US and Korea: Deep Changes Conveniently Ignored



Francis Daehoon Lee
Deputy Secretary, Peace and Disarmament Centre of PSPD


October 31, 2003

1. Introduction

Like so many male affairs, international politics surrounding the so-called North Korean nuclear issue hides more than it tells. It portrays countries and governments as they are, as unitary units, as if they are there forever by themselves, while unseen things are being shaken from the bottom.

Until recently, life in Korea has been dominated by what we call 'division system' and this is since the division of Korea in 1948. The mutual interaction of pretentiously non-interacting two Koreas since then has deeply penetrated in the way politics and economics are conducted and how each state defined itself and its people vis-à-vis the other. In South Korea, the purpose of the state, growth, and ideology was defined as what North Korea is not, and vice versa in North Korea. This is why, for example, one cannot describe the rapid economic growth of South Korea in the past decades without considering the nature of the state repression over the people in relation to its identity, the notorious anti-communist regimental state under Park Jung-Hee in 1961-1979 for example. Two Koreas held each other together to become each other. So when there is a deep change in one side, it affects the other, inevitably - a reciprocity of the division system.

Coming into the 1990s, however, what we see in Korea is the fundamental shake-up of this overarching, mutually defining system that has governed every facet of life for so long. The global structure that sustained the division system in Korea, the Cold War, was dismantled with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The balance of power, in the sense of overall state power inclusive of military capacity, between two Koreas was broken in favour of South Korea.

Of course it is meaningless to compare the military capabilities of the two Koreas alone because of the massive presence of the US forces in South Korea, but the 'sense of shift' of anything between the two Koreas always had significant effects on politics and the public mind. Moreover, manifesting the dynamics of deep-level bottom-up transformation, the gradual democratisation in South Korea since 1987 opened up large social, political and cultural spaces in the south where the psychological ice wall dividing two Korea began to melt, flushing away a large portion of hatred and bias. This had the effect of melting down a large portion of world-view subjugated to the purpose of division. A new perspective was bound to come, especially among the younger generations who are rather free from the Cold War thinking, going beyond the boundary of national politics and reaching the developing meaning of global politics. It began to emerge in the south, asking a potentially explosive question to oneself: what and who are we if we are not everything that is not North Korea and not everything partial to the US interest?

A new, critical perception of self-identity in the south, is a key to understanding what is happening in Korea today. It lies in the background of the rapid rise of Roh Moo-Hyon during the presidential campaign in 2002, with his image of free thinking, independent and proud, and I-did-it-my-way and I-can-say-no-anyone style.

It also lies in the background of the nation-wide fervour and feast during the 2002 World-Cup football games. The once forbidden colour of red became the unifying colour of the football fans in Korea not because of any ideological adherence but because it broke that particularly powerful taboo of the 'old days', symbolising the free spirit of the young generations. It also explains why the death of two young girls in June 2002 can never be merely two accidental deaths to Koreans: now it was impossible to accept such cases as accidents after hundreds of similar crimes had been treated so over five decades. It also manifested itself when Koreans surprised Washington with their contemptuous attitude towards George W. Bush' 'Axis of Evil' talk and with their angry protest towards Roh's government supporting the U.S. in the US invasion to Iraq. The world's most rapid rise of anti-American sentiment in recent times is occurring in South Korea and this can only explained as a public break-away from the way nation-building has been conducted since the Korean War


2. Development of Two New Conflicts

The fundamental shake-up of the division system in Korea is marked by development of two conflicts. One is the conflict between the course of reconciliation between two Koreas and the US-North Korea tension. The other is the systemic crisis and instability of North Korea in conflict with the need of regional stability that is in the interest of all concerned societies in the region. The two conflicts are interwoven to each other giving the first conflict a likely outlet to militarist solution. This is because, firstly, the systemic crisis in North Korea is closely related to the international isolation designed by the US, and, secondly, that internal crisis has limited the policy options for their leaders, making extreme measures more attractive. Pyongyang's choice to use nuclear programme as the last bargaining chip to Washington is rooted in this background.

