Current situation in East Asia reminiscent of pre-WWI Europe, says expert

Posted on : 2022-10-27 15:42 KST Modified on : 2022-10-27 15:42 KST
The comment by Lee Sam-sung, a professor emeritus at Hallym University, came during the second session of the 2022 Hankyoreh-Busan International Symposium
Lee Sam-sung, a Hallym University emeritus professor, delivers a presentation at the 2022 Hankyoreh-Busan International Symposium held at the Nurimaru APEC House in Busan on Oct. 26. (Kim Jung-hyo/The Hankyoreh)
Lee Sam-sung, a Hallym University emeritus professor, delivers a presentation at the 2022 Hankyoreh-Busan International Symposium held at the Nurimaru APEC House in Busan on Oct. 26. (Kim Jung-hyo/The Hankyoreh)

East Asia’s regional security is facing a more dire threat than ever before. North Korea has test-launched over 40 missiles this year, and military tensions are mounting in the Taiwan Strait between China and Taiwan. In this sort of precarious situation, how can peace in East Asia be preserved?

On Wednesday, the 2022 Hankyoreh-Busan International Symposium took place at Nurimaru APEC House in Busan’s Haeundae District. The speakers in the second session included Lee Sam-sung, a Hallym University emeritus professor who presented on the topic “East Asian Grand Division and New Cold War,” and Tsai Tung-chieh, a professor at Taiwan’s National Chung Hsing University who spoke on “US-China Relations and Crisis Management for Taiwan Strait.” Park Tae-gyun, a professor at the Seoul National University Graduate School of International Studies, acted as moderator.

Lee said the current situation in East Asia is reminiscent of Europe just before World War I. He noted that the recent efforts by the US and Japan to isolate a rising China have been similar to the UK and France’s strategy of isolating Germany prior to the war’s outbreak. Other similarities he observed with the pre-WWI situation included a rise in protectionism and an untrammeled arms race.

To overcome the crisis in East Asia, he stressed that Japan, South Korea, and other US allies “need to work to develop joint security mechanisms that align with the universal value of peace in East Asia even as they maintain their military alliance relationship with the US.” As a first step toward achieving this, he suggested a peace agreement for the Korean Peninsula.

Lee explained that such a peace agreement would entail “legislating an approach of establishing linkages tying normalization of North Korea-US diplomatic relations and the lifting of economic sanctions to the timetable for North Korea’s denuclearization, followed by its stepwise implementation.”

He attributed the previously Moon Jae-in administration’s failure to establish a peace regime to the fact that it “put a declaration [formally ending the Korean War] at the very front of its peace process, while putting a peace agreement at the very end” — suggesting that the peace agreement should be a greater priority than an end-of-war declaration.

As a step toward a Korean Peninsula peace agreement, Lee predicted the possibility of establishing a “nuclear-weapon-free zone” within East Asia.

“In the case of a Korean Peninsula peace agreement, the US and China would need to take part as directly affected parties alongside North and South Korea,” he said.

“After that, we may envision a task for East Asia joint security and a feasible target where we establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone, which sets norms prohibiting the use, deployment, and development of nuclear weapons by any parties in a region that encompasses the Korean Peninsula, the Japanese archipelago, and the Taiwan Strait,” he added.

Tsai noted that there had been “at least four major ‘survival crises’ for Taiwan in the 73 years since 1949.”

“In reality, those crises have been the result of changes in US-China relations,” he added.

He went on to name five variables at play in the Taiwan Strait crisis: structural stability, disparities in strength, overlapping interests, the desire to preserve the status quo, and US support for Taiwan.

“As the US’ support for Taiwan becomes increasingly clear, it is becoming a source of conflict,” he observed, describing the current situation as the “crisis that arises just before war.”

During the discussion, various views were shared on Lee’s ideas regarding joint security in East Asia. Park said that this was a “direction that we need to head, no matter how difficult.”

“Some may call it idealism, but there’s also a dilemma where this is the only realistic approach,” he added.

Junya Nishino, a professor at Japan’s Keio University said, “Even if we proceed toward East Asian joint security from a long-term perspective, practical politics may be a different story.”

“If we take into account the current statements and activities by China and North Korea, it looks as though we will need a transitional approach where South Korea and Japan strengthen their military and deterrence capabilities within the scope of their alliances with the US,” he suggested.

Chang Young-hee, a research professor at Sungkyunkwan University’s Sungkyun Institute of China Studies, stressed that it was “not in the interests of the individual countries to have armed conflict, either on the Korean Peninsula or around the Taiwan Strait.”

“We need to keep raising the issue due to the threat of things escalating into World War III or nuclear warfare,” he urged.

By Kim Hae-jeong, staff reporter

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