The Politics of Asian Regionalism in Korea: Identity Politics and Its Implications for U.S.-ROK Relations

By Kim Dae-Gyeong
Cornell International Affairs Review
2010, Vol. 4 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |

Drawing from the concept of national identity in the Constructivist School of International Relations, this paper sheds light on the interaction between identity politics and pan-Asian regionalist vision in South Korea today by examining how competing political groups – the progressives, leftists and conservatives – have formulated differing regional policies and long-term goals. After showing that each group’s distinctive identities toward North Korea and the United States have influenced the formation of controversies over regionalist visions, this paper suggests that successful future community building in Asia hinges upon the creative resolution of a multilateral blueprint with existing bilateralisms in the region, and most importantly upon closer policy coordination between South Korea and the United States.


Extensive research has analyzed an intriguing yet still inconspicuous trend in today’s international politics: Asian regional integration. In observing the tendency, it is worth noting the historical fact that pan-Asian visions have repeatedly surfaced onto the world stage in various forms and contexts. From the Japanese imperial ambitions clothed with the pan-Asian slogan of a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” in the midtwentieth century, have developed their own geopolitical visions, through the discourse of “Asian values”1 as underlying cultural contributors to the developmental miracles of East Asian nations in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and finally to the current manifestations of what some already began to term as “a new pan- Asianism,”2 intellectuals and politicians of Asia from nearly the entire ideological spectrum.

Korea has been no exception; as Gi-Wook Shin argues, since Korea’s “incorporation into the modern world system in the late nineteenth century,”3 various forms of Asianist visions have emerged and declined. Contemporary South Korean politics also manifest distinctive visions and policies regarding the future of Asia and Korea’s geopolitical strategies. Excepting the former Roh regime’s idea of Korea as the “regional balancer of Asia,” the issue of regional policies has seldom been subject to the intense politicization4 typical of Korean politics, which is divided along ideological lines. The close examination of news editorials, party platforms and governmental policies, nevertheless reveals that each of the conservatives, progressives, and leftists5 in South Korea has formulated their respective regional vision.

Those differing visions and policy lines reflect the gaps between each political faction’s strategic views on major regional actors such as China, North Korea and the U.S. South Korea’s geographic location amidst stronger neighbors as well as its unique situation of peninsular division and strategic alliance with the U.S. has compelled its citizens to define their national identity in terms of their country’s relationships with the U.S., North Korea and more recently, China. Scholars have used the term “identity politics” or “politics of identity”6 to refer to the continuing contestation of national identity in South Korea, in which groups of different political beliefs strive to advance their own perceptions of those major neighbors as the legitimate visions of national identity.

The objectives of this paper are: (1) to highlight how South Korean identity politics are reflected in the Asian policy platforms of the progressives, leftists and conservatives, and (2) to review the implications of findings for U.S.- ROK relations. As a necessary preliminary to these topics, however, we begin by discussing previous scholarly discourses on identity politics, and some broad manifestations of this idea in South Korea.

Identity Politics and South Korea

National identity as a concept has attracted a significant amount of attention from both social sciences and humanities. This includes the recent scholarship in the Constructivist school of international relations,7 a few social scientists’ ambitious project to establish identity as a variable, sociologists’ use of the concept in their politico-historical discourses,8 and the critical assessment of national identity and culture as a problematic concept from the perspective of cultural studies,9 to name but a few. Most importantly, the Constructivist school has emphasized the importance of analyzing the role of state identity and interests in the formation of actual foreign policies.

The common understanding of the concept of state identity has been that it involves a state’s perception of other states. Peter Katzenstein explains that “in constructivist analyses of state behavior and the relations between states, ideational factors and processes are expected to be important for tracing whether collective actors are likely to construct or diffuse enmity or amity between self and other.”10 It has also been pointed out that state identities, that is, perceptions of other states, vary across the differing political positions or ideologies within a society. Thomas Berger argues that “different subgroups within a given society… may hold very different conceptions of state identity and state interest.”11 Identity politics ensue when those political subgroups within a society compete over the legitimization of particular perceptions of other states in trying to justify their viewpoints in the name of national interest.

South Korea’s geographic location amidst stronger neighbors as well as its unique situation of peninsular division and strategic alliance with the U.S. has compelled its citizens to define their national identity in terms of their country’s relationships with the U.S., North Korea and more recently, China.

