From Cornell International Affairs Review VOL. 4 NO. 1
The Politics of Asian Regionalism in Korea: Identity Politics and Its Implications for U.S.-ROK Relations
The Conservatives: President Lee’s Pragmatism
Compared to the leftists and progressives, South Korean conservatives rarely promote a pan-Asian vision that satisfies their desire for strong bilateral relations with the U.S. and relatively antagonistic sentiments towards the North. Most of all, it seems the conservatives have not yet heeded much attention to resolving the tension between the existing U.S.-led bilateral alliance system in the region and a prospective multilateral structure necessary for regional community building.22
Some news editorials’ comments on regionalist visions, such as the East Asian Community, present hawkish stances toward North Korea but not any serious discussion on the compatibility of regionalism with bilateralism. For instance, a 2009 editorial of Chosun Ilbo titled “For the East Asian Community not to be in vain,”23 argues that the denuclearization of North Korea is a prerequisite to the idea of an East Asian Community proclaimed by Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama to be materialized. Meanwhile, the Asian policies of the current conservative government under Lee Myung Bak have been saved from the acrimonious identity politics that overwhelmed his predecessor’s vision of Korea as a regional balancer. Most of all, the conservatives’ focus has been on economic regional agendas instead of on subtle geopolitical strategies that might elicit identity conflicts and misperceptions. The rhetoric of “the hub of Asia,” for instance, which the Roh government frequently employed, reappears in the New Asian Policy (Appendix 2) only within the context of envisioning an expansion of bilateral FTAs in Asia.
Regional economic issues such as free trade, IT technology, cultural markets, coordinated responses to financial crises and climate change, comprise the major portions of the policy. Such relative absence of identity-driven geostrategic visions among the conservatives could be understood in President Lee’s promotion of pragmatism in diplomatic, as well as domestic policies. At the Asia Economic Community Forum held in November 2009 in South Korea, as a short response to my question about the difference between the Asian policies of the Roh and Lee governments, Grand National Party congressman Won Hee-Ryong remarked as follows;
“The essential difference between the current government and the Roh government is that the Roh government then referred to South Korea as a balancer of Northeast Asia and this concept of balancer attracted a lot of attention, fueling a controversy on whether this idea means a digression from the U.S.-ROK alliance. However, there is barely a difference in terms of actual policies. This (The Lee) government, however, approaches Asian policies more carefully and pragmatically.”24
“Pragmatism” was one of the key slogans of President Lee during his presidential election campaign in 2007. Promoting the image of the candidate as a non-ideological businessman (he is the former CEO of Hyundai), Lee’s election strategy aimed at appealing to a South Korean public who was already tired of acrimonious identity politics during the progressives’ ruling period. He promised to pursue domestic and foreign policies with realistic and pragmatic professionalism.
The U.S. policymakers and academia welcomed the inauguration of the conservative government as they believed President Lee would take a more cooperative and cautious course of diplomatic relations with the U.S., and would not engage in unnecessary gestures that might fuel divisive politics of identity. The Lee government’s regional vision, manifested in the New Asian Policy centered upon economic agendas, has accordingly been saved from any controversy, and the progressives and leftists have focused their energies almost exclusively on attacking domestic policies such as the Grand Korean Waterway project and inter- Korean relations.
Conclusion: Implications for U.S.-ROK Relations
Currently there is no consensus among South Korean leaders over what kind of long-term geopolitical strategy the nation should adopt to help construct a stable and prosperous order that corresponds to the mutual interests of major regional actors, including the U.S. The progressives’ promotion of a pan- Asian slogan that manifested South Korea’s heightened expectation to assume a more proactive role as a regional balancer failed to garner a unified voice internally and delivered confusing messages across the Pacific that the longtime ally desires to bandwagon with the new regional power, China.
Most of all, the progressive Roh regime’s failed regionalist proposition and the intense identity politics it fueled suggest that what South Korea needs at this time is a “compromise [among political elites] highlighting elements of identity that serve urgent goals”25, that include stabilizing the inter-Korean relations and promoting a peaceful regional order. Such a compromise must start with recognizing the significance of continued policy coordination between the ROK and the US to deal with North Korea and its Asian neighbors.
A survey result indicates that Asian elites in general prefer U.S. support for and involvement in the long-term vision of an Asian community and corresponding regional institution building,26 reflecting widespread concerns that an exclusive regional order might end up intensifying a rivalry structure between regional hegemons. In the face of escalating peninsular uncertainties amid the recent military ship sinking and the North’s own internal succession politics, South Korean leaders are realizing again the importance of working closely with the U.S. on crucial regional agendas.
For the progressives and leftists, it should be noted that a successful national strategy on regional politics rests upon a shared vision and coordination with the nation’s trustworthy allies. The conservatives, on the other hand, need to start spending their time and political resources on drawing a long-term vision that could promise panregional as well as peninsular stability.
Most importantly, for a regional community to be materialized in Asia, where the U.S.-led bilateral structure has guaranteed a balance of power, a creative resolution of a multilateral blueprint with existing bilateralisms must be pursued. The ideal path toward such a resolution would consist in facilitating the mutual interests of regional actors. The U.S. policymakers also need to recognize and encourage South Korea’s capacity to assume such a crucial role. As Rozman argues, South Korea is well qualified for a status “as the facilitator of regionalism in Northeast Asia that could reconcile serious differences in an area