The Middle Nation:
How Korea Navigates
Between Japan and China
LIEUTENANT COLONEL YEO TAE-IK is a Korean hero. After graduat-
ing from South Korea’s Air Force Academy in 1992, he went on to
become an F- 5 and F- 16 pilot, eventually rising to vice commander
of the 121st fi ghter squadron. In addition to fl ying practice defense
sorties against North Korean Mig- 23s, he helped organize the air de-
fense plans for the 2002 World Cup games. He lived the dream of
many Korean boys: to be a fi ghter pilot jockey.
Yeo lived temporarily in the Washington, D.C., area while partici-
pating in a fellowship program at the Center for Strategic and Inter-
national Studies. He jumped at the chance to raise his eleven- year- old
son in America, where the boy could benefi t from immersion in an
English- language environment and better understand American cul-
ture. His son is something of a prodigy, a student of American history
who has a special fascination for the trivia of American presidents.
That suits the elder Yeo just fi ne. He will forbid his son from entering
64 The New Korea
the air force when it is his time to serve in the Korean military. He
wants his son to be a historian. “I’m a fi ghter of the past,” Yeo said
when asked what he wants his son to become. “My son will fi ght for
Korea’s future. The battleground won’t be hills or the sky. It will be
who gets to write the history of our peninsula.”
Yeo went on to describe the impact of one Chinese historian’s
academic paper that insisted that most of Korea belonged to China.
Although it was published in an obscure journal and was never trans-
lated into another language, it infuriated Koreans after being men-
tioned in the nation’s press. Korea, they insisted, belongs to Koreans,
not to any other culture.
Looking to the East, Yeo then talked about the threat from Japan,
which intermittently lays claim to Dokdo Island, a tiny collection of
rock outcroppings that is under Korean sovereignty. The threat of a
Japanese return to imperialism scares Koreans. It also brings them
together to rally around a common cause. Scores of Koreans who
operate dry cleaners in New York City wrap their clients’ clothes in
clear plastic bags on which are printed the words “Dokdo Island Is
Korean Territory!”
What Lieutenant Colonel Yeo is really talking about is the fact
that Korea has always had a tenuous position between the two great
powers on the parameters of its territory: China and Japan. In fact, it
is sometimes referred to as “the Middle Nation” because of this geo-
graphy. From one perspective, Korean history has been a narrative
of balancing the demands of its two larger neighbors. And Korea’s
future history, perhaps to be written by the younger Yeo, will prob-
ably be more of the same.

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