The ICAS Lectures


The Future of North East Asia
and the Role of the United States

Sung Lac Wi

ICAS Fall Symposium
Humanity, Peace and Security
October 11, 2005 12:30 PM - 5:30 PM.
United States Senate Russell Office Building Caucus Room SR 325
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20510

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Sung Lac Wi

The Future of North East Asia and the Role of the United States

Sung Lac Wi
Minister for Political Affairs
Korean Embassy, Washington DC


Good afternoon. It is my pleasure to join you all today and address such a distinguished gathering. As I prepared for today's presentation, I realized what a large number of issues must be discussed to fully address this topic. When we examine North East Asia we must admit that time has given rise to great change. Today in the region, we find ourselves in a post cold-war era searching for a new order and a common identity. As we strive to find consensus on North East Asia's future direction, we must consider two important questions: Where will the region be heading in the future and what will be the role of the United States in the region?


Before I can examine those two questions, we must first start with the region's history. Discussing the future of North East Asia inevitably involves revisiting the past, because most of the challenges the region faces are closely linked with its old memories. The issues might be century old history, but they are not so easily forgotten, and have a way of taking different forms to reappear and haunt the contemporary Northeast Asia political arena. Accordingly, before we can gaze forward, we must turn and stare at the past.

If I might sum up the last two centuries of the region, I would highlight three major waves in Northeast Asia: The first would be colonialism, the second communism and the third market economy and pluralism. These were the major trends that swept into the region. They all contained a shared aspect: they were alien concepts not existing in the region until they were imported from outside. Colonialism reached our shores from Europe by way of Japan, Communism entered via the former Soviet Union and the doors to market economy and pluralism were opened by the United States.

The impacts of these mega trends were felt not only by their arrival in the region, but also by the response they provoked. In the case of colonialism a strong sense of nationalism rose to counter it and served as a force of anti-colonialism. In turn, anti-colonialism opened a window for communism to introduce itself to the region. The combination and timing of these ideologies explains why Asian Communism took the traits of nationalistic anti-colonialism. Once communism found some toeholds in Northeast Asia, the United States tried to contain its spread by supporting anti-communism in South Korea and other strategic locations around Asia. The battle of communism/anti-communism became a mantra of the 20th century in the region. The final trend, the introduction of the market economy and pluralism, did not face the same direct opposition that colonialism and communism experienced, but was nevertheless forced to take root in a field already sown with the seeds of conflicting political ideologies from the previous period, leaving behind a strong influence of left over ideologies. These three sets of divergent ebbs and flows were the zeitgeist that have defined Northeast Asia for nearly the last 200 years.

The three trends had other lasting effects as well, most notably keeping Northeast Asia divided along fault lines. During the colonial period, Japan faced off against most other countries in the region. Throughout the struggle between communism and anti-communism, Korea and Japan were pitted against the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. As a result, Northeast Asia was divided for almost two centuries.

Starting in the late 20th century, market economies prevailed in the region, making way for a gradual shift towards pluralistic societies. With the arrival of the market economy, countries in the region have been slowly working for integration to reverse the trend of division caused by the first two periods. Although the general inclination of late has been towards integration, remnants of the first and second period persist and the current state of Northeast Asia reflects this mixture of integration and separation.

During those first two periods, even those on the same side of the fault line did not have a close relationship. Countries that were in a similar plight during the time of colonialism/anti-colonialism such as Korea and China were undergoing different experiences and did not have much chance for cooperation or interaction. During the communism/anti-communism period, the focus was looking outwards to a foreign power center, either the Soviet Union or the United States, as opposed to inter Asian cooperation.

However, despite a lack of coordination among themselves, most nations in the region adapted to the third major trend. Of course, the exception to this general rule was North Korea. Even to this day, North Korea still harbors an extreme form of communism, nationalism and anti-colonialism. They have let the old principles remain while they actively ward off the next wave. How did it manage to accomplish such a task? The answer is that North Korea was in near complete isolation during the 2nd and 3rd phase starting in the late 20th century up to the present. Although every other nation in the region adapted to the third wave, North Korea became highly suspicious of it, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and China's switch to a market economy. Rather than follow the trends of the future, they clung even more strongly to ideologies of the past. So, the current phase of market economy seems to have little penetration behind their closed doors.

Historical Role of the United States

History in Asia has been a strong suit of the United States. During the colonial days, the US worked as a relatively benign extra-regional power. Many Northeast Asians viewed it as the only major power that didn't harbor territorial ambitions. America was genuinely interested in equal economic opportunity in the region while other major powers sought an exclusive sphere of influence. Their standing in the region was further boosted when they promoted an open door policy in China, which saw economic opportunity for all but left Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity intact. It was seen as an alternative to the colonialist undertakings of the time. Many in the region were left with a very good impression.

