창작과 비평

[Paik Nak-chung] The ‘Third Party’ in Inter-Korean Relations and Its Potential Contribution to Modern Asian Thought


Paik Nak-chung (Seoul)


*The following talk was given on the first day of the ‘Asian Circle of Thought 2012 Shanghai Summit’, October 12-19, held at Power Station of Art, Shanghai, China, organized by Inter-Asia School and 2012 Shanghai Biennale, with the general theme ‘World in Transition, Imagination in Flux’. WAKABAYASHI Chiyo (Naha), IKEGAMI Yoshihiko (Tokyo), Yin-Bin NING (Chungli) and WANG Hsiaoming (Shanghai) took part as designated discussants in the day-long sessions with LIU Xinyu (Shanghai) as moderator. The author wishes to express thanks to them all and the organizers, although the following text does not incorporate the ensuring rich discussions. The other main speakers at the conference were Jomo Kwame SUNDRAM (Kuala Lumpur / Rome), Partha CHATTERJEE (Calcutta / New York), ARASAKI Moriteru (Naha), ITAGAKI Yuzo (Tokyo), and Ashis NANDY (Delhi).


  1. Preliminary Remarks


I focus on the Korean Peninsula because, first of all, it is the part of Asia I know best, but also because I believe it involves regional and global agendas of vital significance. Korea represents probably the most explosive area in the East Asian or Northeast Asian region. Any resolution arrived at there will not only enhance regional stability but affect the long-term peace and regional cooperation in Asia as a whole.

Korea is a global danger spot as well, providing a key pillar sustaining the global cold war structure that has survived the end of the East-West Cold War. Further, the process of the peninsula’s transformation will significantly affect the world’s transition to a new civilization. Such a transition will also demand radical changes in intellectual, moral, and philosophical assumptions, and popular movements that intervene in Korea’s advance to a better peninsula-wide system will have something to contribute in that respect, too.



  1. Peculiarity of the Korean Situation


Every place has its own peculiarities and Korea, too, has many. But I would like to focus on the division of the peninsula since 1945, which is unprecedented in its history since the unification of Three Kingdoms by Shilla in the seventh century, or at least since the fuller unification by the Koryô Dynasty (918-1392) in the early tenth century. It is also unparalleled as the sole remaining instance of post-1945 national divisions involving ideological opposition between capitalism and socialism. Other instances such as Vietnam, Yemen and Germany have all regained unity. True, there remains the case of Taiwan and mainland China, but it presents a somewhat different category, as the unification of the country was virtually accomplished by the victory of Communist forces in 1949, while leaving unsettled the problem of a secessionist province. Naturally it is an important problem on its own right, with wide-reaching regional and global implications. But instead of treading on that uncertain ground, I return to Korean Peninsula.

I have been arguing for years that the longevity of its division owes itself to a certain ‘systemic’ character that the partition of the peninsula has taken on in the course of history, rather than to any innate perversity or ineptitude of the Korean people. Korea’s ‘division system’ (as I have ventured to call it1) uniquely has combined in its inception elements of the East-West Cold War and those of the hegemonic power’s attempt to control the people of the Third World, and eventually found further domestic sources of sustenance as the partition continued through the ravages of a stalemated internecine war and for many decades after. In contrast, the Vietnam War was basically an instance of the war of national liberation, and thus could result in Vietnam’s victory and unification even in the midst of the East-West Cold War; while the division of Germany, as a crucial component of the Cold War regime, was quickly removed under West German hegemony once the Western bloc had triumphed over the Eastern bloc.

The Korean War of 1950-53 did have an element of national liberation war, though unlike in Vietnam hardly a direct continuation of pre-1945 military struggles against colonial rulers, and in any case the war ended in a ceasefire, leaving the line of division more or less unchanged. The carnage and devastation of a war that did not even achieve unification left people on both sides with ambivalent feelings: a greater longing for national unity, but also a deep mistrust of the other side and sentiments preferring an insecure peace to a new outbreak of war. Those with vested interests in the continued division of the land have known to exploit such a state of affair for their own ends, both in the two Koreas and in the international arena. The armistice regime of 1953 has thus lasted for nearly sixty years, solidifying itself as a ‘division system’ with considerable powers of self-reproduction.