In the case of South Korea, national politics has to a large extent been marked by the struggles between the holders of different perspectives toward the United States and towards North Korea, two important others, often resulting in emotional confrontations. According to J.J. Suh at Johns Hopkins, there are basically “two conflicting identities” within South Korean politics: “the alliance identity that sees the United States as a friendly provider and the nationalist identity that pits Korean identity against the United States.”12 The “alliance identity” of the conservatives has been described as going hand in hand with their staunch stance toward the North Korean regime.

The “nationalist identity” of the progressives and the leftists, on the other hand, has been affiliated with their moderate or sympathetic stance toward the North. Gi- Wook Shin, quoting Suh’s remarks, also argues in his book on U.S.-Korea relations that both North Korea and the U.S. have become two significant others against which Koreans shape their sense of national identity and that both progressives and conservatives “seek to define their vision for national identity with reference to” the two nations.13 In short, different perceptions of the U.S. and North Korea, and the diverse state identities affected thereby, have competed with each other in South Korea. It will be shown in the next part of this paper that such identity politics in South Korea has shaped or at least influenced the formation of controversies over different Asian policies and visions among the progressives, leftists and conservatives.

The Progressives: The Regional Balancer Thesis

When candidate Roh Moo Hyun won the 2003 presidential election amidst rising anti-American sentiments in South Korea, the Roh government and its Uri party (now divided into the Democratic Party and the Participation Party) were perceived by the U.S. policymakers as “implacably anti-American” and pro-North Korean.14 Conservative commentators in South Korea as well continuously condemn the nationalist identity of the Roh regime, and acrimonious politics of identity overwhelmed the nation during the entire ruling period of the progressive powers. When president Roh proclaimed his vision of South Korea to be a “balancer of Northeast Asia” in the forthcoming “era of Northeast Asia,” followed by explanatory documents from the administrative office of the National Security Council and the Presidential Commission on Policy Planning,15 such geopolitical conceptions were considered to have been motivated by the nationalist identity vis-àvis the U.S.-ROK alliance and North Korea.

The governmental documents stated that the Roh regime’s regional visions were not in contradiction with the alliance and denied the existence of any hidden intention to bandwagon with the rising regional power, China. The documents instead argue that South Korea’s assumption of a proactive role as a balancer—coordinating regional policies within the U.S.-China-Japan triangle—would be in line with the U.S. policy stance to establish a cooperative order with China. The underlying idea is that South Korea could prevent the possibility of diplomatic as well as military conflicts among the powerful regional actors in their hegemonic rivalries. It was also claimed that the regional visions are not necessarily concerned with the issue of North- South relations and that the denuclearization of the North is to be achieved through multilateral frameworks such as the Six-Party talks.

Despite the efforts of the Roh government to convince Korean conservatives and the Bush administration that its regionalist ideas were in fact in accordance with the interests of the U.S., U.S. policymakers, the media and many in academia bombarded the progressive resident of the Blue House with harsh criticisms. Most of all, conservative Korean news media that were already at the front line of denouncing progressive governmental policies turned their gunpoint to the regional balancer thesis.

For instance, a 2005 editorial of Chosun Ilbo, one of the prominent conservative newspapers in South Korea, viewed the idea of “Northeast Asian balancer” as markedly contradictory to the U.S.-ROK alliance: “the idea of Northeast Asian balancer sounds as if South Korea could jump onto the side of China to succeed as a balancer. Is that even possible? Moreover, if South Korea jumps onto the left side, what would happen to the other side? I mean, what about the U.S.- ROK alliance?”16

Scholars based in the U.S. also commented on the Roh government’s proposition as a premature, if not totally improper, vision driven by nationalist identity. Shin argued that the progressives’ new version of Asianism embodied their revisionist stance toward the U.S.-ROK alliance and general discontent with the Bush administration’s foreign policies. In his 2006 work he wrote, “the current version of Korean Asianism,” advocated by progressive scholars serving the Roh government, “seeks to distance Korea from American hegemony and to grant it a more appropriate role as a hub in the region.”17

