Sino-NK 2013 Rewind: Saegyehwa Politics and South Korea in the Age of Globalization

By | December 13, 2013 | 2 Comments

Seoul: a globalized political space, par excellence | Image Wikicommons

Seoul: a globalized political space, par excellence | Image: Wikicommons

The second of our analytical crystallizations at 2013’s end focuses on politics and the political on the Korean peninsula as a whole. However, just as the DMZ divides the peninsula in geographic and political terms, so the field of analysis itself is divided. Therefore, the second Sino-NK 2013 Rewind arrives in two parts, one addressing the south, the other focusing on the north. In this essay, our Managing Editor and University of Toronto graduate student Steven Denney examines politics and political approach in the Park Geun-hye era.

Bizarrely, on a day when with the execution of Jang Sung-taek the northern half of the Peninsula and the politics of the Byungjin line seem more peculiar and exceptional than ever, Denney’s piece draws out Globalization and its manifestation in the post-Kim Young-sam, Saegyehwa conception as a key focus in a review of ROK politics this year. However, as every drone strike in Waziristan, every extra-judicial killing in Gaza, every meta-data sweep by GCHQ or the NSA proves, Globalization does indeed have a flip side, Jang Sung-taek’s execution being one among an infinite number of potentially hostile/criminal acts undertaken by state or sovereign actors. While Globalization as it is now theorized fails to establish a unity across the DMZ, perhaps it unites the Koreas and the wider world in more subtle, liminal, nefarious ways. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Sino-NK 2013 Rewind: Saegyehwa Politics and South Korea in the Age of Globalization

by Steven Denney

It is convenient for those writing on North Korea that editorials published by state-run media tend to declare boldly and unequivocally the ideological foundations upon which the state acts. Pinpointing a state ideology is slightly more difficult for the free and democratic southern half of the peninsula, where power is relatively diffuse and the press is at least nominally free. Yet, it exists—even if it requires some “reading between the lines.” Take, for instance, Park Geun-hye’s pre-presidential run Foreign Affairs essay wherein she outlined her policy of Trustpolitik. In the second paragraph, she writes:

Only two weeks [before the shelling of Yeonpyeong], South Korea had become the first country outside the G-8 to chair and host a G-20 summit, welcoming world leaders to its capital, Seoul. These events starkly illustrated the dual reality of the Korean Peninsula and of East Asia more broadly. On the one hand, the Korean Peninsula remains volatile. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by North Korea, the modernization of conventional forces across the region, and nascent great-power rivalries highlight the endemic security dilemmas that plague this part of Asia. On the other hand, South Korea’s extraordinary development, sometimes called the Miracle on the Han River, has, alongside China’s rise, become a major driver of the global economy over the past decade.

Among other things, this quote highlights some key characteristics of the ideologies that drive North and South Korean policymaking. Though Park speaks disapprovingly of North Korea’s “proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” the possession of said weapons of mass destruction (ergo, nuclear weapons) is, as discussed by Peter Ward, a key ideological pillar of the Kim regime. As for South Korea, Park’s reference to the G-20 Summit and Korea’s “extraordinary development” as a “major driver of the global economy” reflects the global consciousness found in both Seoul’s ruling elite and the public at-large. Thus, if the Byungjin line best captures the governing ideology in North Korea, globalization does the same for South Korea’s body of elected politicians and administrative bureaucrats.

Of the former developmental states in East Asia, there is no country better positioned to ride the wave of globalization than South Korea: it is geographically and strategically well-positioned with high levels of support amongst the ruling elite. Japan has yet to come to grips with its economically and politically diminished self, Taiwan is too peripheral, and Hong Kong and Singapore aren’t conventional “states.” Korea, however, is centrally located (think “lynchpin”), has plenty of economic and political capital, and is as devoted to a global agenda as anyone. Seoul’s willingness to bear the financial burden of hosting events of global scope (Summer Olympics, FIFA World Cup, ROK-China-Japan Trilateral Summit, G-20 Summit, Nuclear Security Summit, and soon the Winter Olympics) is just the visible outer layer to an increasingly outward-oriented ruling elite.