The US would not be an outsider for long. In the mid-20th century the US became deeply involved in the region with the advent of the Pacific War and the Korean War. America left lasting political effects on the region by constructing the post-San Francisco regime at the end of the Second World War and designing a cold war structure after the Korean War. Throughout this period, the US served as a key ally for South Korea and Japan and played a pivotal role in helping them develop their war-ravaged economies while advancing democracy in peace and stability. Their approach in the post Cold War era helped promote reconciliation with most of the nations in the region. Furthermore, when the US opened their own market for economic opportunities for Asian nations, this was an enormous contribution to the regional powers, including China.

New Challenges

Having examined the past that Northeast Asia has emerged from; a common feature can be seen when we look at the region today. All nations, except for North Korea, have made great strides towards post cold-war reconciliation and remarkable economic progress. In fact, our current period of 50 years of peace and economic growth is unprecedented in history. Accordingly, we must seize the moment and face the great opportunity we have to foster a durable peace and ensure great prosperity across the region for generations to come.

But as I mentioned in my opening words, the past is not forgotten. Strong remnants of old anti-colonialism feelings can still be felt in China, North Korea and South Korea. Communism still remains in North Korea and China and so does the anti-communism in South Korea and Japan.

These are not the only potential difficulties we face. With the past still influencing the present, across the region we see a reemergence of a strong nationalistic sentiment. This new form of nationalism that is fueled by economic growth and coupled with a sense of national pride could be a basis of political and military rivalry in the region. If this phenomenon is left unattended, we may witness the reincarnation of an archaic race of states seeking the Rich Nation/Strong Army ideology of ancient China. We currently regard maintaining the balance of power in the region as the most reliable way to preserve stability.

With this background in mind, we have to think about the other challenges that lie before us, new phenomenon such as: Rising China, Japan seeking a normal state, Russia recovering from the Soviet era syndrome, the US realigning its security posture in the region; alongside political issues such as the North Korean nuclear issue, the cross-straits issue and a changing South Korean political landscape. These new phenomena demonstrate unequivocally that Northeast Asia is in the midst of dramatic changes that demand a new archetype power relationship more fitting for the current times in the aftermath of Cold War.

The end of the Cold War brought opportunities, but it also brought challenges. Fault lines were erased after the Cold War, leaving a new playing field and upsetting the equilibrium of the past. As nations adapt to these new rules, they are producing their own strategic minds and their quest for standing in this power vacuum is taking many forms.

Summing up the current phenomenon, what is notable is that despite economic development and other integrating elements there is not a solid intertwining value through the region. A market economy cannot be the sole glue by which countries are bound together. Even today, if a major challenge arises in Northeast Asia, we have no effective mechanism in place to deal with it, and there is a lack of problem solving among the states in the region. Thus, we must proceed cautiously; knowing the only brake pedal at our disposal is the balance of power in the region. As you are well aware, the United States currently plays a central balancing role that, if it were ever removed, could present serious challenges for the region. This type of security management is one extended from the past that still works but could be shaky in our future times of change. Already, we face a daily battle to ensure the balance even with the United States in the region. I bring this point to the forefront not to underline our weakness, but rather to underscore our need for a new thinking that will prove the region can work together.

Where we should head

Consequently, my message is that we must ensure no further fault lines are drawn across Northeast Asia while we seek an improved mechanism that goes beyond the balancing of power for accommodating and coordinating individual states quests and assuring common prosperity. The answer to our search lies in integration and building a sense of community. In the dawn of this new century, we are blessed with new opportunities and chances. To aid the development of a Northeast Asia region that can work together, we must encourage and strengthen the integration factors of a market economy and pluralistic society while controlling the disintegration factors such as narrow-minded Nationalism. We must have an open mind towards our past history and actively deal with potential conflicts such as the North Korean nuclear issue. Throughout the region, we should witness a promotion of multi-lateral dialogue with the aim of community building. If we promote the common prosperity of the region as a whole we can dissuade the notion of rivalry in times of changing power relations and provide increased dividends to those who elect to become a member state in the community.

The Role of the United States in the Future Vision

Some have argued that all these new challenges can and should be handled by the regional state on its own, without US intervention and participation. Considering our experiences during the 19th and 20th century, I am skeptical. If one observes the current state of political, economic and security links in Northeast Asia, you will find that they do not exist among the regional states, but have followed a hub and spoke model, linking themselves to extra- regional forces like the US.

From the perspective of the region itself, Northeast Asia cannot excise the US role as a stabilizer on political, military and security terms. Furthermore, the region needs the US market, capital and technology for continued economic prosperity. From the US point of view, it would be to their benefit to properly engage in the changing situation of the region, with such economic and political importance, so that they can protect their own interests.

