Toilets as Signifiers: Nuclear Power and the Korean Left

By | April 04, 2013 | No Comments


Last week, we saw that among some of the more conservative of conservatives there is a small but budding movement to (re)start an indigenous nuclear weapon program. But what about the progressive position on the issue?

The political left’s position can be summarized as follows: continue developing nuclear energy, but hold off on the nukes. In other words, and following the theme of a “new nationalism” in South Korea founded upon a “strong and prosperous country,” progressives want a nuclear-powered, but nuclear weapons-free Korea. This position is confirmed by one of the left’s political mediums: the Hankyoreh.[1] The title to an April 3 English-language op-ed reads: “South Korea should reduce, not expand, reliance on nuclear power.” This title, however, is somewhat misleading (though not entirely inaccurate). The title to the Korean version (published on April 2), reads: “The Korea-US Atomic Energy Agreement and ‘the debate to arm Korea with nuclear weapons’ does more harm than good.” [한-미 원자력협정, ‘핵무장론’은 백해무익이다] The actual content (identical in both versions) is more in-line with the title of the Korean version.

The articles start off by lamenting the fact that if the Agreement for Cooperation Concerning the Civil Use of Atomic Energy with the US expires without being amended (to allow Korea to reprocess spent fuel), then “South Korea will have trouble securing a stable supply of nuclear fuel and its nuclear power exports could be damaged,” a situation Hankyoreh certainly wants the Korean government to avoid. It then goes on to list the accomplishments of Korea’s indigenous nuclear energy program, saying:

… the current agreement has failed to reflect the changing times and developing technologies. Back when it was originally signed in 1974, South Korea was building its very first commercial reactor at Kori. Now, we rank fifth in the world for nuclear power, with 23 reactors up and running. We are also trying hard to export our reactor models to countries around the world, following a landmark deal with the United Arab Emirates. The government plans to bring the number of reactors up to 34 by 2024.

Only in the second to last line of the last paragraph is it mentioned, in a perfunctory way, that “Obviously, the best course of action is to abandon nuclear power as an energy source.” [근본적으로는 탈원전의 방향이 가장 바람직하다는 건 말할 나위 없다] Though it does warn against an overflow of spent fuel and the distraction that nuclear weapons-supporting conservatives are to finding a solution, the Hankyoreh does not—nor is it likely to in the future—oppose Korea’s continued use (and development) of nuclear energy as a source of power.

In fact, according to a forthcoming book on nuclear power in Korea, progressives strongly support the use of nuclear energy. Dr. Kim Jiyoon, reporting on attitudes towards nuclear power by ideological position and party affiliation, finds the assumption that conservatives are more supportive than progressives is technically true, but “largely insignificant.”

It is generally reported that it is progressives who are opposed to nuclear energy. Indeed, that tendency is detected in the Korean case as well—conservatives (80.0%) are more likely than liberals [progressives] (70.9%) to support nuclear energy. However, 70.9% is still a clear-cut majority making the difference between conservatives and liberals largely insignificant. Partisan affiliation was also not much of a divider. While 84.5% of supporters of the conservative Saenuri Party approved of nuclear energy, 73.8% of supporters of the Democratic United Party (DUP)—the major opposition liberal party of Korea—agreed. [2]

Thus, the difference between progressives and conservatives on the issue of nuclear power is not whether to use it—but whether to make bombs with it. Though progressives (and many conservatives for that matter) may oppose nuclear weapon development, they do not oppose a nuclear powered strong and prosperous Korea. As Hankyoreh argues, it’s a matter of (nuclear) waste and “toilet upgrading.”

The biggest issue South Korea faces when it comes to nuclear power is how to upgrade from a conventional house without indoor plumbing to one with a modern plumbing system that can get rid of stored up waste. [원전과 관련해 우리나라가 당면한 가장 큰 문제는, 어떻게 ‘화장실 없는 재래식 주택’을 ‘수세식 주택’으로 개량할 것인가이다.]

Blog by: Steven Denney

Further Readings:

Christopher Green, “Block Out the Noise by Visiting the Front Line: Baekryeong Island Reportage,” Sino-NK, March 29, 2013.

Steven Denney, “A Party-Centered Defense of Park Geun-hye’s Election and a Primer on Government-Media Relations,” Sino-NK, December 20, 2012.

Steven Denney and Christopher Green,” A Nuclear Hangover: South Korean Editorial Roundup,” Sino-NK, February 13, 2013.

[1] This position can be easily ascertained through a guided reading of print (and digital) media. Media is to Korea what political parties are to America. To get a sense of what the Korean right thinks on an issue, it is best to read the Dong-a Ilbo, the Joongahn Ilbo, and Chosun Ilbo (and follow Chosun media more generally); the Hankyoreh and the Kyunghyan Shinmun are good sources to get a sense of the progressive/liberal position on any given issue.

[2] Korea’s Nuclear Future (Seoul: Asan Institute, 2013), Chapter 8, “Public Opinions on Nuclear Power in Korea.” (forthcoming) Permission to quote granted.

No Comments

  1. In addition to enjoying this piece, I am glad that you clarified that toilet metaphor, which is definitely a new one to me for looking at nuclear power. One thing I haven’t seen you comment on yet, Steven, is the impact that US withdrawal of nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991 had on the situation. There is probably some very fertile tilling of this issue being done by our friends at the Wilson Center/CWIHP that might be able to shed some more light.

    I’m also curious to know how the discourse in South Korea is an any way reflected or re-shaped by the DPRK’s own current justification for nuclear deterrent, given that much of that justification is historical, i.e. “We have been living under the threat since 1958 (really 1958-91), etc.”

  2. I had a very interesting conversation with some (progressive) professor-friends over at Yonsei the other day on this subject. They brought up the (oft forgotten) fact that Park Chung-hee was the first to really stick it to America during the 1970s, esp. poor Jimmy Carter. It didn’t start in 1991, it started with Nixon and his policy of “Asia for Asians.”

    Speaking of comparisons, Park Chung-hee and Kim Il-sung had more in common than meets the eye: both were revolutionaries, both had significant contact with the Japanese (albeit in very different capacities), and, most importantly, both sought to build a “strong and prosperous country.” One attempt via Soviet tutelage with an iron fist; the other via American support via technocratic rule. We know which strategy produced the best results.

    As for responsive discourse in South Korea, I’m sure those conservatives cut of a Park Chung-hee-like conservative cloth would favor an indigenous program regardless; flamboyant rhetoric simply provides a sturdier peg upon which to hang a very nationalist coat.

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