April 1, 2007｜Korean Peninsula
Fellow, The Japan Institute of International Affairs
To the question of what the big differences are in the understanding of Japan and the ROK of international problems, I often answer that they are global and regional differences. This is originally someone else’s idea, but I shall borrow it, as I don’t think there is any better way to express it. The differences which can be sensed the most strongly are those in Japan and the ROK’s understanding of China.
In Japan it is very common to treat China as a global player. That China is important because it is a neighboring country separated from Japan by a narrow stretch of water is now ancient history. Besides being a neighboring country, China—which has increased its economic strength and has extended its influence all over the world—is of importance to Japan considering its global standing as well. I get a strong sense that the government officials of Japan and China are treating one another as global entities. Sino-Japanese relations have already exceeded the bounds of discussions at the Northeast Asian level.
Yet how about in the ROK? There appears to be a perception of both Japan and China as Northeast Asian nations. In the ROK, when discussion turns to Japan and China, the words “Northeast Asia…” almost always follow. In the ROK the tendency is to take China as a Northeast Asian regional presence. China–ROK relations are after all often mentioned in a Northeast Asian context. It is frequently sensed that the Weltanschauung of South Koreans can’t easily shake free of Northeast Asia.
Naturally this doesn’t go to say that this applies to all people from Japan and the ROK, though differences approximating to the above are often felt. I really don’t know, however, where these differences come from. I’ve pondered many things, but no clear answer emerges. Speaking off the top of my head, I wonder whether it’s due to the ROK having labeled itself as not being able to play a role at the global level, and that their thinking stays at the Northeast Asian level. The ROK government’s “Northeast Asia balancer doctrine,” which it pushed for some time, would appear to be an example. On 22 March 2005, President Roh Moo-hyun said in a speech: “We should play a balancing role not only on the Korean Peninsula but also for the peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia.” The thinking is understood thus; although having left the Korean Peninsula behind, it hasn’t reached out to the world, but has stopped in Northeast Asia. It doesn’t strike one as significant, however, to balance, only in Northeast Asia, countries like Japan, China, the US and Russia whose influence is felt all over the world.
Moreover, it is also thought that the ROK is trying to put a limit on the region and get a hold on each country, because it wants to consider itself, even if slightly, a big player. If it establishes this limit on Northeast Asia, then only that degree of presence will be felt in the ROK as well. Further, it is thought that because of the ROK taking itself to be a regional entity, it would only be able to see its neighboring countries as regional entities. People often make themselves the benchmark and look at others. It would be safe to infer that if you think yourself to be a regional entity, then you will only be able to see those around you as regional entities.
The above is entirely conjecture, and I don’t know myself what the definitive answer is. I think, however, that right now is the time that the people of the ROK should be acquiring a global outlook. In January 2007, Ban Ki-moon from the ROK was officially installed as the Eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations. Depending on what ROK society wants to see from him, the world-view of South Koreans will be put to the test. If they only want to see his role as Secretary-General in terms of the ROK and Northeast Asia, that will wind up an extension of the regional outlook. Or shouldn’t the ROK also aspire to be able to contribute to the Secretary-General fulfilling his role globally? That would be a global outlook. Rather than asking what the United Nations can do for the ROK, I would like the ROK to ask what it can do for the UN.