Leadership unity needed

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

Leadership unity needed

Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

 Geopolitical conflicts among superpowers always affect the Korean Peninsula. It is a place where national interests of the United States, China, Japan and Russia — economic and military powers — butt up against each other.

Superpowers have attempted to divide and occupy the peninsula for four centuries. Konishi Yukinaga — a general who occupied Hanyang, which later became Seoul, and Pyongyang during the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592 — was a Catholic, whose Christian name was Augustine. Coming from a family of merchants, he proposed to divide Joseon by drawing a line along the Taedong River. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who orchestrated the seven-year war that shook East Asia, demanded that the Joseon court surrender four southern provinces to Japan.

Shortly before the 1894 Sino-Japanese War, Lord Kimberley, the British Foreign Secretary, proposed the peninsula be divided between the North and the South with a line bisecting Seoul. In 1896, Japan proposed to Russia that the peninsula be divided along the 38th parallel. In 1903, Russia proposed to Japan that the area above the 39th parallel be turned into a neutral zone. The plans were all scrapped as Joseon, the Ming Dynasty of China, Japan and Russia opposed.

Eventually, the Korean Peninsula, after its colonization by Japan, was divided and occupied by the United States and the Soviet Union shortly after World War II. North and South Korea remain the last divided countries on earth. John Mearsheime, a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago, predicted that China will follow the U.S. strategy, which rose from a regional power to a global power. During this course, Korea will face a cruel destiny depending on the hegemony competition and negotiations between the United States and China. This is our history and a worrisome reality.

Korea won’t sink if it has a great captain and navigator. Small countries bullied by superpowers mostly maintain sustainable foreign policies based on their experiences and political consensus. The bigger the crisis they face, the stronger their internal unity grows. Unfortunately, Korea is the opposite due to its sharp internal divisions.

The four-way presidential debate held last Thursday following a series of missile provocations from North Korea revealed this chronic problem. Opposition People Power Party (PPP) candidate Yoon Suk-yeol argued for additional deployment of the Thaad missile defense system and a preemptive strike against the North. “Peace is a result of overwhelming power,” Yoon said.

His rival Lee Jae-myung from the ruling Democratic Party (DP) quoted former USFK Commander Vincent Brooks to argue that there is no need for an additional deployment of the Thaad system. “It is irresponsible to call for additional deployment at the risk of China’s retaliation when the U.S. said there is no need,” Lee said.

Yoon refuted Lee’s remarks by saying Brooks has never said there was no need for additional Thaad deployment. In the meantime, minor opposition Justice Party (JP) candidate Sim Sang-jeung said the people are uneasy about Yoon’s mention of a preemptive strike. Yoon countered by saying, “Professing an active intention itself is a way to prevent a war.”

While crisis deepens after the North’s missile provocations, there seems to be no possibility of consensus. How can we defend our country in such circumstances?

Joseon made a misjudgment in the Ming-Qing transition period, triggering the Qing Invasion of Joseon in 1636. After King Injo surrendered at Samjeondo utterly disgracefully, tens of thousands of the people became slaves of Qing.

At the time, Huang Sunmao and Shen Shikui, high-ranking officials of Ming, surprisingly advised Joseon that it must not take a hardline stance toward Qing to show respect to Ming. Why did they do so? They were worried that if Joseon falls after a clash with Qing, Qing will pressure Ming even further. The Joseon court made an anachronistic mistake as it treated foreign affairs as an extension of domestic politics. King Injo leaned toward Ming to help justify his coup and win Ming’s approval after pushing out Prince Gwanghae, the 15th ruler of Joseon, who sought neutral diplomacy in the Ming-Qing transition period.

South Korea’s security policy toward North Korea is being shaken by the upcoming presidential election. Former chief of staff Noh Young-min criticized Yoon by saying, “He seems to be possessed by a ghost. If diplomacy is covered by populism, national interests will be damaged.” Though Yoon’s remarks were intended to say that the country must reinforce its security postures, Noh simply demonized Yoon.

After the North conducted seven missile tests so far this year, eight countries, including the United States, Japan and Britain, issued a joint statement on Feb. 4, but South Korea did not participate. It is no wonder that the PPP attacked the Moon administration for its “humiliating North Korea policy.” Instead of blindly counterattacking the opposition, the DP must revise its dumb North Korea policy. For the sake of national interests, the priority should be put on making a bipartisan agreement.

Presidential candidates should be cool-headed. It is catastrophic to approach national security issues with political tactics. They must listen to their rivals’ positions and reach an agreement. Voters also should find out who is truly presidential.

In her 2013 publication, “The Rhyme of History,” Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan warned that if superpowers do not cooperate for global peace, the history of a world war will repeat. As superpowers still chose the paths for their own survivals amid the pandemic, the world is left without leadership. Korea urgently need the leadership of unity. We must not elect a president who wants to be a leader of one side.
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)