Pacific Standoff Brewing
By Marc Belisle
When North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un executed his uncle Jang Seong-taek late last year, one of the main charges levied against the former regent was pretending to support Kim while “dreaming different dreams.” Whose dreams Jang was supposedly dreaming was not immediately clear, but his close ties to Beijing apparently spooked Pyongyang. The Kim dynasty has always viewed itself as surrounded by enemies. Its neighbors, China, South Korea and Japan, seem to be picking up the same pair of paranoid binoculars. Escalating tensions in the region stem from history, geography and distinct societal homogeneity. The dispute over the status of islands is a surface level flash point that reveals a deeper trend of growing nationalism, militarism and paranoia. The peoples and governments of Northeast Asia must take proactive steps to begin to reverse this trend immediately, or they risk losing modernity’s Eastward trend and turning this into yet another century of blood and fire.
The divisions of Northeast Asia are very, very old. If we define ‘the West’ as Europe and former European colonies in the Americas and Oceania, and ‘Northeast Asia’ as China, the Koreas and Japan, the temporal roots of Northeast Asian civilization run at least twice as deep as those of the West. The Roman Empire conquered Europe between 2,300 and 1,900 years ago, was overrun by Germanic tribes and divided into Latinate, Germanic and Greek peoples 1,500 years ago. The rise of major nation states in Europe began 1,200-800 years ago. Europeans began colonizing the Americas 500 years ago and Oceania 300 years ago.
In contrast, an uninterrupted stream of Chinese civilization dates back at least 4,200 years. Even foreign conquerors, such as the Yuan Dynasty, assimilated to Chinese culture rather than imposing their own. A distinct civilization began to rise on the Korean peninsula 3,200 years ago. Over the next 1,500 years, it was organized by independent kingdoms that shared significant cultural exchange with China. Its society was fully politically, socially and linguistically distinct at least 600 years ago. A distinct Japanese civilization began flourishing at least 2,300 years ago. Japan sent diplomatic envoys to China and the Korean Baekjae kingdom at least 1,500 years ago.
In the 1800s, Western colonialism collapsed China and yanked Korea and Japan out of centuries of isolation. Over 100 years ago, Japan launched an empire, hurtling the region into the modern world at gunpoint. Following WWII, the Cold War sliced through the Korean peninsula as China and North Korea aligned into the Communist camp and South Korea and Japan joined the capitalist West. The Koreans see Japan as primarily responsible for their peninsula’s division. Unlike Germany, Japan has never officially apologized, paid reparations or even acknowledged their role in WWII. This is still a raw wound in Korea and China, and hinders their relations with Japan.
Historical memories in Northeast Asia are long. While I was teaching a university English course in South Korea in 2006, a high level official in the Ministry of Education who happened to be a student in my class repeatedly told the class that it was the duty of all older Koreans to teach the youth to distrust Japan, not only because of the Imperial occupation of their great grandparents’ generation, but also because of the invasion of the Toyotomi Hideyoshi Shogunate over 400 years ago. I heard this argument frequently and would often reply by asking whether a person who had not been born yet at the time could be responsible for an atrocity. This question was often dismissed as irrelevant.
For thousands of years, mountains, rivers, forests, deserts and ocean separated these Asian peoples. Europe’s tightknit geography led to centuries of internecine warfare, but since WWII, has facilitated the integration of today’s European Union. Due to history and geography, Northeast Asian societies are some of the most demographically homogenous in the world. Their ethnic majorities number around 98%, with the exception of China, which has significant ethnic minorities, but actively disenfranchises many of them. In my years traveling through this region, I often experienced a mixture of curiosity and suspicion that frequently greets foreigners of all stripes.
The West is cobbled together by the Roman alphabet, Christian tradition, democracy and capitalism. The Western nations largely fall somewhere between pursuing a European or American dream, with points along spectra of pluralism, democracy, capitalism and social welfare. There is no Asian dream and little possibility for real integration. The four major societies are bubbles with unique languages, histories, traditions, cultures and radically different political and economic models.
