Foreign Affairs; History Repeats Itself, So Does Diplomacy

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This is an article on the Republic of Korea's diplomacy spanning half a century on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of The Korea Times. - ED.

On a lazy Sunday morning back in 1950, the Korean peninsula was, all of a sudden, engulfed by a bloody fratricidal war after an all-out North Korean invasion, an incident which brought the divided land to a state of near-reunification.

Half a century later in 1994, another outbreak of zeal for Korean unity gripped the South Koreans, this time caused by the unanticipated death of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, who had ruled the northern half of the peninsula since the birth of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) on Sept. 9, 1948.

In retrospect, the two incidents could be regarded as ``the best, but lost chances'' for Koreans to achieve unification, although it is another question whether unification should be pursued at the cost of huge human and property losses.

In both cases, South Korean diplomats did their utmost to step up their allian e with the nation's allies, primarily the United States, as they were convinced that the international community's support was vital for a process which could lead to reunification.

As the Korean War ended with a ceasefire agreement in 1953 and the Syngman Rhee government's continuous propaganda to achieve ``a unification by force'' was not heeded by the United States, the hopes for unification were dashed in the middle of the Cold War.

The second chance, which came after Kim Il-sung's death and drove many South Koreans to think that unification was on the horizon, was also lost, as the then-Kim Young-sam government proved highly incompetent in handling the situation.

Today's South Koreans, partly thanks to the Kim Dae-jung administration's ``Sunshine Policy,'' don't talk much about an immediate unification.

Rather, they are devoting themselves to efforts to achieve peaceful coexistence with North Koreans through the promotion of exchanges, a policy of the South Korean leader which also made it possible for him to win the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

What has changed during the five decades is the fact that the newborn Republic ultimately emerged as the world's 11th largest economy from an impoverished Third World state. What has not changed is that the nation's diplomacy is still under the incessant influence of the United States, as well as the shadow of North Korea.

Once, globalization was the catchword of the Kim Young-sam administration, but stark reality forced Korea to divert its diplomatic energy to bargaining with the United States, which is not only the Republic's patron, but a virtual middleman between the two Koreas.

From time to time, Korea has tried to actively engage with the other three neighboring powers -- China, Japan and Russia -- but what they presented to their small neighbor has not always been benevolent.

Regardless of whether the Korean division was the product of a miscalculation by superpowers or the result of considerations on the balance of power, Korean diplomats' primary goal has always been to overcome the national division.

Despite an urgent need for diplomatic self-direction to ensure its own survival in this geopolitically strategic location, Korea still has a long way to go before emerging as an independent diplomatic power.

In retrospect, the nation's closed-door policy in the waning years of the Choson Kingdom (1392-1910) and the subsequent forced opening of the country paved the way for the four great powers -- China, Russia, Japan and the United States -- to wage a war for predominance over the peninsula.

Eventually, the peninsula fell into the hands of an imperialist Japan which, armed with advanced weaponry through its early success in Westernization, sought to colonialize the peninsula instead of playing the role of a bridge for the transfer of advanced Western technologies. …