For countless times, we have witnessed the world’s biggest and richest cities getting catastrophically demolishedㅡon our TV screens. The usual pattern goes like this: gigantic space saucers shoot down laser beams upon the New York skyscrapers or the White House, and Godzilla is in charge of maliciously trampling on Tokyo. Most recently, the evil Decepticons joined in to turn Chicago and Hong Kong into ashes.
On top of them, the humanity faces even more diverse group of enemies who are, unsurprisingly, of our own kind. Extremist terrorists, secret societies, mutants gone berserk, and greedy military tycoons all have, by and large, caused serious enough of a damage to the developed world, so that the audience can recall an ugly truth which was confirmed by the 9.11ㅡ that we, not some extraterrestrial monsters, are the real threat to ourselves.
As the trend is to diversify our fictional supervillains, so are the cities at which they point their guns. They are shifting from the traditional post-war Western metropolis to relatively newer ones, including the proud capital of South Korea, Seoul.
Last March, a few scenes from Marvel Comic’s latest sequel of the Avengers was filmed in Seoul. Excited Seoulites flocked around in the hope of getting glimpses of stars such as Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson. Almost for certain, the crew was shooting some God-awful destruction scenes in which careless superheroes fighting aliensㅡor whoever they areㅡ would blow up everything that gets in their ways, while completely disregarding the Korean traffic laws or its territorial and aerial integrity.
Yet, people did not mind this at all as long as this was happening within the fictional realm. In fact, many of them probably felt exhilarated to see their city finally acknowledged by big time filmmakers and the entertainment business as one of those cutting-edge cities worthy to vicariously explode like Manhattan. After all, ABC’s Lost could not possibly disheartened the Koreans more when it portrayed Seoul city in one of its episodesㅡfilmed in Hawaii at bestㅡ as some sketchy, backward industrial town, where ladies in kimono would walk over a barely 20-feet-wide stone bridge ‘Seoul Daegyo.’ Seoulites were utterly shocked, and their pride ever so hurt, to imagine that this was how the world thought of their home of 10 million people. Seriously, they should thank Psy and his groundbreaking music video for changing that.
There are, however, people who do find it uneasy to watch flames engulfing Seoul, even if it is only on their iPad screens. A certain Kim across the 38th parallel once famously threatened the capital of South Korea with a “sea of fire”. Though no one really seemed to care this nonsense, such belligerent rhetoric does remind people of the shelling of Yeonpyong islands in 2011, which in turn leads to remembering the hard and real tension surrounding this peninsula.
When a playthrough video of Advanced Warfare, a new Call of Duty game was released, surely many had mixed feelings watching it. A platoon of US marines penetrated through hundreds of anti-aircraft and landed in the middle of none other than Gangnamㅡyes, that Gangnamㅡ Boulevard. Notwithstanding the serious lack in variety of fonts for the signs in Hangul, the game overall did a fantastic job recreating the bustling(with bullets and tanks) streets of the busiest sector in Seoul city. Watching Gangnam, not Time Square or Champ-Elysees, turning into a near-future battlefield could not look more realistic, especially for the time being.
Albeit the whole North-South Korea standoff, many analysts and journalists mention of “neo-Cold War” materializing in East Asia, in which the US-Japan alliance is confronting ‘rising’ China and Russia, with South Korea caught in between. The anxiety is spreading, as pointed by the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute which shows that Africa and East Asia are sharply increasing their military spending when the rest of the world decreases. The Japanese cabinet is even attempting to amend their constitution in order to take a larger military role, which is upsetting China while America condones it. As Korea helplessly waver in the middleㅡ boom, deus ex machina: Xi Jinping visits South Koreawith his entourage from public and private sectors. The message to Park beneath his charm offensive is clear:
“Is it me, or Obama?”
A renowned Korea Herald columnist Yu Keun Ha interprets such state of affairs in a different angle. Mr. Yu believes that South Korea has grown strong enough to somehow “influence the geopolitical balance of power,” unlike how powerless it used to be. Korea has gained significantly larger political and economic presence in the world, hence it can change the current crisis into its own opportunity.