China pursues one-party state-controlled capitalism that affords the material trappings of affluence to a burgeoning middle class, with little of the civil rights that often accompany such status elsewhere. Yet its rapid growth is beginning to slow, and it seems to be banking on stoking popular nationalism and building its military as an insurance policy against economic stagnation for the Communist party’s long-term power.
North Korea clings to its Stalinist cult of personality, and with the purge of Jang, the young dictator seems intent to retrench his dynastic gravitas at the expense of everyone else. He seems equally likely to preside over a sudden cataclysmic implosion as to become a Castro-like figure, a dictator who could be a thorn in the side of world security for the next half century.
South Korea embraces American style consumerism and federal democracy with more zeal than America itself. The Korean people take democracy very seriously. Seoul is often the site of massive street protests that have the power to affect real policy change. It is also one of the world’s biggest financial hubs. Both Koreas maintain two of the world’s largest armies, as mutual deterrents.
While Japan is also democratic, it is a unique model of constitutional monarchy and is somewhat aristocratic, with high level positions appointed by lower councils of representatives and approved, as a formality, by the Emperor. Japan is on the precipice of major social and political change and economic decline. It has experienced years of economic stagnation and political turmoil, it has the oldest average age of any country in the world and will be dealing with the earthquake-tsunami-radiation disaster of 2011 for years.
These dynamics are suddenly becoming alarming because, for the first time in centuries, all of them are emerging into key, or even cutting-edge, positions in the world, politically, economically, and most significantly, militarily. They are all achieving this independently. Northeast Asia is dreaming different dreams. And they are quietly developing significant military power to defend those dreams from each other. In the last few months, they have all expressed the capacity and resolve to wield that power against each other over seemingly insignificant diplomatic tiffs.
A spat over China’s expanded “Air Defense Zone” began last November and was immediately followed by all parties scrambling ships and jets to defend or counter it. The distinct nationalisms of all the parties involved are growing defensive and militaristic toward each other. China has long-term plans to build the world’s second largest navy. South Korea requested more American troops and hardware, angering North Korea. Japan is quietly building a military and navy, and beginning to question the pacifist conditions of its constitution for the first time since 1945. Japan spent the Cold War under America’s nuclear umbrella, but is now beginning to sense the need to be able to defend itself as its economy declines, and as China rises and America’s dominant power declines. Meanwhile, North Korea is building rockets and nuclear warheads and has a demonstrated penchant to use them as blackmail.
Today’s leaders in the region all have axes to grind that stem from an earlier generation. Japan’s Prime Minister Abe visited the Yasakuni shrine which honors its soldiers killed in action, an intentionally provocative move calculated to needle China’s (and Koreas’) unresolved historical anguish. This business of building armies and deploying the machines of war in a dispute as pedestrian as who owns uninhabited rocks then intentionally angering the governments and millions of people in neighboring countries in one of the world’s most crowded regions cannot possibly end well. This is utter folly for all involved.
If the people and leaders of Northeast Asia do not wish to wake from their different dreams to a single Asian nightmare, they must immediately begin a radical project of dialogue at all levels of society. The leaders need to sit down and talk and stop needling each other. Universities could play a very important role. My time as a foreigner in Asia was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and today I teach many students from Northeast Asia in Washington, DC, and watch them expand their horizons. East-West relations are at an all-time high due to cultural exchanges, while Northeast Asia’s relations between neighbors are declining due to nationalistic suspicion of each other. The region should launch a project to exchange millions of students over the next ten years. I have seen this work. Though Koreans are often suspicious of Japan, the Korean students I had who had lived in Japan, even briefly, were remarkably different. They usually loved Japan, its people, its culture, and were more than willing to put the past behind them. Let the youth puncture these nationalist bubbles, for the good of all. A younger generation can help put history’s ghosts to rest if they simply get to know each other.
Marc Belisle is the editor of The Deckle Edge. He taught university English in South Korea from 2005-2009. He has a Masters in International Conflict Analysis from the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies.[This article is reprinted, with permission, from The Deckle Edge, a magazine on peace and justice published by Peacebuilding Connections]
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