Thursday, April 07, 2005

Korea's Balancing Act?

I really need to get my wife's linguistic help on this "balancer" vs. "stabilizer" issue. As noted earlier in this blog, the same statement by Roh has gotten two rather different translations:

"In the future, the balance of power in Northeast Asia will be changed by the strategic choice that Korea makes" ("Not everything needs to be said," JoongAng Daily, March 29).

"Depending on what kind of choices we make in the future, the power relations of East Asia will change," ("Prime minister seeks strategic independence," JoongAng Daily, March 31).

The former version implies that Korea will engage in Realpolitik, choosing its shifting alliances based upon national interest and political calculations of power. This is consistent with language about Korea as a "balancer," which is the term used elsewhere in the March 29 article. The latter version is far vaguer, allowing for an idealistic foreign policy, and is consistent with language about Korea as a "stabilizer," a term that occurs elsewhere in the March 31 article.

Now, an editorial has appeared in which the "balancer" language is again used, but the explanation seems more consistent with viewing Korea as a "stabilizer." According to Kim Seok-hwan ("How Korea can be a 'balancer,'" JoongAng Daily, April 6), perhaps "Korea can do much as a sort of 'balancer of peace' in Northeast Asia." Surely, "stabilizer of peace" is intended here. Yet, the English version of President Roh's military-academy speech, in which he introduced his conception of Korea's proper role, uses the expression "balancing":

"[Korea] should play a balancing role not only on the Korean Peninsula but also for the peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia."

Again, wouldn't "stabilizing" fit better here? Let me do what I should have done in the first place, i.e., go to the source:

이제 우리는 한반도뿐만 아니라 동북아시아의 평화와 번영을 위한 균형자 역할을 해나갈 것입니다.

The significant part is "균형," which according to Dong-A's Prime Korean-English Dictionary means "balance; (an) equilibrium; poise; equipoise." The meaning "stability" is not given. Moreover, the expression "힘의 균형" occurs prominently, and it means "balance of power," which probably explains why various commentators translated Roh's speech as though he were presenting a strategy of Realpolitik.

My wife says that Roh's construction "균형자" is a neologism that would not immediately be clear to people. It could be interpreted to mean "balancer," but she suggests that he probably intended to convey something like "안정시키는자," which would mean "stabilizer" but which would be a very awkward expression in Korean.

Keeping this in mind, let's look again at Kim Seok-hwan's editorial, which goes on to inform us that:

"A high-ranking government official, someone who deals with foreign affairs and national security, offered me his own explanation last Friday. 'The concept of a "balancer" [i.e., "stabilizer"] came about in our search for a diplomatic national security order, to be pursued with the goal of opening an era of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia,' this official said. 'This concept recognizes the situation that has been created in and around the Korean Peninsula as a result of friction and confrontation among world powers,' the official continued. 'To speak in more detail, it especially takes the conflict between China and Japan into consideration. It is a strategic idea more than a theoretical one.'"

This high aim of "peace and prosperity" surely fits the role of a stabilizer, and I'm all for stability. So is Kim Seok-hwan, and he has high hopes:

"If South Korea manages to advance the cause of Northeast Asian cooperation by neutralizing the rivalry between China and Japan, and if, as a model, it leads China and North Korea toward a market economy and toward the safeguarding of human rights, then South Korea would indeed be serving as a 'balancer [i.e., stabilizer] of peace' in Northeast Asia."

This is a grand vision of what South Korea can do. Would that it were so. However, given Korea's general animosity toward Japan, its powerful reactions to the Dokdo issue, and its seeming tilt toward China these days, one wonders if it can do anything at all toward "neutralizing the rivalry between China and Japan." More likely, in my opinion, is that China would use the Dokdo controversy to draw Korea further from Japan, away from the United States, and closer to China.


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