The request from the Trump administration that South Korea join a new naval mission to the Strait of Hormuz, at precisely the moment the entire region is on fire, places Seoul in a difficult position. Not only is the push for military conflict with Iran, which is making Secretary of State Mike Pompeo immensely unpopular with many Americans (including many in the military), the plan has also been met with profound skepticism on the part of many American allies. Many question the legitimacy, and the logic, ofassassinating Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Few think that there will be any positive result from military action. Emanuel Pastreich specially for The Korea Times.
The risk of South Korea being drawn into a massive, and crippling, military conflict, and one in which the United States does not have overwhelming advantage as was the case in the first Gulf War, are high. The threat that Iran will break off diplomatic relations with Seoul, and perhaps even encourage attacks on Koreans around the world, is real.
At the same time, South Korea has benefitted immensely from the U.S.-Korea alliance and the ties between the two countries in culture, education, politics and economics are profound. A decision by South Korea to avoid the Hormuz mission, as Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has suggested, could do significant damage to bilateral relations and create resentment the extends far beyond the Trump administration.
The choice is incredibly difficult, but it must be made.
I will not pretend to offer a miracle cure. What I would like to suggest here is that this crisis offers South Korea a chance for a profound consideration of its true national security and an opportunity to launch a complete transformation of its economy and culture that will make future choices more strategically sound and will keep South Korea out of such impossible positions.
Energy resources from the Middle East are critical to the Korean Economy at multiple levels. Korea uses those energy sources in its economy, it produces products that require those energy sources such as automobiles and ships that are sold globally (and is therefore sensitive to fluctuations in the price of oil), and Korea sells many products and services to the Middle East so that the economic health of that part of the world has a direct impact at home.
So dangerous it the instability in the Middle East that Koreans must respond by focusing their full attention on the solution (putting away their smartphones) and they must make energy security the national priority.
However, this crisis, which I think is the equivalent of war, does not mean that Korea must buy even more weapons systems, or send its military into the Middle East to face tremendous dangers in an ambiguous struggle. Instead, making Korea completely independent of imported fossil fuels must become the priority. We must create the equivalent of a military economy to get us there quickly. We have no time to waste.
The rapid end of dependency on petroleum and other energy sources imported from abroad must be made such a fundamental security priority that the response of the stockmarket, short-term profits for business, the convenience of citizens and traditional economic growth metrics become secondary in the discussion.
The government must reassert its authority to set a national long-term agenda and to mobilize citizens, working together with all sectors, so that we can rapidly transform our economy, our means of production and our culture. It is an imperative, “the moral equivalent of war,” to quote President Jimmy Carter, that we become entirely independent of fossil fuels in the next few years.
Once we recognize that the overwhelming priority for Korea is national security, and not economic growth, and that national security will only come when we end the importation of petroleum from the Middle East, and from elsewhere, we will make real progress. Climate change engendered by emissions from fossil fuels will destroy Korea over the next 40 years (and the predictions about global warming of scientists over the last 30 years have been quite accurate) and constant dependency on imported energy means that Korea can be economically destroyed at any time by a break in the flow of petroleum and coal into the country.
The first step is for the government to ignore the cries of short-sighted business representatives who have no long-term strategy for the nation and who are more interested in overseas profits than in the well-being of Koreans.
We must set an ambitious plan to make Korea 100 percent carbon-free in four years, or fewer. Such a plan will go even beyond the most ambitious efforts elsewhere in the world and make Korea number one. Moreover, it must be even more comprehensive an effort than the Korean drive for rapid growth in the 1960s and 1970s. To be successful, this goal of independence from fossil fuels must become a critical part of the lives of all citizens, giving new meaning to every action and creating a new sense of community. Citizens should be placed at the center of this national movement to end imports of energy, thus encouraging a sense of common purpose and a habit of mutual support, as opposed to narcissistic self-indulgence and greedy competition.
We must make plans for South Korea in which energy independence is set as the top priority and in which policies are no longer evaluated with regards to the profits they may derive for wealthy investors.
First, the government must reinvent finance to serve in much the manner it does in a war-time economy. As was true in the 1960s and 1970s, finance must be nationalized and used for the common good. Foreign capital which is not directed at the long-term interests of Korea, specifically energy independence, must be rejected.
The goal of zero imported fuel is necessary for survival. Profit and consumption are far lesser concerns.
