Still at the mercy of foreign powers

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Still at the mercy of foreign powers

During a lengthy bus ride traveling the 233 kilometers (145 miles) from Shenyang to Dandong, the author Kim Hoon seemed to hear the heavy thumping of a marching army. Many soldiers, from those of the Tang Dynasty to the troops of Mao Zedong, started their journey from Shenyang to Dandong to cross the Yalu River and arrive at the Korean Peninsula.

“When the invaders withdrew, a long procession (of envoys carrying riches as a tribute) would follow their track back to Shenyang,” the author wrote placidly.

Dandong, a border city along the northeastern coast of China, has been a witness to the suffering of the Korean people. It was where thousands of roped and bound Koreans, captured after the second invasion by the Manchu Qing Empire in 1637, took a short rest after their long trip from their homes, which most of them would never see again. Half a million were sold into slavery in Shenyang as slaves. Women who were later allowed to return to their homeland, Joseon, were ostracized by their compatriots for having been used sexually by Qing soldiers, and their children were doomed to spend their lives as outcasts.

I stood where the author Kim would have, staring at dimly-lit Sinuiju on the other side of the border river. I shuddered and felt sick to my stomach when I imagined what thoughts crossed the minds of the captives as they cast resentful eyes toward their helpless country that had deserted them. How different are we today?

This year marks the 70th year of our liberation from Japanese colonial rule. It is also the 70th year this land has stood divided in half. We should be awash with shame and humiliation, but we have grown immune and numb to the status quo. No other civilization can live so casually oblivious to reality. The habit of defeatism after 36 years of colonial rule may have been imprinted on us.

Korea, Russia and China bear a common bitter and tragic memory of World War II. China and Russia can celebrate the war’s end as a day of victory, but we cannot. Our war was won by others. This year, Russia and China celebrate their victories on May 9 and Sept. 3 with great fanfare. We are keeping ours modest. A government meeting to prepare for the celebration of the 70th anniversary of our independence was held in March as a formality. Joint events to be held with North Korea to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the June 15, 2000 Joint Declaration of President Kim Dae-jung and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il were canceled. We made little effort - and demonstrated little will - to seriously reflect on the grim status quo and our future.

Veteran diplomats on the same trip to Dandong all shared common feelings of grief and regret. Shin Kak-soo, a former ambassador to Japan, said with some embarrassment that it was the first time in his 40-year diplomatic career to have been so close to North Korea. He added that anyone starting a diplomatic career should come to the North Korea-China border first. Without a clear awareness of the condition our country is in, foreign policy will be directionless and soulless, helplessly at the mercy of the global powers.

An intelligence source we met in China said the new Chinese ambassador to Pyongyang took office in March but has not yet met North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia congratulated one another on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, but the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing remains icy. However, that could change if Kim makes a trip to Beijing in September to attend China’s Victory Day, or arranges a separate summit talk. If the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing improves despite the North’s third nuclear test and the execution of the Beijing-friendly senior government official Jang Song-thaek, the three old Communist allies - North Korea, China and Russia - could renew their comradeship. With no signs of inter-Korean ties thawing, South Korea would inevitably have to turn to its own alliance with the United States and Japan. The outdated, Cold War-like equation could persist for a long time. The Korean Peninsula could forever be stuck within an ideological trap.

China has built a new bridge to connect Dandong to Sinuiju, and has been building high-rise buildings that tower over those of the North Korean city. Chinese capital is ready to rush into North Korea if the hermit kingdom opens its borders. Lee In-ho, a former South Korean ambassador to Russia, observed with shock how China was meticulously preparing to make inroads into its secluded neighbor while the two Koreas are engaged in a war of nerves. She added that Seoul should take the initiative to mend inter-Korean relations. Na Kyung-won, chair of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, said she realized on the border that North Korea would only open up if South Korea held out its hand first.

The two Koreas remain far apart, still separated by the world’s most heavily armed border. The boundary between North Korea and China however, shows tangible signs of exchange. We must act before it is too late if we do not want to find ourselves at the mercy of foreign powers once again.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 8, Page 31

*The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Ha-kyung

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