Friday, September 05, 2008

"Keeping Georgia on Your Mind"

"Keeping Georgia on Your Mind"
Korea Times, September 3, 2008
(Image from Korea Times)

The Korea Times recently asked me to write a column for its "Foreign Community" section, which meant that the paper wanted an article on some Korean topic or other. I'm not sure why I was asked, for unlike many other foreigners living and working in this country, I don't actually know much about this place. Perhaps someone noticed my language column published in the "Expat Living" section of the Korea Herald, or my wide-ranging meanderings in this Gypsy Scholar blog, and thought that I might have something to say.

I wasn't sure what the editors were looking for, but I tried to write a piece on the foreign policy implications that Russia's actions in Georgia have for Korea. The Korea Times has published my article . . . but not in its "Foreign Policy" section. Rather, as I was informed yesterday, it appeared in the "Opinion" section.
Keeping Georgia on Your Mind

By Horace Jeffery Hodges
Small states bordered by great powers require more distant, more powerful friends. This truism of foreign policy has implications being spelled out before our eyes in Georgia, a small state bordered by the great power Russia.

In fact, from 1800 till 1991, excepting a brief three years following the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia's border encompassed Georgia entirely.

Only in 1991, with the collapse of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, did Georgia reemerge as a sovereign nation, and it immediately looked to the West for a powerful friend, thinking to find one in the United States.

Every such friendship, however, comes with a price. Georgia's price? Contributing about 2,000 troops to the American coalition in Iraq, but in turn receiving military training from U.S. instructors. Not a bad tradeoff, perhaps.

Still, the Georgian nation desired stronger guarantees, naturally, and applied for inclusion within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

America supported the Georgians, but France and Germany blocked NATO from offering membership to that nation. Given Georgia's instability due to its ethnic complexity in an ethnically diverse region where Russia claims legitimate national interests, opposition by France and Germany was understandable.

That rejected application left Georgia with a still hostile Russia, a putative American friend, and no formal military alliance.

Had Russia remained economically weakened for a longer period, Georgia might have found sufficient time for strengthening its bonds with the West and might even have formalized a military alliance, if not with NATO then with the United States.

Russia, however, because of its rich gas and oil fields, has benefited from the European need for energy and the worldwide rise in fuel prices, enabling it to regain some of its former power.

It still lacks any convincing ability to project hard power globally, but across its own borders, it can again project significant military power.

Georgia, therefore, has discovered itself in an unenviable position of weakness facing Russian power and would have done better to avoid reacting to separatist provocations in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The Georgian military's attack upon Ossetian separatists has provided Russia with the justification required for intervention, and we now see the surely foreseeable result in Georgia's effective loss of South Ossetia, as well as in its profound humiliation, a denigrated status that it shares with the United States.

What does all of this mean for South Korea? Presumably, Russia has no revanchist aim on any part of Korea, so territorial claims are not an issue in relations with Russia. However, some local great powers might have issues about territory, and the Korean Peninsula remains divided, leaving South Korea relatively small and weak as a country.

Koreans dispute Dokdo with Japan, but China is the rising great power in this East Asian region, and while it might have no expressed territorial claims upon Korea, it has in times past dominated Korea through its political, economic, and military power, even going so far as to claim Korea as a vassal state.

Moreover, China even now claims for itself the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo, against Korean protests, and an impartial observer can hardly fail to notice that Goguryeo's territory extended more than halfway down the Korean Peninsula, thereby encompassing all of North Korea, a small, economically weak state profoundly dependent upon China.

That ought to focus South Korea's long-term geopolitical reflections regardless of what China might have in mind.

The Georgian case, therefore, ought to remind Koreans of the foreign policy truism noted above and move them to nurture their longstanding alliance with their powerful, distant friend, the United States.

Americans have national interests in the Korean Peninsula, of course, or they would not be here ― and interests of state are a positive thing, for they promote stable relations ― but none of those interests even remotely includes territorial claims. Indeed, the U.S. strongly supports Korean reunification.

Americans thus find themselves perplexed by many Koreans' insistence that the United States opposes reunification. Equally perplexing has been the recent brouhaha over American beef.

Why so many Koreans believed that the American ranchers were shipping to Korea the beef that American consumers supposedly refused to eat was mystifying to Americans. And I prefer not even to broach the issue of that excessive anti-Americanism that I observed in the autumn and winter of 2001 or in the late summer and autumn of 2002.

