Self-determination for diplomacyNortheast Asia is in turmoil as its regional order is reshaped. There are three main reasons for this. The first is China’s stubborn ambition. Its economic power has reached heavyweight levels, wherein it can divide the Pacific Ocean in two along with the United States and take over the West to use as its own backyard. Two years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed to redefine new relations between the G-2 during his summit with U.S. President Barack Obama. The East China Sea and the South China Sea in the western Pacific are the treasure chests of maritime resources and key sea routes. That’s why China has territorial disputes over many islands with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. But these four Southeast Asian countries cannot match China even if they combined their might.
The second reason is the U.S. decision to disallow Chinese expansion. Washington has no intention to split core security and economic interests in the western Pacific region with China. That’s why America is creating a crescent moon-shaped network, from the Korean Peninsula to India in South Asia, to separate them from China. While it avoids a direct confrontation with China, the United States is “outsourcing” its physical check to Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is thrilled to be serving Washington as its “subcontractor” in the region. Nationalism in Japan exploded like a volcano after Xi Jinping’s provocation over the Senkaku Islands — or the Diaoyu Islands, in China — and President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Dokdo in 2012. Thanks to these remarkable developments, Abe managed to pass 11 security-related bills, opening up a path for a Japan capable of a war with China. It’s a heightened military existence in Northeast Asia under the name of collective self-defense.
The third reason is North Korea’s provocative attitude and its use of its nuclear and missile programs as leverage. In October, three high-ranking North Korean officials visited South Korea to attend the Incheon Asian Games, hinting at the possibility that the two Koreas would resume talks. But North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s ruthless reign of terror and Seoul’s failure to stop a few civic groups from sending anti-North Korean leaflets across the border caused inter-Korean relations to regress to its worst-possible state. Moreover, with Seoul and Pyongyang both bent on a wasteful propaganda war after North Korea detonated land mines along the border, the atmosphere doesn’t appear ripe for a dialogue for peace in the near future. That’s also despite high-level talks that resumed Saturday after Seoul’s stern reaction to the North’s threat to destroy the loudspeakers deployed on the border. Until Kim becomes confident about his grip on power, inter-Korean ties cannot thaw.
Although President Park Geun-hye said she is willing to improve inter-Korean relations, she made remarks that could hinder rapprochement. During her meeting with the unification preparation committee, Park ordered the members to prepare for the North’s collapse, even if it comes next year. That’s something she should never have said as president. It’s a mistake similar to President Lee’s public remarks — made following the Arab Spring revolutions in 2012 — that it was only a matter of time before North Korea collapsed. That’s lamentable.Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, a legendary military strategist who contributed to German unification with his excellent strategies in the 1870-71 Franco-German War under Otto von Bismarck, left a famous maxim. “Everything a politician says must be true, but he must not say everything,” he said. Borrowing from it, everything a politician says must be fact, but he must not say every fact. So on that thought, President Park is actually acting against Moltke’s advice.
There is no need to state once again that Northeast Asian affairs have placed Korea in a dilemma and isolated it diplomatically. The issues now are what we can do about Northeast Asian affairs and how we can escape this isolation and create an opportunity out of crisis. In the end, the answer is pragmatic diplomacy toward the United States, Japan and China. President Park accepted Abe’s statement regarding the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II with restraint, and that will serve as a green light for improving bilateral relations between Korea and Japan. As long as we can expect nothing from a Japan where nationalism has gained such immense power, it is realistic to look at the issues — historical disputes and security, economic and cultural cooperation — separately. Rather, we need to attribute Abe’s distortion of history to his ignorance and lack of common sense.
Needless to say, the Korea-U.S. alliance is the basis of the country’s security. Yet, our government is trying too hard to please Uncle Sam. It’s anachronistic and diplomatically humiliating to seek tacit approval from Washington for Park to visit China to attend the Victory Day ceremony on Sept. 3. China’s role is critical to keeping the North in check — and to our future diplomacy as a unified Korea. The president need not hesitate to attend the military parade when she visits Beijing.Korea is now a strong middle power and a balance weight in the struggle for dominance between neighboring superpowers. It can use its power to lead peace in the region and mediate inter-Korean issues.Washington is pressuring Seoul to join the Korea-U.S.-Japan trilateral security lineup and to join the missile defense regime in order to include it in the security network to siege China. But at the end of the day, Korea’s decisions must thoroughly be its own.