Now, I would like to move on to some steps that should be taken. Generally speaking, the US is expected to maintain and develop security and political resources and manage them in a manner focused on the new regional trend. Instead of viewing the big changes taking place in China and Korea with a negative perspective, it is important that America understands and accommodates the growth in the region. I would suggest subtle diplomacy will work better here as opposed to reactive steps. Many times, the oriental paradox of curing something not by allopathy but by homeopathy would be a valuable reminder.

Specifically, we need the encouragement of the United States as we foster the emerging trend of integration. To do this, we must build on the economic factor, which has been an important common denominator, allowing for interactions, communication and close coordination. Intrinsically, economy means competition, effectiveness, individual motivation and reasonable decision-making. As the region is still maturing in the laws of a market economy, the US past experience and lessons learned on notions such as transparency, rule abiding trade practices and corporate governance will be invaluable. With these subtle indicators, and a renewed interest in our existing principal partnership of APEC, we can nudge the region through the geography of economic integration towards the destination of the promotion of pluralism.

However, economic elements alone are not enough. We have to think about ideas that will further promote the integration process while at the same time control and minimize the disintegration element. Observing the European experience has provided us with some valuable lessons. In the case of Europe, the US had a previously established multilateral forum with the region in the form of NATO so they could afford to be generous towards the European economic integration process even though they were left out. But here in Northeast Asia, the US still needs a cross-regional security dialogue together with the economic integration effort. In this regard, the US decision to open a US/China security dialogue along with the existing South Korean and Japanese dialogues is good thing. However, this is still another dialogue centered on the United States. We must begin to study ideas that would encompass the whole region into a security dialogue. With such a dialogue, we can promote a common security concept that will dissuade temptations for military build-up and can contain the syndrome of Rich Nation/Strong Army. If we can successfully accomplish these opening tasks, the region could move to use the forum to settle challenging topics such as military confidence building and arms control. Then, a cooperative forum will supplement the current stability mechanisms such as the balance of power which will in turn weaken the individual states appetite for increased influence and power in the region. The United States with their major alliances network and military presence in the region are in a position to lead this process. I am expecting that the US endeavor to realign the alliance and study the force posture in the region has already explored the vision I've just laid out.

The current six party talks that seek resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue could be the title project of such a regional security dialogue. Though the agenda of the talks is limited to North Korea only, the six party talks have provided an unprecedented forum for political security negotiations among the parties that include most of the Northeast Asian states. If these talks are successful, it will represent a proven case where all the regional states including the US resolved a time old international pending issue and will be an example of cooperation between two giants in the region - the US and China. Further, the outcome will have a positive effect on advancing trust, economic cooperation and the normalization of relations among states. In turn, this will remove North Korea from isolation and put them into the trend of the region further ensuring the integration process. All of these results will surely advance the security dialogue and will enable the participants to take up more comprehensive steps on other security subjects while substantiating the reality that negotiations and dialogue can triumph in the region. Once more, I would like to see the vision of the US on how to manage and exploit the Six-Party process in a long-term perspective.

There is an equally important part the US can play in actively controlling and discouraging disintegration. As I have repeatedly mentioned, anti-colonialist nationalism is a present ideology and current issue stemming from past history. I know there is a view that the US should be neutral and indifferent to the history issue in Northeast Asia. But now a history issue has become a source of dispute and firewood on a burning nationalistic sentiment that could, unless confronted, reappear as a dangerous disintegration component.

Here, it would be prudent to look back on history. In the days of colonialism, the US stood on the side of anti-colonialism and stopped imperialistic ambitions. Thanks to the US effort and sacrifice, Northeast Asia recovered her freedom and sovereignty. As the subject matter involved relates to a War in which the US and her troops were principal players, America should not be indifferent. With a more positive role on the part of US government we will expect that the dispute over the past will be mitigated. In this regard, I want to remind my audience that the US House of Representatives adopted a resolution last summer which upheld the outcome of the Tokyo War Criminal Tribunal. That was a significant move that sent a message towards those who repeatedly attempted to deny the validity of the Tokyo tribunal, calling it merely a "winners court."


In conclusion, we are in a unique position to seize the momentum and opportunities to ensure peace and prosperity for another 50 years and even beyond if we act to bring together Northeast Asia. I have laid out the historical necessities we must bear in mind and the path I think we should strive for in the future. South Korea, which has emerged as a non-threatening mid level power, also has a role to play in this future vision. South Korea counts the US as her vital ally, Japan as a strong partner and is developing cooperative ties with China and Russia. Relations with North Korea are improving. South Korea is in a good position to facilitate the process that will lead to integration. Moreover, we hope this integration will form a favorable environment for our national goal of reunification too. I look forward to hearing more discussions in the US and other nations in the region about this vision. Thank you.

This page last updated 10/12/2005 jdb

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