Did the source of conflict come from North Korea's nuclear programme or the US hard-line policy? If one does not want an answer drawn from the two given ones, there might be another way of seeing the basic issue. One has to recognise that the current US-North Korea tension is not independent from the changes in the inter-Korean affairs over the past decade or so. Since late 1980s, North Korea began to have dialogues with democratic forces of the south over reunification and peace issues even though such dialogues were banned by law in the south.

One may recall Rev. Moon Ik-Hwan's, then young student activist, Lim Soo-Kyong's and other similar visits to Pyongyang. Unlike governmental talks, these visits brought very little tangible to international or inter-Korean politics. But they brought about something much deeper. Lim's visit, in particular, was a ground-shaking deed that created an explosive realisation in both Koreas over the free spirit of the post-war generations. They de-legitimised the Cold War-style confrontational politics and made the peace and peaceful unification discourse ethically superior to the militarist one. This new ethics, or new legitimacy of the peaceful approach, though 'illegal' for the time being, was to have fundamental political effect in South Korea, and also on US policies towards Korea. Along with it came slowly de-legitimisation of the US role in Korea.

Also, along with these 'illegal' dialogues, the two Korean governments have been exchanging forms of low-level peace talks, such as the joint statement for denuclearisation of Korea in 1991. With Kim Dae-jung's government in the south, the inter-Korean relations changed drastically, culminating in the first Korean Summit in June 2000, followed by N. Korea's second man, Cho Myong-Rok's visit to Washington and the reciprocal visit to Pyongyang by the then US secretary of state, Madeline Albright. It was during these visits that the two governments issued a joint communiqué agreeing to continue to implement the 1994 Geneva Agreement and to improve the mutual relationship. All these reconciliatory approaches raised domestic political legitimacy of any Korean parties involved. In other words, there has been bottom-up congruence of political legitimacy towards reconciliation within Korean context.

Around the time of the year 2000 breakthrough, North Korea began to improve its relationship with several EU countries, introduced economic reform measures, opened a few areas for international investment and tourism, and even held its first summit with Japan (September 2002). In short, North Korea showed clear signs to the outside world that it was seeking a new path. Optimism had come to town.

Unfortunately, Bush's hard-line approach to North Korea emerged at just this point, not only by the 'Axis of Evil' rhetoric, but in fact in a much larger package over the coming years, with a sustained pressure to increase South Korea's defence budget, re-alignment of South Korean troops to the new US global strategy, introduction of the initial MD equipments into the Korean soil, and a change in strategic planning to induce a war and then to capture and govern North Korea.


3. The Rise of Anti-War Peace Discourse in South Korea

It should be remembered that even before the 'Axis of Evil' talk and even before the invasion of Iraq, there has been growing public mistrust in South Korea towards the new Bush administration. This was a new social phenomenon because the dominant public discourse and the way things were taught at schools were such that there has been strong public taboo to criticise the US or its policies: officially the US is an unforgettable benefactor and saviour of the nation from the wrath of the war and poverty.

However, when the tragedy of September 11 became known, South Korean society had to open its eyes to the new social reality, witnessing what was unthinkable to the war-experienced generations. During the months after September 11, an unexpected outcry of public opinion was observed in schools, colleges and internet communities, pointing that the US arrogance over the world was the fundamental cause of global terrorism. Comics and jokes ridiculing Bush's politics were displayed everywhere every day and getting more popular to younger generations. There was a quiet shock. Publicly, critical explanations as to why this happened were not given. Agencies and figures in the conservative circles had to ring an emergency bell saying that 'security consciousness' of the Korean public had reached a critical point and South Korea has become 'so vulnerable' that it cannot stand firm against an attack from N. Korea. Since then the so-called "crisis of security consciousness" has become a fixed agenda in the security debates launched by defence and security institutions.

For one matter, security experts very often take a security crisis as arising from a crisis of security consciousness, but in fact it is very often a crisis of the security approach itself, or an error in it. Besides, if one turns the eye from the die-hard pro-US conservatives in South Korea, the way the US comes across to the South Korean public these days are centred at two main perceptions: the US Korea policies have serious errors, notably ignorance and arrogance.

