The 20th century was a terrifying era of war not only in the West, but also in East Asia. The East-West conflict during the Cold War that dominated decades of the late 20th century after World War I and II maintained a balance of power under the cloak of ideological confrontation, but there was a blatant armed conflict on one side of the Earth at the same time. East Asia, where Korea and Vietnam are located, is in fact the region where the Cold War was the ‘hottest.’ Even if the Cold War ended as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, North Korea’s nuclear issue and China’s cross-Strait problems still exist. In the meantime, China’s economy rose rapidly for the past 30 years. The US-China trade friction today is gradually turning into a diplomatic and military confrontation, and a full-fledged hegemony competition has begun. Now, a number of population around the world are feeling anxious about East Asia possibly becoming the front line of the “new Cold War” again. Where is East Asia standing now? Where is East Asia going? What direction should East Asia head toward, as it is at a historical and civilizational crossroads? This week’s discussion invites two experts from Chinese Studies and Japanese Studies, respectively, to figure out the answers to these questions. Professor Lee Wook-yon of the Department of Chinese Culture at Sogang University and Director Park Jin-su of the Asian Cultural Studies Research Institute at Gachon University have contributed their viewpoints today.
Hwang: Although the momentum has been slightly dampened, it seems human history entered a new phase in many ways as the world was combating against COVID-19 since 2020. Moreover, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the world is concerned about the instability of nuclear war. How do you view the world today?
Park: To begin with, my research area is Japanese literature and comparative literature. Basically, comparative literature is an academic field established in France about 120 years ago. From the late 19th to early 20th century, there was a dark foreboding of World War I sinking heavily throughout all of Europe. France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 led the French to realize they needed more knowledge and a deeper understanding of Germany, which suddenly emerged as a modern industrial country. Although France was a border-facing neighbor, it began to reflect that it was too indifferent to Germany, and that it knew too little about Germany as a result. Entering the 20th century, this necessity grew rapidly. In a way, comparative literature is a study born of people’s desperate desire to somehow avoid the crisis of war just around the corner by knowing and understanding their neighbors better. Today, conflicts between the world’s leading giants are taking place, although it is not quite the same with the two previous World Wars and the Cold War era in the 20th century. The desperate need to know our neighbors can be exactly applied to East Asia, where we are living today. How safe is East Asia from war? And how much deeper do we understand people in neighboring countries than the Europeans did 120 years ago? I sometimes feel the need for us to think about these things.
Hwang: The world is now facing an era of historically intensifying turmoil. This era even makes us feel like we are standing at a turning point in civilization. What meaning does this East Asia where we are living have?
Lee: East Asia abandoned its own unique institutions, values and views as the principal actors during the modern transition period and transplanted them with modern Western institutions, values and new views. However, it is now necessary to reflect on the meaning of the institutions, values, and views of East Asian traditions along with a reflection on modern times, as we are in a transitional period of civilization’s history. This process of self-reflection is to think of modernity as a kind of historical process away from blindness to modernity, and to re-examine the values of tradition and modernity in terms of building a new civilization in the future. This is a third reason and practice that opens up a new civilization through reflection and re-examination of modern times and traditions while looking at modern light and darkness in a balanced manner.
Park: There hasn’t been a single day without confusion since human history began to be written. However, the distinction from the past is that the great sphere of regions that can be grouped into the “wide” cultures of East Asia, Europe and the Middle East have been able to exchange stronger and more direct influences with each other since modern times. This phenomenon may have accelerated to today so that the world, in a good or bad sense, has become more complex and more variable, facing new problems that we have not experienced before, which we may feel and accept as “confusion.” Modern East Asian societies have changed more than those of any other region in the world, and have developed internal strength through extreme historical experiences. Again, compared to any other region in the world, East Asia is a representative region that is currently struggling to find solutions to the sharp problems humanity is facing.
Hwang: Since when did this concept of “East Asia” begin to be actively used?
