[Column] What are our core national interests?

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[Column] What are our core national interests?

Lee Jae-min

The author is a professor of law at the Seoul National University’s School of Law.

Over the past few years, I have attended seminars at home and abroad on conflicts between the United States and China. They all had different introductions and flows, but the conclusions were all the same. The seminars ended with the conclusion that as both countries are equally important, Korea is caught between the two and must behave cautiously.

Cautious behavior cannot be a foreign policy strategy. It is just like saying, “The sky is blue.” We cannot find any guidance from it. Is it saying that we must take advantages of both sides but we must never suffer a loss?

Whenever a seminar ends, I feel frustrated. Why are we having the same discussions over and over? My conclusion is that Korean society has no consensus on what is our national interests. Instead of a consensus, antagonism between factions, generations and groups deepens each year.

As a result, we tend to measure our national interests by an easy indicator — numbers — such as import goals, per capita GDP, foreign currency reserves and semiconductor market share. We have hardly had a discussion on our comprehensive national interests that reflects how this country is perceived in the cruel reality of the international community and how it will survive and prosper. Instead, we hear a cacophony of voices. They are all important. But it is unclear if any of the arguments — and the sum of the specific interests — really serves the comprehensive and long-term national interests of our country.

There is a saying that “if everything matters, nothing matters.” We must make clear what our core values are and what our non-negotiable principles are. We need introspection and in-depth discussions. We should look at relations with other countries using this framework. Only then can we have a determination to suffer some short-term losses for a longer-term gain.

Without this process, we will have a difficult time making a decision when we face a problem. A case in point is the ongoing U.S.-China contest. We take one side, and then we take the other. After the administration changes, we go back to square one. Flexible responses within a framework of set goals and stopgap measures without goals are different.

The starting point of this process is to think about the prestige and status in the international community that we hope for in 30 years. The past 30 years after the end of the Cold War was an era of turbulence. There were hardships, but we successfully overcame them. One piece of great news at the end of last year was that Korea was ranked sixth in a global evaluation of national powers, which factored in economic, diplomatic and military power. This symbolizes our accomplishments of the past 30 years.

As the international order is being shaken, however, we must think about the next 30 years. Where do we want to stand in the world in 2050? The youth today will lead the country by 2050. Given their different characteristics, a very different leadership is bound to emerge.

We have a plan for carbon reduction until 2050, but we do not think about what our position will be in the international community by then. We have a plan to reach Mars by 2045 but we do not think about what would be the affairs of the neighboring countries of Korea at that time.

Lately, more discussions take place about 2050. The discussions must include what Korea’s brand in the international community will be by that time and what Korea’s abilities and national prestige will be. So, we must reflect this and make clear what should be the key to our national interests. Through this kind of introspection, we must come up with a consistent and wise response to challenges before us.

Without a common orientation to national interests, our society’s factional, ideological and generational splits will grow. The worsening schisms will go further than harming our internal unity. Rival countries will enjoy the weakening of our national power after it worked so hard to become the world’s sixth most powerful country.

Two weeks have passed since the New Year. When we make a meaningful first step, it will be a fruitful year.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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