Such a perspective is important because one of the chief mechanisms for the system’s endurance consists (as with any social system worth the name) in the ability to obscure its main antagonism or contradiction, which is between those forces (in and outside the peninsula) that profit from the division and the preponderant majority of the population who suffer from this essentially undemocratic and peaceless structure. True, antagonism between states or peoples, or between two opposing ideologies, also plays a role, but as much to cover up the symbiosis of the vested interests on both sides as to express genuine hostility. Also, in analyzing the ‘internal’ situation of each Korea, one will not hit upon the mark and produce adequate solutions unless one perceives how the general contradictions of the world-system manifest themselves as specific local problems through the mediation of the division system, thus exhibiting features not adequately comprehended according to analytic models based on non-divided societies.

For all its powers of endurance, Korea’s division system has entered a period of crisis since as early as the late 1980s. I date it from the June Uprising of 1987 in South Korea, which ended military dictatorship and restored constitutional rule in the South. Given the anti-democratic nature of the division system and the mutual reliance of the ruling classes on both sides, democratization in the Southern half meant a serious blow to the system as a whole. Another blow soon followed in the form of the end of the East-West Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, removing a geopolitical pillar of the division system. Then, in June 2000, the first-ever summit meeting of the two Koreas produced the June 15 Joint Declaration signed by Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jongil. This had the double effect of making the systemic crisis more manageable and opening the path to the eventual overcoming of the system.

The process of inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation has, however, been largely interrupted or reversed under the Lee Myung-bak administration, which came to power in February 2008. In fact, nearly all the inter-Korean collaborative projects (with the notable exception of Kaesong Industrial Complex) have been stopped; harsh rhetoric against each other has prevailed both at home and abroad; and in October 2010 there even occurred a direct shelling of Southern territory (Yônp’yông Island) by Northern artillery. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has strengthened its nuclear armament, and the denuclearization issue has become more recalcitrant than ever.

I do not intend to go into details of these matters, nor into the question of who is to blame for what. The point I wish to stress is that the renewed tension and inter-Korean animosity in the peninsula, far from signifying a return to stability of the division system, characterizes a system in ever-deepening crisis and staggering toward a choice between some kind of catastrophe (or at least an irredeemable stagnation of both Koreas) and a radical transformation into a better peninsular system.



  1. The Role of the ‘Third Party’


In the process of that transformation I envision a substantial role for South Korea’s civilian community (or ‘civil society’ in the wider sense of including market actors) and have dubbed it ‘the third party’ alongside Seoul and Pyongyang authorities. This may sound rather fanciful in a situation where governments, not only of North and South Korea but concerned powers like the United States, China, Japan and Russia, have failed to resolve the division and attendant problems like the nuclear issue. How, then, can mere civilians in one half of the peninsula play a role to qualify them as a more or less equal ‘party’?

The short answer is: why not invite a different party to intervene since governments have labored so long to so little effect? Moreover, quantitative equality of input is not the point; it’s a question of qualitative difference from the hitherto government-dominated efforts. Governments did achieve their goals elsewhere, in Vietnam, Yemen and Germany—with civilian input, of course, but in the end through government initiatives either for military conquest or peaceful annexation.

But actually, and this may come as a surprise to some people, a qualitatively different type of reunification was agreed to a dozen years ago by the top leaders of the two Koreas. The June 15 Joint Declaration stipulated (in Article 2) that Korea’s reunification should be pursued not just gradually but by going through an intermediate stage of some kind. It does not specify what kind, only noting (with Henry Kissinger’s ‘constructive ambiguity’) that there were common features between the South’s proposal of a confederation (or union of sovereign states) and the North’s of ‘a low-stage federation’. The crucial—and unambiguous—point, however, is that Korean unification will not be a one-shot affair, but shall begin with an initial stage of a rather loose combination of the two existing states.

And we do have a further qualitative change. For the gradual, phased, and open-ended process creates a space for ordinary citizens’ participation as in no other previous instance of unification—not even in Germany where quantitatively the civilian contact and exchanges between East and West were incomparably greater and deeper but lacked a conscious aim of preparing for unification. Thus, once the Berlin Wall had suddenly fallen, there was little chance for the citizens to maximize their input through a confederal arrangement. In contrast, a gradual, phased reunification allows the citizenry to debate and intervene at each step in decisions regarding when and how the first stage of union is to be accomplished, what to aim for at the next stage and how to go about achieving it, and what to strive for as the ‘final’ goal.