In the face of such Korean beliefs and attitudes about the United States, Americans could be forgiven for inferring that many if not most Koreans would prefer to have no military alliance with America.

Probably, this inference is not correct, but if Koreans truly want that alliance, this desire could surely be made clearer on the part of all South Koreans. How? By maintaining a steady focus on South Korea's national interests. In what way? Just keep Georgia on your mind.

The writer is currently employed full-time at Ewha Womans University, teaching courses on essay composition, research papers, and cultural issues. He obtained a doctorate in history of science at U.C. Berkeley . . . . The views expressed in the above article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times.
That's what I wrote, and it's rather banal, admittedly not my best writing. I had thought that it dealt sufficiently with Korean issues to meet the needs of the "Foreign Community" section, but the managing editor, who knows better than I what the Korea Times needs, has sent me an email suggesting that I write on some "current Korean issue, not op-ed but straight story for 'Foreign Community' page."

I will try, but I strongly suspect . . . no, I fully know that many other expats here in Korea would have far more interesting things to say in a straight story focused on Korea.

By the way, I didn't pick the cartoon, an image that I find interesting for what it depicts . . . and for what it does not depict. The EU likely does feel intimidated by Russia, but the US would be the more obvious object of Russian anger . . . and South Korea should be looking on from a distance.

But perhaps that would be overly complicated to illustrate.

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At 12:37 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...


Nice article. A couple of related nits:

1. China didn't really claim Korea as a "vassal" state so much as Korea volunteered for the status. That was a very considered and deliberate strategic decision made by Taejo, Yi Seong-gye, founder of the Joseon Dynasty, and his advisers, to "get on the right side of history" given the ascendant Ming's victories in China over the previous Mongol dynasts and try to get more breathing room for Korea than it enjoyed under the meddlesome Mongols during the Goryeo dynasty. Even during the Goryeo, though, the Koreans enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy - albeit less than they otherwise might have but for their stubborn resistance to the Mongols when the latter first began their conquest of Chins.pre-Joseon/China relations, as well. And the same could be said of Unified Silla earlier.

2. It's a mistake to characterize Korea as a "vassal" of China at any time, except in the case of the Chinese commanderies established on the peninsula prior to the Three Kingdoms period, circa ~ 108 BCE. The term vassal imports an anachronistic concept from European feudalism into East Asian history, the lineaments of which are distinctively different. The more appropriate shibboleth is "tributary", which itself needs to be fleshed out a bit to be properly appreciated. Polities subordinate to China were expected to offer tribute to the Emperor, which served two functions. First, it ritually symbolized the hieratic world order. Second, tribute missions were the principal conduit of what passed for international trade among the polities of East Asia, insofar as the Chinese usually bestowed on the subordinate tribute bearers goods equal or greater in value, and the tribute missions also provided the only legitimate venue for trade between countries, which was conducted by the members of the ambassadorial missions and Chinese counterparts designated by the Chinese yamen. "In exchange" for their tribute, the tributary states were generally left to themselves by the Chinese, who permitted them to govern their own affairs, x relations with other states - all of which were to be conducted through the Chinese - and required neither taxes or other significant material subventions nor military assistance (although providing the latter could earn you reciprocal military protection ( assuming it otherwise was in Chinese interests to provide it, e.g., Chinese intervention on Korea's side in the Imjin Wars in order to stop Hideyoshi's planned invasion of China in Korea - a favor that China also "owed" to Korea in exchange for Korean assistance to the Ming in completing the defeat of the Mongols (which also was in Korea's self-interest, as by the end the principal Mongol holdings were on the Korean peninsula and in the erstwile "Korean" lands immediately to the north) and in fighting off the incipient Manchu challenges from the northeast.

Clearly, both European feudalism and the Sinitic world order thus had both symbolic/ritual components and material components; but I think it's fair to say that in the actual power relations between political actors, symbol/ritual were relatively more important in East Asia, whose subordinate polities had more political and economic autonomy than those of Europe, where both the political and economic power of the subordinate actors was more compromised by the higher powers.

At 1:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sperwer, thanks for the information and corrective. I really know too little Korean and East Asian history.

I was thinking of the Samjeondo Monument, erected in 1639 to commemorate Korea's submission to the Qing Dynasty in 1636. That has been referred to as signifying Korea's 'vassal' status, but the term may be flawed, as you plausibly argue.

Thanks again. I'll probably see you next week?

Jeffery Hodges

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