The Loved Republic: South Koreans and the Trusted State

By | April 26, 2013 | No Comments

South-Korea-FlagIn most developed countries the state and nation are understood as one, ergo the nation-state. That the nation, a group of link-minded individuals, puts its faith in the state as the institution ultimately charged with its protection and continuation ensures this link. In “full faith and trust,” as some would put it.

However, due to Korea’s peculiar, though certainly not unique, situation of having one nation but two states, there is more than enough room for separation, and debate. Undeclared Pyongyang-watcher, scholar, and polemicist BR Myers thinks so too, and has been unabashed in his conviction that Korean blood-based ethnic nationalism is at the root of a clear division between the South Korean nation and the South Korean state. In his words, South Korea is the “unloved republic.”

As I’ve discussed before, one of Myers’ main points is that an absence of trust in the South Korean state has significant implications for the Republic of Korea’s North Korea policy. In a piece on North Korean provocations and the responses that emanate from South Korean civil society, I wrote:

Myers asserts that because of the particular race-based, state-distrusting nationalism characteristic of [South] Koreans, provocation from the North can actually result in the strengthening of pro-Pyongyang political parties and the adoption of a less confrontational North Korean policy. In Myers’ own words: ‘As counterintuitive as  it  may sound to Americans unfamiliar with South Korean ethno-nationalism, the DPRK can more effectively strengthen South Korean parties sympathetic  to the  North by seeking conflict with the ROK.’[1]

However, while Myers is certainly on to something, namely that South Koreans arguably do ascribe a relatively higher value to race than do other nations,[2] his insistence on a clear divide between South Koreans and their state does not stand up to scrutiny: not anymore at least. Recent provocations from the North and South Korean public responses reveal the opposite: South Korea is the loved republic. Or, at least, it is the trusted one.

Karl Friedhoff at the WSJ breaks down recent polling data collected by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies following the most recent provocations. His threefold conclusion can be summarized as such: people care more about North-South relations than before and are concerned about the current state of affairs, but they don’t hold the current administration responsible for the breakdown in relations (re: distrust) and, in fact, put their full faith and trust in Park Geun-hye to respond appropriately. The relevant analysis reads as follows [emphasis added]:

renewed interest [in North-South relations] should not be interpreted as South Koreans desperately calling on their leader, President Park Geun-hye, to seek a resolution due to increased threat perceptions. As of April 16, positive perceptions of future national security (65%) were higher than they were on the day of the third nuclear test, when they stood at 59%. Positive perceptions of current national security stood at 21% on April 16, just 5 percentage points lower than the day of the test.

Throughout, Ms. Park has been granted an excellent opportunity to appear presidential during a time of crisis. The Asan Institute’s polling has never found her approval ratings to be below 50%. As of April 16, her approval was 58%. While the current tensions have not driven an increase in her approval, it has likely prevented a sharp decrease in those ratings.

Gone are the days when the “Northern Wind” could decisively affect the domestic political scene in the South. Even further gone are the days when North Korean provocations could bring about pro-North policies in the Blue House. Arrived in its place is new nationalism: a “strong and prosperous” nation that trusts the state.

Blog by: Steven Denney

Further Reading

BR Myers, “Inside the Authoritarian State: North Korea’s State-Loyal Advantage.” Columbia Journal of International Affairs 62, no. 1 (2011).

Steven Denney, “South Korea: The New Nationalism in an Era of Strength and Prosperity,” SinoNK, March 28, 2013.

Steven Denney, “Gusts of Popular Feeling: South Korean Presidential Race and North Korea, an Interview,” interview with Karl Friedhoff, SinoNK, October 7, 2013.

[1] See: B.R. Myers, “Inside the Authoritarian State: North Korea’s State-Loyalty Advantage.” Columbia Journal of International Affairs 62, no. 1 (2011): 127.

[2] It should be emphasized, however, that the literature covering the modern phenomena of the state, the nation, and nationalism attributes some (though often not much) significance to race and ethnicity in the formation of nationalism, i.e. a nation’s love for the state. For one example see: Etienne Balibar, “The Nation Form: History and Ideology,” in Becoming National: A Reader, Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny, eds. (Oxford University Press, 1996), 132-150. Balibar, who identifies language and ethnicity as the two primary variables, would fall into the “much significance” group.

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