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Sunday, March 06, 2005

Unification and the Korean nation state

Time for some more on one of my favourite subjects: Korean history, nationalism and internationalism. There has been a rather thought-provoking and unusual exchange of letters in the pages of the Korean socialist newspaper Ta Hamkke which I've mentioned in passing before. A letter in issue 49 brought up a number of interesting questions regarding Korean nationalism and unification. The correspondent first questioned whether internationalism was really a way of overcoming nationalism as it presupposes the existence of nation states and nationalism, even in the very word we use. More interestingly, the writer of the letter put forward the idea that unification of North and South Korea was not a progressive demand and something that would only really benefit the bourgeoisie as it would be equivalent to the completion of the Korean nation state, paralleling the process that happened in many parts of Europe in the late nineteenth century. This is possibly the most blasphemous statement that a Korean of any political persuasion can make. It is completely ingrained in Korean society that it is the destiny of Korea to be reunited as a single nation (and people), arguments are really only limited to how this can best be achieved. While there might be problems with this position, it is certainly very refreshing to find someone thinking well outside of the usual frames of reference and a million miles from the nationalistic nonsense that often passes for common sense even on the left in South Korea.

In the latest issue of Ta Hamkke Kang Tong-hun responds, arguing (correctly I think) that the first point is really little more than sophistry. I suppose it is in the nature of language that words for new or as yet unfulfilled concepts have to be based on already existing words. So the word 'internationalism' contains the word 'nation' even though it aims to produce the negation of the nation. Likewise, the Sino-Korean word 국제주의 (kukchejuûi - internationalism) contains the character 國 meaning country / state / nation. But of course concepts are created to help us understand the world and we cannot understand the world better by studying the logical connections between concepts or words in the abstract, but only by using these concepts to help us analyse concrete reality.

Kang responds to the second point by giving a good basic outline of an internationalist position on national liberation struggles: labour or progressive movements in oppressor countries should support the struggles of oppressed nations against their colonisers / occupiers, where hopefully workers will begin to see the advantage of a more internationlist position themselves and attempt to go beyond the national liberation struggle to a social revolutionary struggle which will also target their own national bourgeoisie.

But how does this apply to the question of Korean unification and ending what the Koreans call the 'system of division' (분단체제)?
Of course, on the Korean peninsula today the problem of establishing a nation state no longer exists. North Korea and South Korea have both established their own nation states and so the demand for unification is not in itself a progressive one.

However, having suffered Japanese colonial rule, then the forced division of the country by the Soviet and US imperialist powers and afterward the experience of an actual war and the threat of further war on various occasions, it is not particularly strange that the Korean people should want unification. If the mass of working class people say that they want unification then we can support this tactically.

Unification is not simply something that will strengthen the capitalists. As one can see from the example of German unification, unification can give rise to greater instability. Saying that we support unification absolutely does not mean that we become uncritical followers of nationalism. We insist on solidarity between the workers of North and South Korea and the necessity of a fundamental social revolution that goes way beyond unification.
I don't need to add much to this... But I thought what is most significant about the above argument is that it shows clearly how drawing conclusions about the position socialists should take when faced with a particular situation cannot be based mechanically on abstract principles. Although Kang agrees that Korean unification is not in itself a progressive demand, this does not mean that socialists cannot support it - socialists should always be engaging tactically with the real political world.


At March 07, 2005 3:51 AM, Blogger hanjuju said...

My favorite subject, too. I think the "not necessarily reunification" camp would include Roy Grinker (Korea and Its Futures Unification and the Unfinished War, 2000) who calls for a serious consideration of heterogeneity and difference, instead of simply emphasizing "recovery" of homogeneity and unity (of One Nation). Implicit in the letter you quote from Ta Hamkke is a feminist criticism of nationalism and militarism -- objecting to the nationalist/anti-imperialist elevation of reunification as the singular and foremost national interest. I wholeheartedly agree with this critique of reunification. I'd also add that queer theories on the vexed politics of "home" and "family" caution us not to romanticize the desire to be "whole" again. Unity/unification at what cost? Is reunification the end or a means to another end?

At March 07, 2005 1:33 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking contribution. I had a feeling as I was writing that post that I was probably doing so in ignorance of some other commentary that has taken an 'anti-unification' stance. I'll definitely check out the book you mention. However, this is certainly the first time I've come across this view from a Korean (in Korea) and it ties in with thoughts I've had about the nature of the current 'sunshine policy' and its quite blatant and cynical underlying message of "let's unite with our northern brothers and sisters so that we can exploit their cheap labour."

Having said that, I do agree with the position of the respondent and Ta Hamkke in general: the desire of Korean people for unification is understandable and is not purely nationalist ideology. It also reflects a real need to overcome the suffering of the past, but of course cannot be an end in itself if one is to take a socialist position.

I'd be fascinated to hear more of your thoughts on how this whole issue intersects with gender and queer theories. This is an aspect I haven't considered, but is clearly very important in modern Korea.

At March 08, 2005 9:04 PM, Blogger hanjuju said...

The "not necessarily reunification" idea is a new line of thought for me, too, and I'm sure it's blasphemous, or at least, unpopular. I'm reminded of the common historical narrative of how Shilla "unified" the Three Kingdoms -- it isn't so popular to think of it as a history of conquest, because the unification story supports the ahistorical "Korea as one" ideology.

What I'm interested in is how the (real) desire for unification has been constructed through ideologies like nationalism. Certainly, the ideology of reunification is not entirely unfounded. As Terry Eagleton says, in his discussion of ideology, ruling ideologies "must enage significantly with the wants and desires that people already have, catching up genuine hopes and needs, and feeding them back to their subjects in ways which render these ideologies plausible and attractive." And the ideologies must be "real enough to provide the basis on which individuals can fashion a coherent identity, must furnish some solid motivations for effective action." (Ideology, 15) There's a lot of food for thought here regarding the dominant ideology of reunification.

I don't have much more to say about queer/gender perspectives on reunification, except that queer (feminist) theory on Korean reunification would most certainly unsettle and destablize the notion of the home/nation, and raise serious questions about the extent to which the "desire for reunification" has been naturalized/constructed. Who knows, maybe a paper in the future? (A geek I am, with citations and all.)


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