With roots dating back to at least President Kim Young-sam’s “globalization policies” (locally referred to as “saegyehwa cheongchaek;” 세계화정책), Seoul has, since the end of the Cold War, redefined its regional identity as an “honest broker” or “bridge” and firmly integrated itself into a complex global trading system. In addition to introducing the “New Asia Initiative” (NAI), a regional policy aimed at more substantive engagement with countries of the Asia-Pacific, especially the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Korea has concluded FTAs with both the European Union and the United States, making it the only country to have FTAs with the world’s two largest economies.

But what do ordinary people think? Whereas public opinion is next to impossible to come by in North Korea (Gallup, unlike the Associate Press, cannot boast of a Pyongyang office), a lot of good work is being done in the field of public opinion in South Korea. If politics and ideology are to be of further analytical use, beyond measuring elite opinion and tracking state-centric policymaking, it is important to gauge the “gusts of popular feeling.”

Figure 1 | Image: Asan Institute for Policy Studies

Figure 1 | Image: Asan Institute for Policy Studies

Figure 1 shows current perceptions South Koreans have of the major regional powers’ influence on global affairs now (2012) and in 10 years. Data here shows that, in addition to a shift in the balance of power between the US and China, South Koreans think in a decade from now the Republic of Korea will go from being the least influential among the major powers to eclipsing Japan and rivaling Russia. Whether this is an accurate projection of future influence in the region is open to question, but what is important to take away from the data is that ordinary people, like the elites, see Korea playing a more influential role as a regional and global power.

Astute observers of South Korea may point out two “problems” with the assessment thus far: (i) most of Korea’s global initiatives and policies over the last few years were started or implemented by Lee Myung-bak, not Park Geun-hye; and (ii) to speak of a unified, “global” state ideology assumes or at least somewhat implies that all is well on the home front, when all is decidedly not well on the home front. There is a response to both concerns.

As for the first, it is too early in President Park’s 5-year term to identify any major initiatives or policy accomplishments, but it is probably safe to say that no significant changes will be made from the previous administration. Not only is Park from the same party as Lee (ergo, continuity), but, one could argue, it would not have mattered even if the opposition party candidate, Moon Jae-in, had won the 2012 election. To the chagrin of the Hankyoreh, left-of-center politicians have been just as committed to a global agenda as have their conservative counterparts. Kim Dae-jung presided over a neo-liberal structural adjustment reforms and it was Roh Moo-hyun that laid the groundwork for the US-Korea FTA, among other examples. Consider this paragraph from a 2009 Hankyoreh article outlining the contours of Roh Moo-hyun’s critics after his five years in office:

As conflicts piled up, progressives began to directly criticize his identity and said Roh “turns on his left-turn signal and then makes a right.” Roh’s camp had responded by saying that the progressives “only engage in irresponsible criticism without helping” and “cannot read the changes in the world.” In one discussion, Roh had asked emotionally, “What is wrong with left-wing neoliberalism?” Informal talks between Roh and leaders of civil society gradually turned into occasions for heated confrontations, ultimately resulting in the departure of the administration‘s support base, and the weakening and shrinking of the ranks in the civil society movement.

Although progressive leaders may ride a wave of populist support to the Blue House, once there, broader structural constraints limit the degree to which they can deviate from “saegyehwa politics.”

The second issue—discontent on the home front—is an issue worthy of concern: proof that government institutions used state resources to discredit the opposition party’s candidate via internet and social media campaigns in the run up to the 2012 election and the arrest of a sitting assemblyman (and other regional politicians) on charges of treason by one of the institutions involved in illegal intervention in the election (the National Intelligence Service, NIS; 국가정보원) is not something to be swept under the rug. But despite the better efforts of progressive activists and, again, Hankyoreh to portray the issue as a battle between “totalitarianists and democratic power,” discontent at home is not likely to result in a nullification of the election results or in the dissolution of the NIS. In fact, despite the multiple scandals, Park Geun-hye still enjoys an approval rating above 50 percent!

Though contested, politics (and the ideology that drives it) seem set to continue along a trajectory set many decades ago.

2 Comments

  1. 세계화”정”책

  2. Corrected. Thank you!