Monday, November 05, 2007

Why Korea Kowtows to China

Here’s a recent headline from this part of the world— “Korea refuses visa to Dalai Lama”. And it’s the third refusal in the past seven years. Now, why would South Korea do such a thing? After all, Korea is traditionally a Buddhist state. The recent wave of evangelical Christianity here notwithstanding, Korea still has a large segment of its population who identify themselves as Buddhists. So it makes sense for Korea to roll out the red carpet for His Holiness, the world’s foremost Buddhist leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, right?

Not so fast. The reasons for Korea’s repeated refusals to Tibet’s leader in exile—growing obsequiousness towards Red China—reflect a unique Asian brew of money and power politics.

Korea sees its future in the west, but that’s ‘west’ with a lower case ‘w’, not the ‘West’. ‘West’ of Korea is mighty China, just a short 30-minute hop by air across what Koreans prefer to call oddly enough the “West Sea” (a.k.a. the Yellow Sea). At the beginning of this decade, Korea opened a massive new airport near Seoul that is specifically intended to be a portal into China. Korean companies in recent years have built massive factories there and also invested considerable sums of capital to access lucrative markets inside China. As the communist giant continues its economic expansion, Korea will orient itself ever more westward (towards China) and less eastward (towards the US). Korea is laying its bets for the 21st century, and guess where they’re placing those bets? Betting on China is sound economic sense in the land that gave birth to Samsung and Hyundai.

There’s also the practical matter that there are not many other countries in this part of the world that Korea gets along with. North Korea? The impoverished Stalinist state that’s within artillery range of South Korea’s capital is like having a deranged, broke, and heavily armed uncle who’s squatting right outside one’s front door. The locals try their level-headed best to ignore him, interspersed with occasional payoffs to keep the psychotic relative north of the DMZ (hopefully) starving quietly. And the North is no place the pragmatic ‘chaebol’ (Korean corporations) expect to make (anything more than miniscule-sized) profits anytime in the foreseeable future. So, nix the North.

Well, what about Japan? Despite technically being allied with Korea, as well as also being a capitalistic democracy, Japan is openly despised, not so much for any rational reasons but for more emotional and nationalistic ones. Japan is also the hated former imperial occupier that has never quite apologized enough for its previous malfeasance, despite having over six decades to do so. In other words, for Koreans, Japan is just like the ex-spouse who was forced to move out of your house after a violent shotgun marriage and an acrimonious divorce, but who still lives just next store…when you wished they lived on the other side of the planet.

Koreans are also more favorably inclined towards China due to historical and cultural reasons. Before the rise of the Korean language centuries ago, educated Koreans spoke and wrote in Chinese, and for some special occasions, still do today. A collective mindset and deep-seated Confucian mentality also bear witness to shared cultural roots between the two countries. Therefore China enjoys a more favorable image in the minds of Koreans, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of soldiers of the Chinese Red Army fought on Korean soil (in alliance with the North) from 1950-1953. China’s massive military meddling in Korea’s civil war are somehow less of a sin in the Korean popular imagination than Japan’s colonial ownership of Korea.

Hence, as far as the Korean government and Korean business leaders are concerned, it’s very good sense—politically, culturally, and economically—to placate the local superpower. Lest anyone forget, Beijing is much closer to Seoul than Washington ever can be, geographically speaking. And nobody in Beijing—and therefore Seoul as well—has any love for the Dalai Lama, who in China’s judgment is a dangerous political dissident and secessionist. China has made it clear that you can’t be a true friend of the Middle Kingdom if you extend any sort of welcome to the likes of him.

With their country slowly but surely sliding towards being a de facto Sino client state, Koreans aren’t likely to see His Holiness on their soil anytime soon. In 21st century Korea, the dollar trumps the Dalai Lama.


Anonymous said...

personally, I don't favour either china nor tibet and its dalai lamas. If you read up on tibet's history and culture you'd find that it is equally as oppressive and barbaric just like other religious governed countries.. Richard Gere would cringe in shame if he knew the real history.

Anonymous said...

Look at this uncovered hysteria and hypocrisy

Everybody knows that Dalai Lama is only a card played by the 'W'est to against china, Just like those jihadists 20 yrs ago. You can foresee how west will demonize this 'His holyness' when some day when this poor old guy become useless to them or even harmful to them like this "Kowtow" korea.

Anonymous said...

The Koreans are businessmen, not some religionists who discard common sense for 'otherworldly ' goods like the stupid jihadists ( 72 virgins).
The Dalai Lama is only human. However, he is a peaceful symbol, not like the feared Osama Binladen.