Ignorance is the keyword here, meaning that the US does not understand how South Koreans look at alliance, peace and threats these days, quite differently from those years under the military governments. The Bush administration especially does not know, it seems, that the show of might can not replace the loss of hearts among its allies. Unlike the era where the state indoctrination was possible, Koreans today find it quite difficult to support an illegal war, or accept unilateral pressure from Washington to buy huge lots of American weapons when the social welfare is in a dire trouble in their homeland. They find it impossible to accept a military option as a method to replace a regime in Pyongyang when such a conflict would lead to a total devastation of the basic fabric of the society and economy in South Korea, not to speak of that in North Korea.

In this situation, ignorance is easily translated into arrogance when certain policies are exerted by one side, Washington, bypassing the respecting and consulting aspects of an alliance. The public opinions in South Korea over the past few years aptly demonstrate this. Who would remain a good ally when it is ignored, insulted, criminally assaulted on daily basis, and only "consulted" - i.e. permitted to - to say yes to Washington, as was the case, for example, when Roh agreed to pronounce the need of 'further measures' in case North Korea did not denuclearize during his visit to Washington last May?

Many people in South Korea raise perfectly natural questions such as: Is it not too simplistic to point your finger at something before asking the causes of the problem? How can the US expect to be respected when it doesn't respect its ally? Can security affairs indeed bypass democratic processes and, if at all, under what circumstances could it be justified? Can a democratic country fight an illegal war?

It seems the US Korea policy is seriously failing in all of these soft fundamental questions. It simply does not work that way today. Whether left or right, there is strong recognition that US arrogance has reached a dangerous level. This is why public opinion in South Korea is now changing.

Outside Korea, notably in Washington, there is a strong misconception in some circles that South Koreans would rather see North Korea get nuclear weapons than see the North Korean regime collapse. This is not true. It sounds like another typical demonisation of something that Americans are not familiar with. The absolute majority in South Korea shows full support of the 1992 Denuclearization Agreement between two Koreas and are demanding a full stop to any nuclear weapons program, be it by the North, or the South, or Japan, or the US forces in and around Korea.

At the same time, the majority also understands that the military balance today is very much against North Korea, and North Korea is desperate to fill this gap. People in South Korea of course perceive a desperate North Korea as more dangerous than a stable North Korea. Thus, they oppose anyone making it desperate and leading it to do something unpredictable. They are more concerned about unpredictability than media-inflated threat calculations. The emphasis on this desperate side of North Korea is an important public perception as well as an expression of their wish to curb the current arms build-up, mainly promoted by the US.

In South Korea there are also some voices among critical social groups supporting North Korea's sovereign right to defend itself by means of its own choice. A few remarks of that kind were made in the public largely with a perception that North Korea was unfairly bullied by the US. This perception was provocatively created by the sudden designation of North Korea as a part of the "Axis of Evil". We need to remember that, first, the North-South relations were improving rather well over the past few years and most people were content with it. Secondly, there was deep embarrassment felt by Koreans when it was found out that South Korea was not consulted in any of this policy change since Bush administration took office. In any society it is natural to expect briefly charged reaction to something imposed from outside, as it is how the American arrogance is now widely felt in Korea.

Furthermore, talk of a regime collapse is another matter. It is a horrible projection that could only exist in the imagination of those ignorant of the lives and the living in this region. Regime collapse in North Korea will push millions of people outbound as desperate refugees as well as create sustained and complex armed conflicts in the region. To put it crudely, those who know the basic issues also know there is enough of this talk; they know that regime collapse is a rational option to no country in Northeast Asia. It is something that must be avoided, not temporarily but structurally, not for the sake of the North Korean regime only, but for the sake of all peoples in the region. So when a regime change or regime collapse is pronounced from Washington, it raises an inevitably irresponsible posture of the US foreign policies towards this region.