Park: The view of East Asia puts Korea, China, and Japan in one region and considers three of them in an equal sense. It actually has not been so long since we started using this term a lot. I remember often encountering researchers using the expression “East Asia” when I was a graduate student in the 1990s. Perhaps it is closely related to the situation in which interest in East Asian culture and history increased significantly in Korean society and academia since the 1990s. These trends must have been caused by political and economic changes back then, such as the collapse of the socialist sphere, the global expansion of capitalism, the progress of bloc formation -- symbolized by the launch of the European Union in 1993 -- and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and China in 1992. As all these factors were combined, there emerged a need to view East Asia -- including Korea, China and Japan -- as a region from a historical, cultural and economic perspective. Therefore, an academic approach was required. It gradually spread to the general public, and from 2012, “East Asian History” was adopted as a Korean high school history subject in addition to “Korean History” and “World History.” In the end, the term “East Asia” has been frequently used only in the last 20 or 30 years at the longest.
Hwang: Then do you mean we did not have the idea of bringing the region into one in the past?
Park: Yes, no one who lived in the Chinese continent, the Korean Peninsula, and the Japanese archipelago had the idea of bringing the region together until the 1980s. Instead, concepts such as “Orient,” “Asia,” and “(Greater) East Asia” was used as a countermeasure to the West or by positioning ourselves at the corresponding point to the West by internalizing its Orientalism. Since modern times, East Asia’s cultural interest was all toward the West and the US. This trend did not change much until the World War II or the Cold War. Therefore, there were not many cases where people in this area were interested in each other’s language or culture, and exchanges were not activated in accordance with this disinterest.
Hwang: There is also a great confusion going on in the international order, and East Asia is no exception.
Lee: As mankind is facing a new turning point in world history after going through COVID-19, another crisis and turning point is occurring at the same time. In other words, a turning point in a new world history -- the new crisis of the US-China competition -- is coming ahead. In this era of a new crisis and turning point, East Asia is a key site. China and the US are clashing on the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. East Asia is the front line of the US-China confrontation. As East Asia, as well as China, is a direct party in the US-China competition, it is facing an urgent task to respond to a new shift in world history of the US-China competition while facing a crisis in humanity in terms of the history of civilization. In short, East Asia is standing in front of a double crisis and a double transitional period.
Hwang: Meanwhile, China has been trying to transcend modernity in a socialist way since we have entered modern times.
Lee: Yes, those transcendences sometimes resulted in another Chinese version of modernism in the name of socialism or in the name of a socialist market economy. On the other hand, however, China has always sought to pursue its own character that is distinct from the American-style modernity, and this intention is even more so in the Chinese Dream era. Not only the Chinese Communist Party, but the Chinese people are the same as well. Whether we call it China’s pursuit of “Chineseness” or the realization of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,” China now envisions its own paths, values, institutions, cultures, and views on humanity as alternatives to American modernity. The more China builds such plans, the more the US is wary of China. The confrontation between the US and China is going beyond competition over economic and technological hegemony and toward the clash of civilizations. Following the US’ Trump administration, the Biden administration gave up hope that China would converge on US-style values and systems in the future. Therefore, the US has started to contain China and pressure the Chinese Communist Party because of the complex nature of the US-China confrontation.
Hwang: How do you see US-China relations? Is it difficult to view it optimistically?
Lee: Now the US is overreacting to China’s flows, and China is also overreacting to the US’ flows. Both are building higher and thicker barriers to their respective institutions, values and culture. Just like how autoimmune diseases occur in people with strong immune systems who try to protect themselves too much, if the US and China respond by building thick and strong defenses to protect themselves from the outside, it will cause overreactions which will cause problems to their immune systems and eventually destroy them.
Hwang: Is there any possible way to cure those autoimmune diseases?
Lee: Yes, there are two ways. One is to seal oneself in a vacuum so that nothing from outside can enter into one’s boundary, and the other is to lower one’s immune barrier, and adapt oneself to what is coming from the outside without overreacting. The former is actually impossible in reality unless one is in a closed hospital room. What is feasible in reality is the latter one. The latter way is to neutralize oneself with the outside factors, change one’s body and to create a new self. Through this process, the third self, a brand new self is born, which is basically not the one of the past or another’s self. In the era of diseases, where COVID-19 is prevalent, we must gain the wisdom of life given by the phenomenon of disease. Based on these wisdoms, we hope the US-China competition can turn into an opportunity to renew each other and open a third era, not a polarized world in confrontation. In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, it is a global task to redesign a new third civilization while examining the light and darkness of modernity in a balanced way, beyond being blind to modernity, and to find a solution in the US-China era.