The quantum leap in inter-Korean exchanges and collaboration that the June 15 Declaration made possible still fell far short, as I say, of the inter-German level—the Military Demarcation Line between the two Koreas being, after all, the product of a bloody internecine war—and the Lee Myung-bak regime has, moreover, interrupted most of them. But this has by no means diminished the importance of the ‘third party’. To the contrary, the South Korean citizenry, who plunged the division system into crisis by its democratic struggles in 1987 and later elected (1997) and empowered President Kim Dae-jung to make the historical breakthrough of June 2000, has again emerged as the final arbiter in the question of whether and how to reverse the course taken since 2008 by the South Korean government.

But what about the people in the Northern half? Why not include them as ‘the fourth party’?

Actually I am all for it in principle, but at the same time simple realism would call for reservations about their present status as another independent ‘party’. This is not to say that popular initiatives in the North—including the very act of fending for themselves in a socialist economy in which rationing system has been severely impaired—do not have an impact on the course of history, including inter-Korean relations. But a more purposeful, large-scale popular interventions seem yet to come. They certainly will come sooner or later, probably with a dramatic increase once the reunification process reaches the stage of loose inter-Korean union. We could then envisage not only consultation and networking between the ‘third’ and ‘fourth’ parties, but eventual merging, though still in the form of a loose alliance rather than a peninsula-wide organization, to form a bigger ‘third party’ embracing civilian groups on both sides.

In South Korea’s political and intellectual discourse, aspirations for a new turn in our history—comparable to the June Uprising and its aftermath that launched the ‘regime of 1987’—have focused on the idea of the ‘regime of 2013’. Dramatic advances in inter-Korean relations form an essential part of this future regime: not a mere resuscitation of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations’ engagement policy but its upgrading to a ‘2.0 version’ that will more fully reflect the distinguishing feature of ‘reunification Korean style’, namely, a step-by-step process with maximum popular participation. High on the agenda will be the replacement of the current armistice agreement with a peace treaty (or peace agreement), not only because this is essential to building a full peace regime in the peninsula, but because advances in domestic democracy, too, would depend on the removal of the essentially anti-democratic basis underlying the ‘regime of 1987’, the regime of the 1953 armistice with its congenital tendency toward a national security state, which kept constraining and even succeeded in temporarily defeating the democratizing impulses of post-1987 South Korea.



  1. Some Regional Implications


Any reduction of tension in Korean Peninsula would contribute to the stability of the region but, aside from the fact that stability of an unjust state of affairs would not be an unmixed blessing, only a phased reunification with significant civic participation will ensure a lasting peace and friendship in the region. All the surrounding nations aver that they support Korean reunification, or at least disclaim any intent to oppose it, but no neighboring country, however powerful, would feel safer or more comfortable than before if Korean Peninsula were unified through a strong nationalistic impulse to produce a conventional unitary state. Only an innovative variety of confederal or federal state tailored to the evolving needs of the population and open to regional collaboration from the start would allay the fears of the neighboring countries. Such a state and the process leading up to it could even serve as a model, or at least a stimulus, to various efforts by peoples of the region to reform their own state structures toward greater democracy and to achieve a more people-oriented, rather than state-centered, regional framework.

I said ‘toward greater democracy’, but ‘democracy’ is a highly contentious word. At present the main debate seems between those who adhere to the Western model of liberal democracy (with or without allowances for differing local circumstances) and those who reject that model, sometimes going so far as to defend clearly undemocratic regimes and practices. The same debate characterizes differences among South Koreans with regard to the long-term goals of Korea’s reunification. Some on the extreme right—themselves none too respectable liberals or democrats on the domestic scene—insist that any unification talk with North Korea should start with an agreement to respect the ‘free and democratic basic order’ (which they often misread as ‘liberal-democratic basic order’) stipulated in the South Korean constitution. This would, of course, practically rule out any dialogue with Pyongyang. On the other side, North Koreans claim—and a small minority of sympathizers in the South concur—that their Democratic People’s Republic is already more genuinely democratic than South Korea.

