The conditions of Mencius

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The conditions of Mencius


Lee Hyun-sang
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

South Korea may not suddenly have to go without over 1,000 strategic items and materials it imports from Japan after it lost its place on a so-called white list of reliable trading partners. Still it is humiliating to be branded “unreliable” on security grounds by a neighboring state. The Seoul government may declare tit for tat actions. It is understandable for the administration to respond strongly to an unfair act by another state. But before going into a full-fledged fight, one should study the cause and the consequences first. Ancient Chinese sage Mencius cited three conditions to win a battle: the will of heaven, geographical benefits and human harmony. Do we have all three — or even one — in our favor?

Heavenly will refers to the geopolitical environment in today’s context. South Korea and Japan stayed allies despite their bitter past because of the need to buttress the tripartite security alliance among Korea, the United States and Japan against the communist front in the region during the Cold War. The U.S. has turned inward under the “America First” attitude of the Trump administration. Washington no longer has strong grounds to mediate a conflict between Seoul and Tokyo. Trump has opted to suspend regular military exercises with Korea to save costs. South Korea is alone in the complex power contest and self-serving pursuits in the region. It has even lost face with North Korea, which has used the confusion to renew military provocations with missile tests. One is foolish to enter into a battle when all the conditions are unfavorable.

To maximize geographic factors, one must be a master of strategy and tactics. A battle cannot be won simply with rallying cries. Korea must coolly examine whether it can afford to go into a lengthy trade war with Japan. Korea Inc. is weak in fundamentals and spirit. The economy is moving at a snail’s pace and even that momentum is entirely from fiscal spending.

The government vows to fully support localization of sourcing of materials in IT and other industries that were heavily reliant on Japanese supplies. Japan has invested in base chemicals since its modernization period. The first generation of Japanese who went abroad to study in 1860 were chemical majors. One of the first byproducts was a gunpowder developed by Japanese naval engineer Masachika Shimose used in the Russo-Japanese War. The shimose powder optimized for use in shells contained picric acid, enabling greater blast power than any other gunpowder at the time. It helped make the Imperial Japanese Navy a large sea power. Japan has seven Nobel laureates in chemicals. Korean companies cannot just suddenly become their match and substitute. Samsung Electronics was able to outperform Japanese chipmakers because they used costlier but more reliable and advanced materials from Europe and Japan. Without utilizing the global supply chain, Korea could not have become a chip powerhouse.

And what about human harmony? A ruling party think tank’s internal report recommending hard-line responses to Japan’s economic retaliations to help the ruling party in the next general election has caused a bit of controversy. Some suspect the emotional outbursts regarding the rebellion against Japanese brands and oppression from aides in the Blue House and ruling party could have had populist political motives. That mind-set underestimates the people of this country with a per capita income of over $30,000. Public approval for former President Kim Young-sam vowing to teach Japan a lesson after Japanese capital pulled out in bulk during the currency crisis in the late 1990s or President Lee Myung-bak visiting Dokdo islets at a temporary peak in the territorial dispute did not last a month. Koreans no longer agree to be labeled as either pro- or anti-Japanese. Out of the three conditions, Mencius placed human harmony first above geographic advantages and heavenly will. If the government pushes on with its sensational anti-Japan campaign for self-serving purposes, it would lose human harmony.

A good commander would place priority on arms supplies over tactics. Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, said a war against the U.S. could not be won if it lasted two to three years. The Pacific war lasted longer and resulted in Japan’s defeat. Do our command headquarters have that kind of farsightedness? This war can be suicidal if we enter it entirely on emotion and rallying cries.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 2, Page 26
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