. The situation in the late Qing Dynasty was just as chaotic. Later, the Escape from Asia theory turned up in the form of Japanese imperialism.
As Japan became Westernized and became a new power in Asia, it started colonizing China and Korea. Japan’s “Escape from Asia” was the beginning of tragedy.
3.) In October 1909, Korean patriot Ahn Jung-geun assassinated Ito Hirobumi - who played a major role in Japan’s invasion of Korea - in Harbin, China. One of the reasons for killing Ito was that he “broke the peace in Asia.”
Prior to his own execution, Ahn finished his essay “On Peace in East Asia” in Lushun Prison. He argued that Korea, China and Japan needed to band together and resist Western imperialism. He also proposed the Asian Peace Plan through the integration of Northeast Asia, which included establishing a regional bank and peace-keeping forces. It was a visionary idea that came half a century before the European Union.
However, developments afterward went against his vision. Japan joined Western imperialism. After annexing Korea, it contributed to the division of China and started the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War.
In September 2011, Korea, Japan and China opened the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat in Seoul. The Korea-China-Japan Cooperation Vision 2020 came into force, and FTA negotiations started. We had unripe hopes that finally Northeast Asia was riding on the waves of integration.
However, the dynamics the region changed with the sudden emergence of China and the geopolitical situation started to fluctuate again. In response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “dream of reviving the Chinese people,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aspires to become a “normal nation.”
Nostalgia for imperialism is alive. The Park Geun-hye administration is promoting the Northeast Asia Peace Cooperation Plan, which aims to establish regional peace and prosperity through cooperation. However, it has long been obstructed by historical entanglements.
The vision of integration needs to be reignited in trilateral relations, not physically, but in the integration of people’s minds. We also need a forward-minded approach on history issues. What we desperately need is tolerance among the three nations.
At this point, Korea is taking an initiative role in resolving trilateral relations. Within the year, Korea must successfully host a summit. It would be best if the three could issue a joint declaration of historic reconciliation.
Korea has the diplomatic capacity and geopolitical merit to accomplish the task, and it’s no coincidence that the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat is located in Seoul. Let’s hope for Korea’s proactive leadership in Northeast Asian politics.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, May 22, Page 33
*The author is the Director of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security and the Secretary General of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat.
by Shin Bong-kil