From California to Connecticut, from Chicago to Charlottesville, the recent amendment to the Peace Constitution— which allows which allows Japan to take offensive military actions if necessary— is raising concerns among Korean expatriate communities in American colleges. Believe it or not, a considerable number of Koreans believe that history is repeating itself and that a Japanese invasion in response to North Korea’s destabilizing provocations is around the corner.
To a vast number of Koreans, the precedent of dynastic Korea’s futile diplomatic attempts to preserve independence until its annexation by Japan serves as key evidence of a popular and seemingly convincing theory. It suggests that Korea by herself cannot be an independent variable to the overall power scheme of Northeast Asia, only to be overwhelmed by other countries in the region including the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
However, this theory is not only incorrect, but also dangerous for the nation’s interests. It fails to put the differences between now and 1910 into account. Whereas Korea in 1910 was a feeble, pre-modern state with neither functioning economic nor military foundations, Korea today is a regional power and a global economic powerhouse. It possesses the 14th largest economy in the world and the 7th strongest military. Politically, it is the healthiest democracy in Asia that achieved civil liberties through a peaceful revolution led by the citizenry. When the conditions are this different, assuming the same geopolitical outcome is a function of poor contemplation and victim mentality caused by the country’s colonial experience.
This victim mentality ingrained so deeply in the Korean psyche can be a real hazard as public sentiments toward China and Japan become mutually exclusive because of it. As Seoul and Beijing are making unanimous criticisms of Japan’s remilitarization, territorial claims, and refusal to admit her WWII atrocities, China gets to play the role of a lesser evil while the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo freezes to a halt. Simultaneously, China’s popularity within Korea rises as that of Japan plummets. It is an interesting, even bizarre phenomenon given that Korea has faced more invasions from China than from Japan in the last five thousand years.
But Koreans must ask themselves whether their concerns are directed towards the right party. An empire exhibits certain characteristics and the most distinctive of those is that it sees itself as both the sole creator and regulator of regional or world order. Korea has experiences of being part of China’s dynastic tributary system at some points in her history and Beijing may want to reenact this relationship in a modern fashion. Some recent attempts by Beijing to pressurize Seoul regarding the stationing of a new U.S. missile defense system suggest this possibility.
Beijing’s haughtiness has not always been explicit but it has been persistent. In 2011, when Korean Defense Minister Kwan-jin Kim visited Beijing, the 3rd Capital Division of the People’s Liberation Army presented him the guard of honor. The problem with this gesture was that the 3rd Division was the very Chinese division that had captured Seoul during the Korean War. While Minister Kim laughed off this irony, the action spurred a controversy in Korea whether Beijing was implying a threat of compliance. Regardless of the Chinese short-term intentions, Korea’s sovereign liberties are highly likely to be threatened in the long run by the very nature of hegemonic power as China keeps expanding into the Pacific.
On the other hand, Japan’s remilitarization may not be as negative as it seems. While it is true that Japan’s remilitarization puts pressure on Korea, already in the middle of the regional arms race, it may serve as a balance against the Chinese expansion. In contrast to what many fear, unlike China, Japan cannot be an empire. In order to be an empire, she needs to challenge the current regional hegemon, the United States, which is also her greatest ally and inseparable guardian. Hence, the American hegemonic system, under which both Korea and Japan are its cornerstones, renders the unlikely possibility of Japanese military hostilities on Korea virtually impossible.
Koreans live in a sandwiched nation of which its disposition may look similar to that of 1910. But things have changed. History may attempt to repeat itself, but it will not be able to— at least not identically. It is up to the Korean nation to ensure that it will not, and it requires the public to embrace confidence and emotional moderation.
By Spencer Park
Spencer is a second year in the College of Arts and Sciences.