Toward a better future

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Toward a better future

Since Korea was forced to sign the Eulsa Treaty by the Empire of Japan in 1905, depriving the nation of its diplomatic sovereignty and making it a Japanese protectorate, Korea has never been wholly free. Japan's surrender and the end of World War II liberated the land from colonial rule in 1945. But at the same time, the end of Japanese colonization drew a line along the 38th parallel that divides the land to this day.

The age of imperialism, totalitarianism and the ideological Cold War after World War II has passed and left lasting distrust and scars on the East Asia region. The other central war stage - Europe - learned its lessons from the history of conflict and hostility. It carried out incremental stages of integration - industrial (European Coal and Steel Community, 1951), economic (European Economic Community, 1958) and political (the European Communities, 1967, that would later develop into the European Union in 1999). Europe's path to build a communal arrangement for cooperation and co-prosperity contrasts with East Asia, which remains stubbornly unstable and fragmented.

The three East Asian nations - Korea, China and Japan - are intricately tied in political and economic relationships, as well as in bitter rivalry. The regional equation has become more complicated due to the influence and presence of global powers like the United States and Russia on top of unruly North Korea. Geopolitical tensions have escalated due to China's economic and military assertiveness and Japan's renewed pursuit of past glory, including military power. Historical and territorial disputes remain thorny issues among Korea, China and Japan.

The adage goes: "Dwell on the past and you will lose one eye; forget the past and you will lose both eyes." We cannot chain ourselves to the past. But at the same time, we cannot forget the past because otherwise, we are doomed to repeat it.

Still, we cannot let the ghost of the past go on haunting us forever. The time has come for the leaders of Korea, China and Japan to seriously consider a common future by resolving and closing the age of hostilities and conflict. Many problems can be solved by talking things out to build understanding and trust. Peace and cooperation in the region are crucial to our viability. Since the first tripartite summit in 2008, the three countries have set up a secretariat office in Seoul to arrange and cement three-way cooperation. But summits among the three countries have not met since 2012.

President Park Geun-hye has been eager on the campaign to promote peace and co-prosperity in the region, proposing the East Asia Initiative and the Eurasia Initiative. But so far, it has only been rhetorical. Foreign ministers of the three countries met for the first in three years in March and agreed to arrange a summit meeting in the second half. The summit talks should pave the way toward easing regional tensions and raising Korea's rank. The leaders of the three countries today are similar in age and share the common background of coming from political families that contributed to building their nations. They also have a common goal to rebuild their respective nations during these transitional and testing times. Once they start a conversation, they could discover they have a lot in common and iron out differences. Bilateral summit talks are important. But in a tripartite summit arrangement, Korea would have the bigger role as a mediator.

The summits could better address political, economic, social and cultural areas of cooperation. The three countries make up the bulk of the Asian economy and rely heavily on one another for trade and investment. They, however, lack a systematic cooperative framework. A tripartite free trade agreement that has been in a stalemate could serve as an impetus. The United States and Japan are leading talks for a Trans-Pacific Partnership that encompasses 12 members, while the 10 Asean countries, Korea, China, Japan, India, New Zealand and Australia are seeking a separate Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Korea could serve as an arbitrator for and in the two transcontinental trade frameworks. Korea also could initiate financial cooperation and networks to address growing volatilities in foreign currency and financial markets separately with the three East Asian countries and also with Asean nations.

The three countries will be taking turns in hosting major international games: the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Korea, in 2018, the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 and the Winter Games in Beijing in 2022. There could be many areas for cooperation and exchange in culture and sports. Talks could also expound on common responses to natural disasters and expansion of exchanges between universities. If the three can establish a joint institution to collect and study historical materials and documents, disputes about history and territory could be eased. Polls show that public sentiment toward our neighbors has gotten worse. But at the same time, 70 percent want a better relationship. If the summits take place, they could help boost civilian exchanges and relationships. We have endeavored to build a stronger and independent country over the last 70 years. But geopolitical conditions have become as perilous and unstable as they were a century ago. The summits should manifest statesmanship in order to ensure peace in the region.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 14, Page 31
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