The entire economy must be mobilized to manufacture and distribute wind-powered and solar powered sources of energy. Those sources of energy should be heavily subsidized for the purpose of national security and must completely displace oil and coal power. The technology should be open source and all residents should be required by law to employ renewable energy. We must see solar and wind power devices attached to every residence, every office building and spread across the country. Every plane or bus or automobile must be covered with solar panels that generate energy.
But the process goes further than that. Buildings that waste energy must be entirely rebuilt for maximum efficiency, including the installation of insulation and the use of double or triple storm windows. We should not hesitate to demolish buildings that cannot be energy efficient. Moreover, we must increase the number of trees in public spaces, even tearing down many buildings in cities to make space for plants.
Employing electric cars that can be charged using solar panels will be a critical first step. But we can only do so effectively if we require that all existing automobiles be turned in for replacement with electric vehicles within six months.
But many people should simply give up their cars forever. Moreover, South Korea should move beyond its economic dependence on the automotive sector. The ultimate plan will be to eliminate most automobiles and to redesign cities so the vehicles are no longer needed.
The scale of the transformation will be massive and must be pushed forward by a social movement that includes all citizens. Citizens must learn at local meetings, much as they did in the 1960s and 1970s, about the dangers of climate change, about the imperative to stop the use of gasoline, of plastics, and of everything related to imported petroleum. We must educate everyone about the existential danger for Korea posed by climate change and the national security risks of dependence on imported energy. We must make everyone aware of how each of their daily actions, driving a car, buying a plastic toy, eating food wrapped in plastic and imported, make Korea less secure and increase the dangers that we face.
This movement should include everyone, from every block, from every village, across Korea.
To achieve such a goal we must make reading, writing, analysis and debate central to Korean society. The link between climate change and fossil fuels, and the deep threat to Korean security posed by importing energy, can only be made clear if we revive intellectual discourse in our society and make citizens participants in the process. We must encourage Koreans to be citizens and to engage their minds in policy, not just in mindless entertainment.
But there is more. To eliminate imported energy, and thereby assure national security, we must return to our traditional values. Koreans once held frugality, modesty, self-sufficiency and humility as the highest values. It was once considered shameful to throw away a grain of rice, or to dispose of any object that had still value. Koreans wasted nothing. Thrift was a great virtue.
But Korea has been taken over by an indulgent culture of consumption that makes waste a virtue. We are encouraged by television shows, commercials and the alien concept of consumption-based economics to waste. In fact, the more we waste, the better our economy will be ― or so we are told. We have thrown away close family ties and deep friendships. Instead, we pass our days buried in our smartphones, watching stupid videos, photographs of food, video games or pornography. This flawed culture encourages a fabulous waste of energy that makes the southern side of the Korean Peninsula visible from space. It is a catastrophe, not an achievement that South Korea is lit up, and this waste deeply compromises our security. All that energy is imported, and all that energy is destroying the climate.
As we push for true energy independence, we also will be forced to reconsider the concept of trade. Trade has been presented to us as a critical aspect of the economy, and this position on the importance of trade is shared by representatives of the left and of the right.
Trade is a sacred topic, one that no one can question.
But if Korea wants true security, we must ask the hard questions. The United States, and Japan and China have already started to ask those hard questions about trade.
The ships that bring us products from around the world also consume immense amounts of imported fossil fuels and they contribute to climate change. Moreover, Korea’s dependency on raw materials and finished goods that are imported vastly increases the risks for Korea in the case of a conflict. Whereas most tools and furniture were once made in Korea, now most must be brought from abroad. Jobs have been sacrificed, the nation’s security has been compromised and local expertise diminished. If trade stops in a crisis, the Korean economy will stop.
Increased self-sufficiency is critical to Korea’s survival; the myth that the only road to prosperity is through trade must be questioned. If trade makes us insecure, we must limit trade. We are in a position where most Koreans would starve in a few weeks if food imports ceased.
The Middle East crisis is as serious as it looks. But the ultimate message for us is NOT that we need to send warships and tanks into that growing chaos. No. Rather, we must come together in Korea, to exercise great political will, and to make Korea truly independent of imported energy. That is the first step toward true security.
The struggle to change direction will be enormous. Everyone must be involved. But as we know, Korea has succeeded against the odds before.