Seoul can be key regional player with skill, resolve
No three neighboring countries in the world might have greater potential for economic prosperity than Korea, China and Japan. Together, they account for nearly one fifth of global GDP and trade, closely following North America and the EU. That was at least how it had been until 2011. This year, the ''C" word world's media outlets will be using most often to describe the region will not be cooperation but confrontation.
The confrontation between China and Japan over some disputed islets in the East China Sea has moved from the sea to the sky over the weekend, causing fear that any misjudgment could lead to an armed conflict.
As is well known, behind the escalating tension between the two countries is due to Japan's denial of historical culpability and China's bitterness about its disgraceful 20th century and the latter's resolve to make things even based on reversing the economic and military strengths between them. The emergence of nationalistic leaders in Beijing and Tokyo is no coincidence.
Add to these Korea's historical and territorial disputes with the two giant neighbors, and one sees a grimmer geopolitical situation here than any other part of the world. And it is against this backdrop that a group of senior U.S. diplomats is visiting Seoul and Tokyo this week.
The U.S. officials, led by top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, will reportedly urge both Korea and Japan to mend ties, while calling for ''care and caution" from Japan and China in resolving their maritime dispute over the Senkaku, or Diaoyu, islands. In conclusion, the U.S. visitors' upcoming mission will prove to be barely better than doing nothing if they fail to dissuade leaders in Tokyo and Beijing from trying to divert popular attention away from domestic failures to aggressive diplomacy.
Washington has of course warned Prime Minister Shintaro Abe not to modify Tokyo's apology for its wartime wrongdoings, including the sexual enslavement of Korean and Chinese women for its Imperial Army. In unofficial meetings, however, the U.S. diplomats will need to hammer home the point more directly, and strongly, to their Japanese hosts. What the Japanese leader should focus on is not fanning a nationalistic ''retro" boom but reviving the moribund Japanese economy through domestic reforms.
China for its part has been overly assertive, diplomatically and militarily, largely because of its need to hide various ill effects of its authoritarian economic development model, such as the lack of freedom and extreme wealth gap among different classes and regions. Washington's diplomatic leverage may be far less on Beijing than on Tokyo, and the U.S. needs to fundamentally remove China's excuses for undue aggressiveness, by disavowing America's suspected encirclement of the Middle Kingdom under the pretext of its ''pivot to Asia" policy, in the G2 rivalry over global hegemony.
Washington called Tokyo a ''corner stone" and Seoul a ''lynchpin," respectively, for the U.S.'s East Asian diplomacy. It should be able to answer the possible question from Beijing: For what?
It's Seoul, and new leader, Park Geun-hye, that must be ready to play a role of regional balancer, which former President Roh Moo-hyun hastily attempted but failed a decade ago due to unripe circumstances. She ought to start with inter-Korean rapprochement by, first of all, skillfully separating nuclear and other issues between the Koreas. Without stability on the Korean Peninsula, nothing will be possible. Park must show the visiting Americans Korea's determination to attain a virtuous cycle of peace and security on this divided peninsula, and do its utmost for regional stability, too.
Park and her diplomacy-security team must show, to Koreans and foreigners alike, they are capable of doing this crucial job, ranging from long-term vision and flexibility to detailed action plans. The time is now.