By Park Se-jeong, a senior, Yeouido Girls High School
May is nicknamed “Month of the Republic of Korea, People’s Republic of China, and Japan.” It is due to a long-standing custom that the leaders of the three countries meet in May. In 2011, upon the agreement signed and ratified by each of the three governments, the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS) was established in Seoul, the Republic of Korea (ROK) I the south. Among the total seven ROK-China-Japan trilateral summit, four summits were held in May. According to a report published by the TCS, the ROK-China-Japan trilateral summit will be held in May in principle, if circumstances allow.
Even if we do not refer to a publication of the TCS, we can feel that the three countries are interdependent socioeconomically. In addition, personal exchanges among the citizens of the three countries are very frequent.
According to the Korean government, about 20 million people traveled abroad in 2018. Among those 20 million, the number of people who visited Japan or China exceeds 10 million, which takes more than a half of the people who traveled abroad. This trend will continue unless a war breaks out between any of the three countries or trade relationship is damaged between the countries.
With the advent of globalization after the end of the Cold War, it has been quite a long time since the globalization blurred the borders between countries. People and goods move across the national borders, thus making the world to be one international community. Moreover, we can reach any part of the world with just few clicks on your computer. The globalization has reduced distance among people and the distance that used to drift people apart became meaningless. Besides, people living in Northeast Asia, particularly citizens of the South Korea, China, and Japan, rarely feel the distance.
However, there is a question that anyone might have had when they traveled abroad. That is whether South Koreans can be considered as ‘Northeast Asians.’ For example, we can often see people asking others whether they are from ‘Western Europe’ or ‘Eastern Europe.’ We can also see people asking others whether they are from ‘Southeast Asia’ or ‘Southwest Asia.’ However, it is unlikely to ask us if we are from ‘Northeast Asia.’
The question we always get is “Are you a Korean?”, “Are you a Chinese?”, or “Are you a Japanese?” Why is that so? Why can’t people find “an identity of Northeast Asian” in Korean? People regard Germans as European and consider Saudi Arabians as people from the Middle East. But why can’t people consider Koreans as “Northeast Asians?”
The countries that are geographically proximate are dependent on each other. This interdependency is even stronger in the globalization era so that South Korea must have benefited from continuous growth of China and advanced economy of Japan. Likewise, the economy of China as well as that of Japan has taken advantage of economic growth of South Korea. For instance, there are quite a few young adults heading to Japan to find jobs. Although it has decreased compared to the past, we often see the department stores and malls teeming with Chinese tourists buying products produced by Korean companies.
Nevertheless, the three countries dislike each other. It would be more accurate to state that the three countries feel very uncomfortable whenever they start to talk about political or military issues rather than just saying they dislike each other. They even show hostility and animosity against each other without any effort to hide their resentment. There could be many reasons behind their attitudes. Historical experiences such as Japanese colonialism can be one factor, and territorial problems such as Dokdo or Ieodo issues can be another factor. Furthermore, Chinese fishing boats illegally crossing and fishing in South Korean waters off the west coast may also influence the relationship.
It seems like there are two different sense of the meaning in the concept of neighbor. One is that neighbors are likely to become familiar and to understand each other better than others due to their frequent contacts and exchange. The other is that neighbors are also likely to have disputes because they live near each other. Under what circumstances, can neighbors be more thoughtful? Also, under what conditions are neighbors more hostile against each other? It is unfortunate that South Korea, China, and Japan tend to hate each other rather than to embrace and to understand each other, even if they live in the same region, which is the Northeast Asia.
In global society, there are not only Northeast Asia, but also many different regions including diverse countries. While some countries in a certain region may communicate with each other effectively and respect each other well, other countries in a different area may hurt others’ feeling and reject each other. People in those countries with less respect should learn what makes spirit of mutual respect and mutual consideration to happen. For instance, European countries live together in a spirit of mutual respect and trust, and maintain the strong bonds among them despite complicated issues related to Brexit.
Although we do not have a strong sense of ‘Northeast Asian’ identity, Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese are the ‘Northeast Asians.’ The fact that we are both ‘Koreans’ and ‘Northeast Asians’ might have played a significant role in our lives even if we cannot feel it. This May makes me to rethink about my identity as a Korean and my identity as a Northeast Asian. Isn’t the belief that we are the Northeast Asians going to be helpful in promoting harmonious relationship among the three countries? We, Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese, are all Northeast Asians.