A Bifurcated Review of De-bordering Korea: Tangible and Intangible Legacies of the Sunshine Policy

By | May 12, 2014 | No Comments

A view of the Imjin River (임진강) at Paju | Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

A view of the Imjin River (임진강) at Paju | Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

Hazel Smith, in her 2002 critique of the “securitization paradigm”  as it is applied to the study of North Korea, suggests that the “sunshine” policy is a good alternative to the “bad” and “mad” elements of Cold War era security studies. She argues that a historicized and contextualized “rational actor model” could help policy makers concerned with peace and the elimination of hunger in North Korea see the so-called “hermit kingdom” not as an estranged, misbehaving rogue state, but as just another country. But getting over the legacies of the Cold War is no easy feat, especially in a country seemingly mired in a Cold War-esque bifurcation. Despite arguments to the contrary, it seems that progress is being made. At least that is the overarching theme in De-bordering Korea: Tangible and Intangible Legacies of the Sunshine Policy, a Routledge edited volume on the enduring legacy of the sunshine era. The edited volume makes a case not altogether dissimilar from Smith’s but with a focus that goes beyond traditional economic and political considerations. The implied causation is that the “normalizing” effect the sunshine policy had on North-South relations significantly changed the way the Koreas are represented, reproduced, and discussed. Centered around three themes–Space, People, and Representation–the book illuminates the spatial changes, new human interactions, and new representations of each country.

In this “bifurcated” review, two core members of Sino-NK’s staff, Robert Winstanley-Chesters and Christopher Green, give their take on the overarching narrative of the book. While both reviewers have plenty of praise for the volume’s contribution to the literature on Korea and the individual authors’ unique contributions, they do not shy away from the opportunity to give their own take on the meaning and significance of the North-South divide and the changes that have taken place on the peninsula over the last decade and a half. Winstanley-Chesters argues that, from a geographer’s perspective, there has not been any real de-bordering (or re-bordering), but a slow process of “un-bordering:” a sort of permanent divide between two peoples that, due to unfortunate geopolitical circumstances, has become “impossible to negate.” Green, taking a more critical angle, argues that several of the authors overplay their hand, especially regarding the reason for change in South Korea. He insists that, although much has changed regarding South Koreans’ perception of the North, it is not due to the “sunshine” of the late 1990s but rather to South Korea’s liberalization and democratization. Criticism aside, it is apparent in both reviews that, given the spatial, social, and political significance of the 38th parallel, books like the one under review here are of great intellectual and practical importance. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

A Bifurcated Review of De-bordering Korea: Tangible and Intangible Legacies of the Sunshine Policy

by Sino-NK

Gelézeau,Valérie, Koen de Ceuster, and Alain Delissen (eds). De-bordering Korea: Tangible and Intangible Legacies of the Sunshine Policy. Routledge: London, 2013. 238 pp. ISBN: 9780415637435.

After Twilight…

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Recent North Korean denunciations of President Park Geun-hye as Obama’s “comfort woman” and older, no less vitriolic references to the “swish of her poisonous skirt” serve to root the jovial meetings between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il in what feels like the distant past. Kim Dae-jung, and the ROK’s “Sunshine Policy” of both President Kim and President Roh, seem a very long way away, not only temporally but also in less tangible terms.

It is intriguing given our collective distance from the optimism and possibility of that period that De-Bordering Korea: Tangible and Intangible Legacies of the Sunshine Policy should emerge at all. This is an era when historical, negative legacies underpin the authority and legitimacy of the North Korean system as a whole, and efforts made to collectively forget or “un-imagine” Southern legacies of conflict, violence, and autocracy makes tracing their remains seem somehow apposite. The locating of this study astride the philosophic and disciplinary cracks between geography and history is equally satisfying given both the acutely geographic nature of the peninsula’s schismatic present and the unwinding of colonialism’s topographic glitches, as manifested in varied “hot rocks” disputes throughout the region.

