The key word in East Asia in the new century is “link” both in the physical and non-physical senses. In an old song popular in Korea some time ago, a heroine curses the sea for separating her from her lover. East Asians have taken some time to realize that it is not the waters but land mass and human beings themselves which separates them from one another.
Across the channels and indeed the oceans there are increasing volumes of prosperous trade, traffic and communication. However, across the Demilitarized Zone in the waist of the Korean peninsula and further across the Eurasian continent there is virtually no traffic going on. People are divided by chasms of their own making preconceptions, culture, religion, ideology or pseudo-ideology; income gaps, myopic interests, misguided ideas or by sheer habit.
Slow, cautious and tenuous as it may appear at the beginning there are movements in East Asia cutting across these barriers. First of all there is emerging a regular summit meeting of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) and three countries in the northeast China, Japan and Korea the so-called ASEAN Plus Three. This meeting will be an improvement on the summit conference of the ASEAN Plus Three, which began two years ago and includes in its agenda issues of common interests for both north and southeast Asian countries. The immediate common concern of the member countries is of course the stabilization of financial systems. But included in the agenda are also such a wide range of issues as a free-trade area and even the possibility of a common currency. Problems in the realm of high politics are also considered a part of the agenda for the future.
This is not of course the first time that such an idea has been discussed. There was the East Asia Economic Caucus, for instance, advocated by Mahathir, the Malaysian prime minister, in 1991 which was not realized due mainly to objections by the United States. People hope that the present project, if successful, would serve also as a channel of more lively exchanges in social and cultural areas as well between the two parts of East Asia. In the Conference of ASEAN Plus Three held in Manila at the end of last year, China, Japan and Korea agreed to engage in joint research on possible economic cooperation between the three countries upon an initiative of President Kim Dae-jung of Korea. This is a very timely arrangement and would hopefully work as a good precedent for East Asia in the new century. (There have been reports in Korean newspapers that the response from the American side was negative. However, American sources deny this and further add that they should welcome a movement like this.)
There are signs of breathing space even in the relations between the two Koreas which remained frozen in the previous government under Kim Young-sam. South Korean tourists are regularly visiting Kumkang Mountain. There have even been visits to South Korea by North Korean basketball teams and a circus recently. Korea-Japan relations, ridden with rancors of the past as well as with difficulties over some of the current issues, are expected to turn into a new phase particularly on the occasion of the World Cup events of the year 2002. Again the initiatives taken by President Kim Dae-jung on his last visit to Japan furthered the developments in this direction.
But the link of the century would be the construction of a transportation network directly connecting Asia and Europe. There had been significant contacts between the two continents throughout the ages. However, direct relations between the two have remained rather scarce of late. There will be a meeting in Seoul this year when 27 heads of state from Europe and Asia will come together. We expect that this will mark a turning point in the relations between the two continents a stepping stone toward the project of the century connecting the great land masses. The significance of such a project does not of course lie in transportation alone. Economically this will drastically accelerate the development of the northeastern region of Asia, which is believed to be one of the last great depositories of natural resources of the world. It will also have an enormous impact on the growth of tourism and cultural exchanges. However, the greatest benefit which may accrue from this project will be a guarantee of better security and improved environments of peace for the next generation.
Finally above all there should be a link between the poor and the rich. East Asia is a region where extreme poverty coexists side by side with some of the world’s greatest wealth. Some countries have gross domestic product in the range of $30,000 per person or even more, while the others have less than $1,000. At least one country has been in a famine situation for some time; hundreds of thousands of people have died of starvation. A radically new approach, like an Asian version of the Marshall Plan is essential in ensuring a brighter prospect for the 21st century. In all these projects connections between people are at least as important as that between the states.
Ra Jong-yil is a professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul and a special assistant to the president, National Council of New Politics, a government party in South Korea.