Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Stability in Northeast Asia

Perhaps Korea really is beginning to shift the power structure in East Asia by moving toward an alliance with China. According to an April 4th report in the Chosun Daily, Yoon Kwang-ung, Defense Minister in Korea's left-leaning government, stated:

"China, more than any nation, wishes for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, so we plan to strengthen our military exchanges with China, including making defense minister meetings a regular occurrence."

Yoon then added:

"There is a need to raise the level of military cooperation between Korea and China to at least that shared between Korea and Japan, and it's worth thinking about plans to help stability on the Korean Peninsula with China's assistance."

If China is the country most interested in stability on the Korean peninsula, then which country is the destabilizing one? That, according to Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan ("Lee blasts Japan over textbooks," JoongAng Daily, April 5), would seem to be Japan:

"All the wars in Asia took place only when Japan invaded the continent."

Lee then gave examples:

"The Japanese aggression against Korea in 1592, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, and the Russo-Japanese War [of 1904-1905] are representative cases."

One obvious problem with Lee's generalization is that it ignores the fact that plenty of wars have taken place in Asia without Japan's involvement. Even the Sino-Japanese War, which Lee takes as representative of Japanese aggressiveness, was fought over the issue of who would control Korea: Japan or China. Lee is surely aware of this inconvenient fact, but his official remark at the cabinet meeting is consistent with a shift toward closer relations with China.

The shift comes at this time of tension over the Korean island Dokdo, which Japan claims is really Japanese. The same JoongAng Daily article notes:

"Meanwhile, the Blue House[, Korea's executive seat,] said yesterday that military drills will be staged sometime between late this month and May to prepare for any crisis near Dokdo."

Interestingly, Roh's left-leaning Uri Party isn't the only political party using the Dokdo issue to play the China card. According to the JoongAng Daily ("Chinese official dons 'Dokdo' pin," April 5th), the right-leaning Grand National Party:

"recruited a Chinese Communist Party official into the Dokdo campaign, at least symbolically. Chen Pengshang, who has been meeting with Korean lawmakers since last week, donned a Grand National-made 'Dokdo badge' at the National Assembly after party floor leader Kang Jae-sup asked him to 'consider that both Korea and China were infringed upon and oppressed by Japan.' Mr. Chen's reply was, 'Korea and China share the same opinions and understandings of many problems.'"

Chen deserves credit for diplomatic acuity and verbal ambiguity in such a response, but the significant matter here is that the Grand National Party felt the necessity of making such an overture in light of the governing Uri Party's recent statements.

Where does all of this place Korea's relations with the United States? According to Defense Minister Yoon (Chosun Daily, April 4th):

"In the past, pending issues between the U.S. and Korea were resolved quietly, but in the future, we shall express our satisfaction or dissatisfaction during the negotiation process."

Interpretation: In future negotiations with the United States, the Roh administration will publicly express its grievances to try to influence Korean public opinion to put pressure on America.

Where is this all heading? I don't know. But here are some aspects to consider:

1. Korean nationalism: currently directly against the Japanese.

2. Civilizational affinity: Confucian Korea nods to Confucian China.

3. Leftist politics: Sunshine Policy and indulgence of North Korea.

Currently, all three of these are tending to shift Korea toward closer relations with China, but this may be only temporary, for the three have no real integral coherence.

Take Korean nationalism. Only one year ago, Koreans were outraged with China over its claim to the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo, which Koreans consider a Korean kingdom. The charge labeled then was that China was stealing Korea's history and identity -- and possibly positioning itself for a land grab.

As for civilizational affinity, Korea is ever less Confucian, and China is not clearly Confucian any more either, given its 50-odd years of Communist ideology, despite a recent Confucian revival there. Moreover, Korea has been largely Westernized and Christianized during the latter half of the 20th century, so there may be as much cultural affinity toward the United States as toward China.

Leftist politics does not move the entire Korean public, nor does the Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea automatically translate into closer relations with China. A policy of engagement with the North could be used to wean it away from its dependence on China -- though this would not be simple to accomplish.

My view? Roh, Lee, Yoon, and others might not be especially diplomatic in their language (and perhaps they're learning from George Bush on this), but they're neither stupid nor ignorant. I think that they know history and that they're not naive about China's traditional role in Northeast Asia. But they're currently making some decisions that may transform Korea's foreign relations in ways that cannot be revoked. We shall see how this all works out.


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