Hawks in the US often manifest their ignorance in a form of scepticism: why aren't young South Koreans afraid of North Korea? Don't they realize that North Korea is a dangerous country? For them, it is so difficult to understand why some people have different views. The fact is that most people in South Korea know well enough that North Korea is now poor, in crisis, weak and wants to open and reform itself however limited this change may be. People find it difficult to feel threatened by a poor state such as North Korea. Moreover, if one looks back past three decades, there has been a series of inter-Korea announcements and agreements generally building up peace and trust in inter-Korean affairs. Today as I maintain above, optimism has come to town when we just look at the inter-Korean conflicts. A few clashes occurred such as the recent annual naval clash over crab-rich sea in the West Coast, but all were successfully deferred from any serious crisis escalation. Majority Koreans now know from these experiences that inter-Korean conflicts can be managed even within the current arrangements. Threat talks become limited when crisis is managed each time within accepted and comprehended framework.

The problem Koreans feel today comes from a different direction. When it comes to the conflict between North Korea and the U.S., very few people see how it can be managed or understood. That is the reason why more and more people in South Korea today respond to public surveys - continuously so since the beginning of Bush administration - that the U.S. poses a bigger 'threat to regional security' than North Korea.

This signifies a terrain of thinking totally different from that pertaining to the inter-Korean conflict. It changes the way how people think of danger, threat, bad and good governments, etc. in Korea. Now for many in South Korea, the main conflict appears to be the conflict between the other half of the nation now so poverty-stricken and the world only, unchallenged superpower that neither understands nor respects Koreans. In this new terrain of conflict, the notion of 'bad', 'dangerous', and 'threat-exerting' attached to North Korea loses its intimacy and primacy. However shocking this may be to the hawks in Washington, these developments are deep underlying signs of the time. The U.S. is now seriously mismanaging its own interest in this region.

The key point is this: the main perception of danger and threat has drastically changed in South Korea and this is now upsetting everything promised in the Cold War. The bottom-up change in these perceptions is a by-product of bottom-up democratisation process, and it is a deeper change-trigger. Earlier, it was North Korea that created problems to South Korea, but now it is the possibility of a war that no one wants in Korea and in the region, being raised by Washington vis-à-vis the US interest in dealing with North Korea.

So those who want to turn the tide back to the past need to explain why North Korea is a threat to South Korea, and they can only do this by saying 'damage to the U.S. interest equals damage to South Korean national interest'. But this line of argument is turning thin and vulnerable at every moment, especially to the younger, free-minded generations.


4. Convergence in Civil Society in the Name of the Peace Movement

Voluntary social energy in South Korea's civil society has been traditionally associated with the notion of 'democratisation' and 'reunification' during the past decades. The peace movement has not been widely known or familiarised as an independent grouping or social force among non-governmental organisations or social movements until very recently. During the first US-Iraq War ('Gulf War'), only a handful of NGOs issued anti-war statements, for example. Even during the serious crisis in 1994, when the U.S. went on the verge of launching military action against North Korean nuclear facilities, there did not exist a coherent anti-war movement in South Korea.

But since 2001, where key civil society actors such as labour unions and popular social movement groups began to raise their voices together in a firm anti-war stance, the notion of peace movement has surfaced more and more. It began to represent what the 'democratic movement' used to represent in the 1970s and 1980s, namely the 'reason' of the society vis-à-vis the 'logic' of national interest. (The 'logic of national interest' was the key discourse that the new Roh government used to justify its decision to comply with the US "request" to send Korean troops to Iraq to support American forces.)

The way 'peace movement' became central in describing contemporary South Korea's civil society arose from what we witnessed in 2002, namely a massive participation of people in protesting the arrogance of the US over the deaths of the two girls. It had a direct impact on the presidential campaign, putting Roh Moo-Hyon in power. Even the most cautious evaluation would put 'peace movement' in the position of an influential, subtly political actor in South Korea's politics today.

This was partly possible because the state 'reason' has been preventing proper public debates over the US issues, including the US-ROK alliance, joint military exercises, crimes committed by American servicemen towards Korean civilians, the US bases issues, etc. When civil society actors successfully broke this taboo with a high degree of popular support and participation, it represented the emerging new 'reason', not just as a new logical critique, but expressing an ethical supremacy as shown in the case of the nationwide mourning for the two dead girls. This mourning represented a non-state-dictated mourning for all victims of the unfair relationship between the two countries, a very deep ethical act that no one could challenge.

