Geopolitical journeys of a Lithuanian. The Lost War and other (non)dependences

Seoul. Shutterstock photo.

If you ever see a map of the world printed somewhere in China, Japan or Korea, don’t be surprised; it’s not the same as the one you learned geography from in school. You’ll find your Lithuania almost in the top left-hand corner, America on the right-hand side, and in the centre, you’ll see China and the nearby islands and peninsulas. One of these is Korea. So if you “switch” your Lithuanian mindset to a Korean one, you will realise that the unfinished war, the unpredictable nuclear tests, the tensions over Taiwan, and the unclear island are all problems of the World Centre. Ukraine is important, but the Korean War is not formally over, and Pyongyang’s dictator is closer.

Of course, Koreans, especially those living in the south of the peninsula, are not xenophobes or geopolitical egoists, but I have written about their World Centre to warn that we know very little about that region or see it through our own prism.

When we look at ourselves, we often see that in politics, we are too attached to the past, especially to the injustices of history. In Korea, that attachment is even greater, especially as the unfinished and even lost war and the divided peninsula are a continuation of those injustices. The Koreans had built up a strong state in the Middle Ages, but for the last few centuries, they have been hostage mainly to the confrontation between the Japanese and the Chinese.

South Korea’s foreign policy is largely based on its economic success. Korea is happy because it is needed and, if so, because it is safe. The US is its security guarantor; Japan is its economic and business partner. But there are problems: China with Taiwan, to a lesser extent, and North Korea with Kim, to a greater extent. In fact, the problems are bigger and bigger because there is more than one Korea, you know. North Korea’s foreign policy can be described as isolationist, nationalist and confrontational, but it is also cunning in its own way. The country seeks to preserve its regime and nuclear weapons capability while simultaneously trying to reduce international pressure and obtain economic and humanitarian aid.

The provocation and fear-mongering caused by the unpredictable feelings of the leadership are forcing the international community to somehow negotiate with it and, at the same time, justify it. Some may say this is cynical and uncharitable in Europe, but that is the case in far-away Europe. It is different in the centre of the world. North Korea is special and globally significant, even though it is the poorest country in the region. It is certainly not economics that determines real power.

The aforementioned past hurts are particularly felt in the Korean relationship with Japan. Any meeting between South Korean and Japanese leaders (and ordinary people, too) is not without “clashes” over the colonial past, territorial claims, trade barriers, compensation for war victims… South Korea and Japan are security allies but certainly not cordial friends. As for the terror claims, the territorial claims in question are the so-called Dokdo Islands (the Japanese call them Takeshima). In simple terms, they are a few rocks – nothing special, more of a tourist attraction. However, there is evidence of gas reserves in the region, and the region is also fishy.

There was a time when Japan owned the whole of Korea and all those islands that were of no interest to anyone. But now Korea has become independent, with those islands that the Japanese believe do not belong to Korea (in this case, South Korea). As I said at the beginning of the text, nothing reflects geopolitical ideas like maps. So, on the Japanese map, the islands belong to Japan, even though, as the Koreans say, they do not. By the way, South Korea also prints maps and has issued stamps with images of the islands. The dispute may remain semi-academic or somewhat economic but with North Korea and, in particular, China on the other side, the parties are being urged to come to an agreement more quickly.

China is also a historical threat to Korea. It is no secret that the Communist regime in China supported North Korea in that war in the 1960s and made a significant ‘contribution’ to the end of that war. Even now, China is the biggest breadwinner for the Pyongyang regime, even though it does not officially approve of the country’s nuclear shenanigans and other oddities.

America? We Lithuanians understand how important it is for the US to be the “axis” of European security. In the Korean perception of the middle of the world, the presence of the US is no longer an important but a necessity. There is not even much to comment on.

A year ago, the world was full of politicians who said that Russia was not aggressive and could be dealt with. Today, there are far fewer of them. In the Korean centre of the world, the assessment of Russian policy has its own nuances. The classical conception of Russian politics explains that that land empire was all about reaching the shores of some important ocean. It did reach the Pacific coast when it conquered Siberia, but certainly not the most valuable part of the coast. Russia’s advance was slowed considerably by the defeat of the Japanese at the beginning of the 20th century, and even that unfinished war over Korea did not end in victory. North Korea is not such a big prize anymore, and it is less at Moscow’s mercy today than it was in the “good” days of the USSR.

So it is all about who depends on whom. On whom does the outcome of the lost war and the scenario for a meaningful future depend? Good question.

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