By Mathew Maavak
One wonders why Seoul did not experience a seismic event last week. A million jaws should have clunked to the floor when one of the most meretricious arguments on the security of Northeast Asia was uttered in Singapore.
According to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, China cannot afford to let the North Korean regime collapse because the communist state functions as a buffer against U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
That viewpoint is fair enough from a stratospheric geopolitical height. But it gets more refined, with a twist in the tale.
A failure of the Pyongyang regime, it seems, would lead to "refugees, all kinds of problems, but most important, a buffer state is gone," added Lee, according to an interview conducted by Steve Forbes, chief executive of Forbes magazine.*
The game of Chinese checkers, if played out geopolitically, includes a "human wave" military axiom. The number of lives does not matter. They are all crunched into a soulless buffer. The Americans should be kept out at all costs to preserve the yin and yang of tyranny and impoverishment.
If there is something called a Korean Tragedy, it is those uniquely contradictory and conflicting pressures ever present in the personal and national self. The most graphic manifestation of this can be seen in South Korea's national flag. The symbol of the yin and yang is supplemented by four trigrams representing the universal elements of heaven, earth, fire and water.
One can witness this contradiction and appeal for harmony in Seoul's relationship with its neighbors, especially Washington.
Whatever Minister Mentor Lee says, the Americans seem eager to disengage themselves militarily from South Korea. Under this surprisingly minimalist policy, Washington is offering an early reversion of wartime command control and a drastic reduction in U.S. troop commitments.
But there is another twist in the tale here.
Prominent South Koreans are rallying their fellow countrymen and the government of President Roh Moo-hyun to do the opposite -- to secure U.S. military commitments and a unified defense structure under the command of a U.S. four-star general for as long as it is logistically possible.
When Minister Mentor Lee offered his high-stakes views, South Korean protestors were coincidentally condemning Beijing's breach of a 2004 agreement, which, was aimed at resolving the historical status of ancient Korean kingdoms straddling Manchuria.
While both Koreas routinely join China in shredding Japanese school textbooks, Beijing has not been idle in Sinifying the Balhae, Kojoseon and Koguryo kingdoms, all of which form the soul of the Korean race and identity.
In fact, foreigners have long ascribed "Korea" to Koguryo. In the vernacular language, Koreans refer to their nation as Han-guk.
According to Chinese history, these kingdoms, its lands and peoples were an adjunct of China. This is nothing less than ominous; for by Beijing's revanchist standards, the Korean Peninsula technically falls under historical Chinese dominion, and if such rationale could be stretched elsewhere, Singapore should revert back to Malaysian rule. But there is a strong U.S. security presence in the city-state to prevent just that.
During the Korean War, a Sinified historical claim over Tibet led to its permanent occupation and incorporation.
China refuses to come to terms with its own history, much less that of others. Mao Zedong had killed more Chinese than the Japanese occupiers ever did. And his shrine in Tiananmen Square doesn't raise the same passion that a Yasukuni Shrine does. Two and a half million people -- mostly civilians =- perished in the Korean War for a "buffer" state Beijing wanted.
The yin and yang of history are frequently lost on those who routinely resort to cheap nationalism, replete with blockbuster anti-American and anti-Japanese themes. But where movies predominate visual and populist imagery, there are enough Koreans around to balance all four elements at the climacteric point.
How long this can be kept in a state of harmony is unclear. South Korea, Japan and the United States may have serious differences, but they deal with each other under the rule of law.
South Korean and U.S. firms routinely sue each other over intellectual property infringements. The final decision, usually decided in a U.S. court, is generally accepted by all parties. When it comes to China, Koreans have to quietly seethe when their ingenuity is knocked down, reassembled and renamed in a Chinese sweatshop. These all amount to billions.
When the threat of force cannot be used, there is that appeal to persuasion.
Minister Mentor Lee inevitably relayed one of them. If the regime in Pyongyang gets toppled: "South Korea would take over and U.S. troops would be able to move north to China's border."
Ahem. The prospect of South Korea "taking over" the governance of all Koreans must be truly terrifying. Beijing must be spared of border humiliations faced by Canada and Mexico and Kim Jong-il's special train is now ready to enter Chinese territory where a mesmerizing lecture will be delivered on the glorious Koguryo history, not to mention the plight of "his" people.
Lee provided another hint on the growing tensions across the Yalu River. China sees a North Korean nuke as a grave threat.
It indeed does, in the sense of future independence. If Pyongyang ever tests a nuke, and assuming that Kim is nothing less than a Beijing puppet, Pyongyang can only turn southwards -- to its kith and kin -- in the face of punitive sanctions from China.
If this ever happens, the trade-off would have to be a unified Korea under democratic governance, with two distinct administrative zones until the economy and polity of both sides form a synergy for complete nationhood.
The North's cheap labor and younger population would elevate the power of the united Korean entity to new heights.
That is the pro-Beijing camp's worst fears. Boots of a united democratic Korea manning its side of the Yalu River.
But that scenario seems far too ideal, or maybe there are just too many spoilers ready to prevent that day.
* Contents of the interview was first relayed by Bloomberg.
Published in The Korea Herald on Sept10, 2006
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