Arguably spaces are always important, but in such a firmly bounded and divided domain as Korea, their navigation, co-option, and diffusion made the potential impact of “sunshine” that much greater. Both at the time and since, what most analysts concern themselves with is the legacies of the repertoire of policies deployed during this period for the concrete spaces of domain consensus and sovereignty on the peninsula. In 2014 it is of course apparent that in terms of the higher level space of nationhood, “sunshine” had little impact.

Of course, us geographers of a certain ilk are concerned with other sorts of spaces (other terrains of navigation) where we consider the nature and efficacy of borders and bordering themselves. “De-bordering Korea” is constructed by a collection of scholars open to a more fluvial or porous conception of spatial possibility. With a sense that when it comes to North Korea, the lines between different social, political, and personal domains are categorically blurred. The spaces of working, social, political, cultural, and sexual lives were all exposed to potential de-bordering by “sunshine,” and re-bordering by its diminution.

Even within these liminal spaces, loci of neither threat nor danger owing to their insignificance in military terms, the Koreas engaged in furtive competition. In “Confronting Korean identities in post-Soviet Kazakhstan,” Eunsil Yim maps the pre-sunshine engagement of a Korean diaspora once lost to the Republic of Korea as it was subsumed within the Soviet Union. Examining a field familiar for its logistical difficulty, the recovery of linguistic capability by ethnic Koreans under Almaty/Astana’s control, first at the behest of Pyongyang-affiliated institutions and then under those controlled by South Korea, Eunsil encounters a mental space of radical re-bordering. Intense competition between the spoken languages of the two Koreas for the affections and loyalty of Kazakhstan’s Koreans perhaps demonstrates the willingness of all Korean institutions to reinforce extant, imagined or lost boundaries far from the soil of the peninsula.

Closely twinned with this article on navigating mental or intelligence boundaries is Alain Delissen’s piece, “The End of Romanticism: Teaching the ‘Other’ Korea in the Sunshine Era.” This reminded me momentarily of the logo of the Korean Society at my own university, which at one point consisted of the Korean peninsula in perfect form except for the arbitrary and cartographically brutal removal of everything north of the 38th parallel. While Delissen (p. 194) does not encounter such an abrupt and primitive un-bordering as that, he asserts: “in the mid-1980s–the other Korea was entirely absent (indeed was forbidden) from high school level teaching in the Peninsula.” The “sunshine” era apparently saw geography and history textbooks in the South begin the process of, not perhaps de-bordering or even re-bordering, but of psychological re-recognition of South Korea’s current bordered, divided space, and of the North’s existence as a separate zone of governance. This spatial bordering is accompanied with a metaphysical bordering of the nation, from the singular minjok to the multiple kukmin and inmin.

Other contributors are keen to trace the metaphysical and philosophic impacts of “sunshine” as encountered by the kukmin, enabled by the period to cast off the opacity and impermeability of the Joint Security Area and actually visit North Korea. While the authors comment that, as is reality, trans-Korean tourism fizzled almost faster than the political impetus for “sunshine,” South Korean journeys to both Mt. Kumgang and Kaesong’s zones of development are recounted as having made a serious impact on those involved. Christian Park’s “Crossing the border: South Korean tourism to Mount Kumgang” traces the personal crystallizations of those crossing the border on such trips. Taking into account the natural tendency of environments of border-crossing to be constructed by their attendant authorities within a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (p. 39), the crossing of the DMZ by busloads of South Koreans appeared to, as if it were needed transfer the border itself from half imagined, liminal space to one of a distinct and threatening concrete reality. One housewife apparently recounted (p. 39) that when the North Korean border guard got on her bus to check credentials “I almost peed in my pants when he came on the bus…. He was like a robot without any facial expression, staring at us with his sharp eyes as if he was looking for a capitalist spy.”