Again in his 2007 book, the regionalist vision was seen as a reflection of “Koreans’ discontent with American policy … [as] its proponents are unhappy with what they perceive as the one-sided and unequal nature of the U.S.- South Korea alliance.”18 He also observes the pro-North Korean identity of the progressives behind the slogan of the Northeast Asian era; “Its [Asianism’s] proponents argue that U.S.- led globalization unfairly excludes North Korea and that a new strategy of national survival must incorporate the North. A report by the Presidential Commission on Policy Planning defines this recent Asianism as “a new perspective of history and worldview” with the ultimate goal of forming an “Asian Union” that would include the North.”19

Another sociologist and Northeast Asia expert Gilbert Rozman, in his short yet brilliant article on the South Korean national identity, has also analyzed the balancer thesis as “indicative of…unguarded romanticism,” without realistic calculations of the regional balance of power. He suggests that the regionalist vision failed to gain a shared national vision, provoking internal identity conflicts between the progressives and conservatives. Instead, the government should have focused on assuming a more modest and realistic role as a “facilitator at moments when interests [of regional powers] overlap.”20

The Roh regime’s vision of South Korea as a regional balancer, and its flowery slogan of the “era of Northeast Asia” led to the first major politicization of pan-Asian thought in the nation since 1945. While the explanatory documents highlighted the underlying intention to be in line with the existing alliance system and U.S. interests in Asia, the regionalist imagination was dismissed as premature at best. Against the backdrop of antagonistic domestic politics and continuous regional policy disharmony with the Bush administration, president Roh’s independent conception of regional power realignment ended up fueling identity politics and lasted only a few months.

The Leftists: Party Platforms and Discourses

Many leftists in South Korea who inherited the anti-American minjung (people’s) movement of the 1980s became fascinated with the seemingly anti-American and economically progressive stances of the 2002 Presidential candidate Roh Moo Hyun, whose surprising victory discommoded conservatives and the hawkish Bush administration and gave unprecedented hopes to the leftists. The latter’s disenchantments, however, arrived quickly when the government pushed for the dispatch of South Korean troops to Iraq and for the commencement of FTA negotiations with the U.S.

Their sense of betrayal toward the progressive president appeared inevitable given the Korean leftists’ strong anti-American and progressive economic visions, which can also be seen in its regional policy lines. Supported mainly by labor unionists, activists, and intellectuals, the leftists in South Korea have regarded the U.S.-led Neoliberalism and American hegemony as the main culprit of economic inequality and the North Korean crises. Envisioning a new regional power alignment, therefore, which was necessary for the leftists, aimed both to achieve reunification as a way to free the peninsula from what they considered unequal U.S.-Korea relations, and to establish a pan-Asian new economic system that addresses the unfettered economic liberalism led by the U.S.

The current party platform of the New Progressive Party clearly reflects such regional visions (Appendix 1). Regarding the U.S.-ROK alliance as “based upon the American imperial domination strategy” and South Korea “taken as a hostage to the neoliberal capitalism,” the platform states that a new peace system called “the Northeast Asian Multilateral Security Cooperation System” is to be established so that “the U.S. army stationed in South Korea is to be withdrawn.” Unification is the means and ends of the new peace system, bringing “the improvement of people’s lives in both South and North Korea.” The platform also calls for the solidarity and alliance of “the democratic progressive factions” of each Asian nation, to establish “sustainable economic systems” as an alternative to “bilateral free trade agreements that force structural adjustments.”

Besides party platforms, leftist intellectuals have formulated corresponding discourses on regional politics. An academic article by a professor at Sung Kong Hoe University, known for its large pool of faculty members with progressive and leftist leanings, argues that “It is not even possible to imagine a new Asia without taking actions together against the formidable capacity of the U.S. in ruling over and lining up the entire Asia- Pacific. The reason why we speak of Asia is that if Asian countries do not form solidarity, they really cannot survive…In this regard we have to learn from the symbiotic solidarity of Latin America which stabs a dagger right into the center of American hegemony.”21

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 chance of any leftist party candidate’s ascendancy to the Blue House and of an actual materialization of such regional visions, however, remains quite low unless the leftists come to form a coalition with the Democratic Party against the dominant conservative camps and overcome their lasting stagnation after the internal division and corruption scandals. Yet, the volatile political terrain of the nation vulnerable to events that could trigger intense politicization and mass reactions leaves open the possibility of resurging anti-American sentiments which could at anytime be linked to new geopolitical imaginations.

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