The problem with Yu’s rosy vision of “middle power” is simple: Koreans just have zero experience in proactively “influencing the geopolitics,” or being anything close to the “middle power.” Throughout its lengthy history, the Korean peninsula was typically a battlefield between its neighboring continental and maritime forces; its residents are more accustomed to playing a victim of this vicious fate rather than an opportunist. So what can the “middle power” exactly do, anyway? The Tang, Mongols, Qing and the Japanese have never allowed it.
So at this point, it may be advisable for South Korea to first ensure the basic realist tenet of “survival of the state,” and then maneuver the crisscrossing interests of its next door countries, instead of initiating something undeservingly daring. A comparative analysis of how the paths of Switzerland and Netherlands split during the First and Second World War may provide meaningful implications to contemporary Korea, although the European and Asian context may be a little different.
For my answer to how Seoul has not already bursted into a “sea of fire” in the midst of supposed neo-Cold War, the deterring presence of US military should be credited first, followed by South Korea’s inadvertent semi-neutral/buffer-state character, plus its economic interdependence to the developed world. The last point holds a very special meaning because it is the true accomplishment Koreans have brought about with their own sweat and blood. Korea had its days of being a nobody in the international theatre not so long ago; now, it is one of the global economic powerhouses of this century, of $100 billion foreign investments in placeㅡ the capitalists of this world do not want to see it bust like Iraq or Ukraine. The superpowers can annihilate each other at any moment by pressing a button. What really matters now is the economic presence.
This approachㅡthat “It’s the economy, stupid”ㅡ offers an interesting perspective when applied to the Korean predicament where it is forced to take a side. What America and Japan call for is a heavier military dependence on Washington’s security scheme, which is spearheaded by urging Korea to join the costly MD system, trilateral military information treaty, and eventually accept Japan’s right of collective self-defense. In contrast, what Xi Jinping offers is a package of lucrative economic incentives: China-Korea FTA negotiation is proceeding in an unprecedented speed; the direct yuan-won exchange market has been set up; and finally the RQFII status of 80 billion yuan, larger than Singapore or Taiwan’s, has been givento South Korea, which means wider access to the fastest-growing Chinese financial market. Even the disputed suggestion of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is receiving a positive vibe in Korea.
America(and Japan) may want to
reevaluate its economic charm
in the new Asian political landscape.
Do Abe and Obama have a strategy as appealing as China’s to entice South Korea to their side? Even Japan is very much reluctant to join the US-initiated TPP, while Korea has already got its own beef against the FTA with America and the issues over work visa quarter. Then why should Seoul prefer the American deal to the Chinese? Before going hysterical over South Korea ostensibly turning pro-China, America(and Japan) may want to reevaluate its economic charm in the new East Asian political landscape. As the Korean saying goes, “Treat her nice whilst she’s with you.”
So hopefully Seoul becoming a fierce battlefield is just a work of our rough imagination. There is a lot at stake for those in Wall Street and Shinjuku, as well as less rich others who look forward to building beneficial ties with South Korea. Hu Jintao spoke of the“New Type of Great Power Relations” between the US and China, in which the two nations agree not to meddle with each other’s “core interests.” If the wealth of Korea can secure a spot close to those core interests on both powers’ agenda, then so be it. Although this may only be a precarious, watchful peace, at least the Asians have learned not to evoke anything similar to the Middle Eastern shit-storm.
The only qualm I have is that the US has been so caught up with that shit-storm all these yearsㅡ see how our FPS games have mainly set in the Iraqi dessertsㅡ and now it wants to “pivot” back to Asia. Sorry, but Asia has changed during your absence. Unless a real Captain America comes over and promises to keep it safe, it will not be so easily and unconditionally swooned anymore.
More on the failing ‘pivot,’ this time in Indonesia.