Of course, away from the physical crossing of military or sovereign borders lies the social and cultural crossing or construction of borders. The book is especially strong here, in particular the analysis of Leiden’s University’s Koen De Ceuster. Focusing on an area of cultural imaginary and production which has, following Rudiger Frank’s landmark book “North Korean Arts,” gained some academic focus, De Ceuster describes an un-bordering of North Korean cultural production at the behest of interested, if perhaps misguided, Southern collectors and supporters. Artistic and cultural production with Pyongyang’s domain are inherently colored by ideology and charismatic narrative, though such an ideological incorporation approaches normalcy within the northern system and so is by no means strange. De Ceuster therefore considers whether Southern encounters with Northern art are actual encounters with art itself, having negated its political and therefore local and distinct identity: “Artifacts shuttle between art worlds but are stripped of their ideological content in the process and appropriated to suit South Korean tastes” (p. 169). Perhaps such encounters not only un-border this material and the traditions, individuals, and productions structures and strategies behind it, they also transform it into “un-art,” and the traditions and spaces behind become “un” or “non” spaces or traditions.

Benjamin Joinau’s “Sleeping with the (Northern) enemy: South Korean cinema and the Autistic Interface,” while in a sense the most esoteric of these pieces, also continues this theme. Joinau posits an analysis of South Korean cinematic features focused on hypothetical interactions between South and North Korean military personnel that continues the negation of North Korean social space, colonizing and commenting on the potential sexual spaces of North Korea and North Korean identity. Here North Korean masculinity, a narrative of maleness deeply caught up with cults of militarism and an anemic sense of machismo, is de-bordered to a state of diffuse androgyny: “This is exactly what JSA is about at a symbolic level and also what emerges in Secret Reunion, albeit in an inverted manner: a soft North Korean male mates with a rough South Korean male…” (p. 177).

A process of merging and coming together was the final destination of the more optimistic participants and actors of the “sunshine” era. While both the political process and conceptual structures unleashed have not supported or generated that outcome in any real sense, whether tangible or intangible in form and nature, this fine collection of essays supports an extension of “sunshine” into a multiplicity of spaces and spatial forms which have not necessarily been considered extensively before. It may be as I have hinted: rather than an exercise in de-bordering, “sunshine” and the contemporary policies of South Korea as an encounter with its estranged northern sibling were more an exercise in “un-bordering” or “non-bordering.” Whereas, as tourists to Mt. Kumgang discovered, Korean borders have long formed spaces of acute militarized crystallization, unarguable, impossible to negate; the psychic and spatial diffusion during the “sunshine” period led to a political and sovereign construct which could now be dismissed, diffuse and potentially subjected to a more complex form of negation.

The sun went down on Mt. Kumgang tourism in 2008. But what was left behind? | Image: Destination Pyongyang

The sun went down on Mt. Kumgang tourism in 2008. But what was left behind? | Image: 하얀 마음 하얀 미소

A Bright Shiny Legacy… for the South

by Christopher Green

Legacies are en vogue on the Korean peninsula today. There are legacy politics in North Korea, where the regime of KWP First Secretary Kim Jong-un is coming to terms with the inheritance of his father Kim Jong-il, and legacy politics in the South, where President Park Geun-hye is traversing the political minefield of her father, developmental dictator Park Chung-hee. Given the zeitgeist, could now be the right time to reassess the “legacy of sunshine,” the 1998-2007 era of South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun?

It is a task undertaken with some aplomb by this edited volume, in which multiple scholars investigate the granular level of sunshine era cross-border relations between North and South: from fishermen on Baekryeong Island facing North Korea across the Yellow Sea to ordinary citizens visiting and working in the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mt. Kumgang Tourist Zone. It looks at the impact of sunshine on the arts, and on education. Geopolitics enters only occasionally, and even then indirectly.

The book’s successes are not unalloyed, however. “Places,” the first of three sections, is uncomfortable, as four authors cumulatively over-imagine the impact of the sunshine era on the inter-Korean border. For instance, Valérie Gelézeau (p. 32) conceives of sunshine creating “gaps in the [inter-Korean] border,” but overstates their value. Her characterization of the “radical re-bordering” of the post-2008 era as the reining in of myriad activities that had ballooned during the de-bordering phase, and thus as evidence of the “success of the spatial interfaces that emerged during the short period of de-bordering,” is hard to accept.