Hwang: However, it seems this task must be more desperate for East Asia.
Lee: Yes, it is because East Asia is the region that is most exposed to the double crisis that the world is facing, or maybe the double turning point. And above all, it is because East Asia is directly exposed to the risk at the same time. Therefore, in this double crisis and double turning point, how to transit this reality into a new opportunity for mankind and how to set it as a starting point for imagining a new civilization is a more severe issue for East Asia than in any other part of the world. East Asia has richer modern experience than any other region. It has a history of joining the line of advanced Western countries through catching up with Western modernity through compressed growth. It has also pursued socialist modernity in a different direction from Western modernity. On the other hand, it also has abundant resources from its traditional civilization that can critically reflect on modern times. In East Asia today, the world crisis and the world's contradictions are all concentrated in one region.
Hwang: When we look at it from this perspective, East Asia must be heavily responsible, as it has become a key site of world history at a turning point of civilization and a historical era.
Lee: Again, East Asia is more directly exposed to crisis than any other region in the world. It has abundant traditional and civilizational assets and various modern and contemporary historical experiences that can help it creatively break through the era. This is why cooperation within East Asia is critical in the face of a double crisis or a double turning point. East Asia should have new civilized grounds altogether. East Asia should jointly gather and contemplate together for new civilized grounds. East Asia’s wise response to the civilizational crisis through mutual cooperation will be an alarm of beginning of a new civilization and a new history that departs from East Asia to the world. In the midst of re-grounding and re-examining the wisdom of East Asian traditional civilization and the light of modern civilization, East Asia’s joint efforts and cooperation in designing and practicing a new civilization are desperately needed -- not only for East Asia, but also for humanity.
Hwang: What can East Asia do in this crisis and transitional period?
Park: Korea, China and Japan have miraculously overcome several challenges in East Asia that began in the 19th century by sometimes colliding, cooperating, influencing and referring to each other. If we successfully achieve the goal of peaceful coexistence and co-prosperity in East Asia today in the 21st century, we will be able to contribute to peace and prosperity not only within East Asia, but also for mankind as a whole. The most serious problem to overcome at this point is that all three countries -- Korea, China and Japan -- are obsessed with their own country-centered historical and cultural views. We need to break away from these narrow-minded one-nation attitudes as soon as possible. Another problem is one that has existed since before modern times. Although the general aspects have changed, it is still necessary to completely discard the great power-centrism. Even in the 21st century, there is no true sense of East Asia in East Asia, regardless of Korea, China and Japan. There is only “conceptual (fictional) East Asia” centered on each country. Now is a time in which we must think together about how to coexist peacefully with one another in the “East Asia” unit, not just for our own interests.
Lee: Above all, we need a civilizational reason that grounds why we are seeking a new civilization. In other words, we have to link the civilizational reason for how the COVID-19 era has attempted to redesign and rebuild a new civilization to mankind, with East Asia’s crisis solution in the era of US-China competition. The United States’ institutions, values, and views on humanity symbolize modern times. These were the lights that symbolized modern times, and many countries around the world including East Asia, walked toward the light and went on the path of modernization and Americanization. Nevertheless, now the darkness embedded in the path is getting darker. The crisis of the US is another name for the crisis in modern times.
Hwang: What are the specific ways for countries to peacefully coexist in the “East Asia” unit?
Park: Firstly, it is essential to create a real opportunity for mutual understanding based on mutual consideration. In particular, history education matters. Until now, in many cases, the three countries have often described ancient and modern history based on their own country-centered views that lacks objectivity. It sure must be difficult to describe a complete common history, but at least the position of the other country should also be narrated together to enable a more transparent and objective understanding of history for the next generation. It is not easy, but it has to be done for the future of East Asia. Next, more people should be able to speak the language of the other country than now and understand each other’s traditions and cultures more deeply. I sometimes imagine a scene in which teenagers from Korea, China and Japan read each other’s literature, listen to each other’s music (not only popular music, but folk songs and children’s songs), watch each other’s movies, and communicate with each other in polite and appropriate language. The “national sentiment” of the older generation was always an obstacle to trilateral relations and was not so helpful for common development.
By Hwang Jae-ho
Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the Division of International Studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and a current member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.