A New Role for Korea in Asia
Korea turned itself into the most impressive economy in the region, next to Japan. From the point of view of other Asian countries outside East Asia, Korea’s example is not merely worthy of emulation -- it is a moral triumph.
The ASEAN-Korea Commemorative Summit was preceded by a related event, fraught with symbolic implications: the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and the Philippines Celebration ceremonies had to be postponed due to the period of mourning for the late former President Roh Moo-hyun.
Both countries underwent traumatic parallel upheavals in their encounter with modernization during the last century.
In fact, the link between Korea and the Philippines may be traced to as far back as over a century, when the United States and Japan executed the secret diplomatic document now known as the 1905 Taft-Katsura Memorandum, a sort of gentleman's agreement between colonizers to divide up the major Far Eastern territories between themselves _ Korea for Japan and the Philippines for the United States.
For this reason, I will focus initially on comparing and contrasting the two countries, before discussing Korea in relation to the larger ASEAN region.
Otherwise well-informed professors in the Philippines react with surprise when I tell them about the Taft-Katsura manuscript, about whose existence I'd learned in an English-language translation of a Korean high-school history textbook.
The first half of the 20th century resulted in divergent colonial experiences for both countries, with Korea opposing Japanese occupation to the extent of forming an overseas exile government, and the Philippines growing loyal enough to fight alongside the Americans against the Japanese during World War II.
The convergence of Korean and Filipino interests (pro-U.S., anti-Japan and later anti-Communist) continued through the Korean War, when the Philippines sent the biggest Asian delegation in support of South Korean combatants.
Nationalists on both sides also expressed dismay that the conflicts were essentially proxy wars fought by the United States against its imperialist rivals, leaving the battleground territories _ Manila in World War II, Seoul in the Korean War _ utterly devastated, and with both Asian countries persuaded to subsequently assist the United States against the eventually victorious Vietnamese during a longer-drawn-out conflict.
Up to this point, the Philippines generally fared better. The country had a head start in economic recovery and lucked out initially in its post-war import-substitution industrialization strategy.
Its status as a long-Westernized, recently Americanized capital made it an attractive destination for other Asian citizens, so when it embarked on the U.S.-supported authoritarian experiment that many other Third World countries were pursuing, logic dictated that it would continue to lead the rest of Asia in finally attaining industrial development.
As partners in the regional strongmen club, Park Chung-hee and Ferdinand Marcos were able to meet up in Manila during an earlier version of ASEAN, the 1966 conference of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.
The end of the periods of dictatorship all over Asia proved to be generally beneficial for their respective countries' economies _ with the egregious and embarrassing exception of the Philippines, once described as a ``banana republic" by the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman.
While Filipino experts tried to figure out what went wrong and how the Marcos era's mistakes could be avoided in future, Korea turned itself into the most impressive economy in the region, next to Japan.
In fact, from the point of view of other Asian countries outside East Asia, Korea's example is not merely worthy of emulation _ it is a moral triumph.
For while Japan may have had a longer run and a still-larger annual income, Korea, like the rest of the ASEAN countries, had been and has remained resolutely postcolonial: at any point in its drive toward modernization, its wealth was never achieved at any other country's expense, and if any people had to endure suffering, it was always first and foremost its own population.
This is the admittedly simplistic, probably reductive and strictly tentative logic that I use in explaining why Korea holds such a strong fascination in the imaginations of the other ASEAN member-countries.
A few observers might want to believe that the Korean pop-culture wave might be over, or that it might not even have existed at all.
Yet the record of, say, Korean TV dramas dominating the ratings of Southeast Asian media since the start of the current millennium speaks for itself.
A Korean performer, virtually unknown hereabouts, has leading-lady status in Filipino movies, and the latter country acknowledged last year that the number of Korean visitors has now exceeded those of all other countries in the world, displacing the previous and long-time record-holders, the Japanese.
One way of illustrating how the exceptionally high regard for things Korean persists in the ASEAN region is by contemplating an alternative situation.
If another major East Asian country were to initiate its counterpart into the Korean pop-culture wave, most Southeast Asian countries would likely respond with some degree of hesitation, if not outright coolness.
For better or worse, the Chinese have been marked with an overriding, though much-envied, profit motive, while the Japanese espionage activities prior to their World War II imperialist expansion cannot be easily expunged from the other countries' historical memories.
This partly explains why most successful Chinese or Japanese cultural products circulate in the region through Western distribution circuits.
Hence, among the ``senior" non-ASEAN Asian economies, Korea may well be the country that is in a position to assume an influential role in the region.
Why then has its leadership function remained largely theoretical, a kind of guidance by example, when the other East Asian countries have been more or less actively staking their claims to represent the rest of Asia?
There are two interlocking ways of answering this question, one internal to Korea and the other external, which I will attempt first.
From the perspective of the ASEAN members, the organization has been doing well enough without any form of outside interference.
A cultural historian might be able to argue that, were it not for the intervention of European colonization, the region could constitute an entire super-nation or subcontinent comprising a seemingly endless array of cultures and peoples and languages unto itself.
In a sense, ASEAN fulfills this might-have-been vision through an ideal of cooperative self-sufficiency.
Korea, for its part, has always had the historical propensity to turn inward. Its comfort zone as a nation remained within its boundaries, among its people, hermitic (to use its self-descriptor) to a fault.
By now, its leading lights might have figured that such a response could prove debilitating in an age of globalization, just as it proved disastrous during preceding eras of colonization and proxy wars.
Moreover, a genuine internal consolidation will be impossible for a long while, at least while the northern half of the country remains ideologically estranged and materially impoverished.
Meanwhile, the Southeast Asian region remains for the most part organized, appreciative, determined to succeed on terms that do not seem all that different from what the people of this country had been able to achieve not too long ago. Spring is in the air. A period of mutual courtship is long overdue.
The writer is associate professor for cultural studies at Inha University. He holds a Ph.D. from New York University and taught at a number of other universities, including the University of the Philippines.