The notion of 'peace movement' became more representative of the social reason, as the initially localized reason, as we saw in the candle lit marches, coincided and resonated with the universal values permeated with the global anti-war movements with respect to the second US-Iraq War in 2003. In short, what started as a national mourning over the unfair relationship between South Korea and the US became internationalised in the popular level. This brought about hugely significant changes in the way the South Korean public began to look at international affairs.

First it meant looking outside, especially at the US in its global role, but now through an ethical optics called 'peace.' Indeed, this perspective meant a lot of shattering of old ideological attachment to what "America" stood for to ordinary Koreans. Second, it also meant that words like 'international' and 'universal' - so often represented in liberal notions of 'NGO culture' and 'civil society' eulogy, a new 'modernity' in a sense - got balanced by hard, realist outlook seeing what the supremely modern state called 'America' does to the rest of the world.

In a word, the liberal discourse in civil society that used to avoid hard politics of war and peace, i.e. that was localized with the focus of local democratisation, was now put in danger with the public consciousness of the danger of war.


5. Conclusion: Do Not Securitise a Manageable Problem

Civil society actors in South Korea know very well that peace in Korea and peace in Northeast Asia must go together. Without a regional arrangement doing away the anachronistic security politics, there can not be any peace or reunification in Korea. This is where the current candlelight protests in South Korea stand and what they stand for; they cannot be simply viewed as anti-U.S. actions trying to remove the U.S. forces from Korea. The candlelight protests represent a voice to rethink and reformulate&endash; rethink and reformulate the U.S. role in the region and in the global towards peace building.

For this we need to rethink and re-assess the history of he Cold-War order in the region since 1945, whether or how each actor contributed to peace building or hegemonic domination. The candlelight protests are a sign of the time demanding a new, non-hegemonic role for the U.S. in the region. They are a new, popular peace movement calling for a community of cooperation and mutual recognition in our region that does away with mutual demonisation such as the one that happened in Japan during the few months after the return of the kidnap victims from N. Korea.

The trigger point in the region will be the ways in which the last legacy of the global Cold-War politics change - how we end and transform the division system in Korea. The system of two Koreas in the Korean peninsula was largely a product of global Cold-War politics as well as a product of its localised form. It is also a product of another global war preceding the Cold War including colonialism and anti-colonial efforts. The division in Korea is at least as much international as it is local. Doing away with that system is also equally much local and international in nature at the same time.

A century-long mind and sentiment that sustained this system is not independent from the system itself. But, that global system is gone now. There is no more a global structure that necessitates the division system. The local system has also been melting down, particularly conspicuously in S. Korea - the breakdown of the authoritarian state, the expansion of civil society, reconciliation of two Koreas, the rise of peace and disarmament pressures, the growth of anti-American perceptions, etc. The last helpless thread that tries to hold the old identity in place, what South Korea should be, is the US East-Asian strategy which seeks to force South Korea to remain one of its support regiments (formalised in the US-ROK alliance).

The maxim of the day for the whole international and local politics surrounding Northeast Asia is "Do not securitise the North Korea issue." We have problems and they have problems, but we can go ahead with a problem solving process without making security out of it. Self-proclaimed security experts think mainly about threats. Threats define the source as 'enemy' or 'evil', and it also defines security of 'us', therefore, what 'we' are. The states in Korea have been trying to indoctrinate people to think in that way or long enough. But now, fortunately, a new terrain is emerging, not because of new threats or a new security situation, but because the newly emerging self-perception among South Koreans about South Korea itself is moving off-track from the role and identity once imprinted and now being wished in Washington. For them, Bush's group in Washington is eager to securitise an otherwise perfectly manageable problem called North Korea, but they want no security out of it.

Instead Koreans want to have and believe they can do reconciliation and peaceful conflict resolution by themselves if only not effectively harassed by others. Which approach would yield an ethical high ground and win hearts? It would soon become clear if it isn't already. And where has this approach come from? Definitely not from the type of male politics coming out of Washington these days.


* This article was published in Japanese in quarterly People's Plan, No. 23 (Summer, 2003) by People's Plan Study Group. It is largely based on the discussions conducted in the Peace and Disarmament Centre of PSPD, where the author is deputy secretary.


© TFF and the author


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