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.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.
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.