Christian Park follows suit in his discussion of Mt. Kumgang as a tourist site. One can describe the tourist project as an opportunity for South Koreans to “reconstitute meaningful subjects fit for unified Korea in the post-division period,” but this cannot be said for the North Koreans who were involved. Can one assert (p. 48) that, within the zone, “two different people belonging to a state met and recognized their imagined national homogeneity while simultaneously encountering differences in culture and allegiance”? Such a claim fails to acknowledge the obvious inability of sunshine to create opportunities for interaction not only with but also among ordinary North Koreans, and ultimately takes the notion of delayed reciprocity, which underpinned the sunshine policy experiment from the beginning, too far.

The book travels upon much more solid terrain when, in “Representations,” it looks unashamedly inward toward the impact of the de-bordering process in South Korea. The sunshine era did indeed do much to “de-border” South Korean perceptions of North Korean people, and not just when Kim Jong-il received successive South Korean presidents in Pyongyang. As Benjamin Joinau notes in his explication of matters celluloid, sunshine shone brightly on the South Korean film and television industry, where: “For the first time in the history of South Korean cinema, it [became] possible to portray North Korean characters positively” (p. 176).

Not all the representations that emerged from this were accurate, of course; many played on the same tedious stereotypes of militarization and brainwashing that had dominated for decades. However, there is a powerful legacy exemplified in the point (p. 186) that many sunshine era movies concerning North Korea engaged in “ideological euphemization” of  division; thus, it was turned into a comic subject.

This seismic shift was a far cry from the fear of yore, wherein North Koreans had been made purely objects of fear and loathing by decades of blunt anti-communism. This is the most robust legacy of sunshine; diverse screen images persist today in spite of a post-2008 return to conservative politicking in Seoul. The change is amply reflected in contemporary debate, not least over the impact of the television show “Now on My Way to Meet You.”

With that being said, the arts were also an area of conflict. In a particularly valuable chapter, Koen De Ceuster laments that North Korean art and its artists were given few opportunities to interact with South Korean audiences in the sunshine era. The few meticulously planned, high profile events that took place were not organized around the possibility of teasing out civilian interactions from the structured set pieces. This was predictable on the North Korean side, but an opportunity missed for the South.

Moreover, some interactions were avoided altogether. Whenever one of North Korea’s merited “people’s artists” hove into view across the 38th parallel, his or her voice ended up “mediated and muffled,” when it could be heard at all. For instance, De Ceuster recounts (p. 162) how one gallery owner sub-categorized North Korean art into “ideological” and “pure” in a 2007 interview. In so doing, the owner sanitized the ideological contents and was able to broaden the national appeal of the product. However, this forswore honest interaction with the artists.

Ultimately, this text reveals a stark divide that existed between sunshine as perceived in the South and in the North. This chasm eventually leads the reader to question the premise of the book itself. Alain Delissen helps to clarify the confusion when he speaks briefly of sunshine revisionism; in a sense, he notes, the cultural loosening described in this book actually began in the early 1990s, long before the birth of the Sunshine Policy (p. 202).

“De-bordering” is not really a story of sunshine, or of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il, or a late ‘90s shift to the left in South Korean politics. North Korea was made an object in the de-bordering process; arguably not a subject at all. The real story is simple; it is of a post-1987 democratizing South Korea embracing new modes of self-expression and actively reorienting the civic consciousness that emerged from its successful fight for liberty.

The successes of sunshine, when they came, were overwhelmingly successes for South Korea. When permitted to run more or less free (for example by the power of money, as in the case of film), the liberated South Korean imagination was, and remains, highly effective at “de-bordering” the North. This book lays that story bare.

But whither the de-bordering of the other side?

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