The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Between the ‘Free World’ and authoritarian countries

By Korea Herald

Published : May 1, 2024 - 05:19

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Today, we are witnessing a sharp confrontation between authoritarian countries and democratic countries. It is like deja-vu for those of us who recollect the clashes between Communist countries and the “Free World” after World War II. Authoritarian countries have a nostalgic longing for their glorious past and dream of recovering their former power and territories. The democratic countries try to stop them from invading other countries and promote peaceful coexistence instead.

South Korea is a democratic country and has to join the Free World to deter the authoritarian countries’ belligerent political ambitions. The problem is that three major authoritarian countries are neighbors with South Korea. If you are not on good terms with your neighbors, you will be uneasy due to their geographical proximity. If you encounter your neighbors frequently and have to turn away from their hostility, it will make you feel awkward and uncomfortable.

Some people argue that we should maintain a good relationship with the authoritarian countries while strengthening our ties with the democratic countries. Everybody knows it and no one can deny the necessity of it. The problem is “How?”

They say that it is not “impossible.“ Yet, no one has ever come up with any specific ideas yet because, in reality, it is “not possible.” If we take the side of the democratic countries, we cannot be on good terms with the authoritarian countries. That is South Korea’s dilemma. Indeed, we are living in hard times.

If we do not take sides and sway between the two groups of countries, we would be condemned as opportunists and eventually lose trust and respect from both sides. The world demands us to choose one of the two and act accordingly. The problem is that when we choose one, we inevitably become an adversary of the other.

Since South Korea belongs to the Free World, we Koreans cannot support or endorse the authoritarian countries’ unprovoked invasion of other countries or threats of nuclear war. Neither could we look the other way because as the people of an advanced country, we have the responsibility for promoting world peace.

Some of our political leaders in the opposition party maintain that an authoritarian country that invades a remote place has nothing to do with us. We are dismayed and appalled at their apathy and shortsightedness. First, we should be concerned about it for humanitarian reasons, and second, such an invasion will eventually endanger South Korea’s national security, too. If we are not aware of that basic fact while the rest of the world knows it well, it is quite embarrassing. If our political parties cannot see this bigger picture, they cannot lead the country in the right direction.

When we join the Free World, the authoritarian countries may threaten us or seek retaliation, perhaps economically. Yet, we must stand firmly.

We cannot approve of authoritarian countries’ invasions of other sovereign countries or their threats of inflicting massive destruction with their lethal weapons. It is a matter of principles and our identity as a country of liberal democracy. There is no middle ground for that matter. Regrettably, “strengthening the ties with the democratic counties and maintaining a good relationship with the authoritarian countries at the same time” is not possible. We have to choose and take the consequences, even though it may result in significant disadvantages.

Of course, we do not need to be unnecessarily hostile to the authoritarian countries or deliberately jeopardize our diplomatic relationship with them. We can still work with them in some nonpolitical areas, if possible. Yet, we do not have to read their faces all the time.

When we stand tall with dignity, they will treat us with respect, as they consider our allies behind us or hope that they can convert us to their friends. If we exhibit pro-authoritarian attitudes, however, they feel no incentive to treat us with courtesy and veneration. Therefore, the only way to earn their esteem is not to be servile to them, but to act stately in accordance with our principles, while closely working with our allies and friendly nations.

Currently, South Korea has not been active enough in collaborating with other democratic countries, because she does not want to provoke her neighboring authoritarian countries. However, if South Korea wants to be a world leader, she should be cooperating with other leading democratic countries more enthusiastically. We have a solemn duty to contribute to world peace and thus we cannot be apathetic to the current international crises caused by the authoritarian countries.

We are now living in difficult times. Currently, war is going on in Europe and the Middle East, and experts predict that war in Asia, too, is only a matter of time. How, then, can South Korea survive in the whirlwinds of such international turmoil? The answer is “Choose the right side, stand firmly and maintain a dignified attitude.” Then, we will not only survive, but also earn respect from both sides of the opposing camps.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.