The ‘third party’ does not insist on North Korea’s prior agreement to the principle of ‘free and democratic basic order’, not because it endorses Pyongyang’s definition of democracy, but partly for the obvious pragmatic reason that such preconditions would make dialogue and negotiations impossible from the start, and more importantly because the very process of reunification with people deciding along the way what kind of political system they want, while continuing to educate themselves in order to become adequate for making those decisions, would represent the epitome of democracy in action. I believe this way of defining democracy in terms of people’s actual choices in a given historical task is applicable to other situations in the region and the rest of the world as well.



  1. Korean Peninsula and the World-System in Crisis


I remarked above that the end of the East-West Cold War removed an important pillar of the division system. The global cold war regime, however, must be viewed as a larger and more complex reality than the confrontation between the Western and Soviet blocs, which constituted a particular phase in that global regime—indeed, a relatively stable phase based on collaboration as much as antagonism between the two superpowers, with a view to managing their respective allies and controlling the Third World population. The cold war regime in this larger sense has survived the collapse of the Eastern bloc and, seen in that light, Korea’s division must count as an even more critical component of the global cold war regime than Germany’s.

For the same reason, reunification of the peninsula will deal a heavy blow to the reigning order of the world-system. The global cold war regime in any case has entered a chaotic phase with ever more numerous local hot wars and the entrance of non-state actors like Al-Quaeda into the fray. If we are to believe Immanuel Wallerstein and his ‘world-systems analysis’,2 this is but a sign of the system’s structural crisis, a crisis “in which there is only one certainty—that this existing system cannot be brought back to equilibrium and therefore cannot survive.” What will follow and when remains uncertain, however. In broad terms, the choice will be between “a system that reproduces in a non-capitalist form the three defining characteristics of the present system—hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization” and one “that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian, a kind of system that has never yet existed anywhere.”

Wallerstein characterizes the two possibilities by the symbolic names of “the spirit of Davos” and “the spirit of Porto Allegre,” and finds in each camp a deep internal division regarding the basic strategy for realizing that possibility. Thus, one group in the ‘Davos camp’ favors harsh repression, while another prefers “the di Lampedusa strategy of changing everything in order that nothing changes. They use the language of meritocracy, green capitalism, more equity, more diversity, and the open hand to the rebellious. They do this in the hope that such proposed ‘reforms’ would head off support for a system that would be based on relative democracy and relative equality.” But the ‘Porto Allegre camp’, too, is divided between ‘horizontalists’ who are hostile to all hierarchy and others who see the need for some kind of ‘vertical’ organization. “The resulting picture is therefore not one of a simple two-sided struggle but rather of a political field with four groups”; and he concludes by noting that “‘history’ is on nobody’s side” and “the outcome is inherently, not extrinsically, unpredictable.”

I have relayed Wallerstein’s arguments at some length because one way of gauging the global relevance of ‘reunification Korean style’ would be to try to place it in the four-part struggle for an alternative world-system. I indicated above that reunification of the peninsula would deal a serious blow to the reigning order, but one may safely predict that Korea’s reunification will not by itself bring the capitalist world-system to an end. The manner in which Korea is unified, particularly the degree and content of popular input into the process, will, however, have a considerable impact on the global struggle to shape the unpredictable long-term future.

In the Korean context, the repressionist school of the ‘Davos group’ would be represented by South Korean hardliners (often in virtual collusion with the Communist hardliners in the North) favoring confrontation and even military conquest. But theirs is such a dangerous and unrealistic policy that, even though promoted from positions of power including many key posts in the current South Korean administration and the ruling party, it has little chance of realization or of coming to a lasting understanding with the ‘di Lampedusa school’. The latter includes many proponents of ‘engagement policy’ at home and abroad—opting for a peaceful end to the division but no real transformation of the division system as such.

For those who endeavor to transform that system, i.e., to radically reduce throughout the peninsula undemocratic practices, polarization, gender injustice, destruction of the environment, and so forth, and look to this result as a step in transforming the world-system itself, some degree of vertical organization would seem essential. But if ‘horizontalism’ appears irrelevant to tasks like denuclearization, inter-Korean business projects, or building a confederal state, that is not quite so. Since the April Student Revolution of 1960, mass demonstrations and uprisings have repeatedly impacted upon government policies and, particularly from the ‘candle-light demonstrations’ of 2008 and on, South Korean mass movements increasingly favor horizontal networking over vertical organization. But so long as the horizontalism is a relative horizontalism rather than a fundamentalist one, there is room for collaboration and perhaps eventual synthesis with the relative verticalism of the opposing school. Moreover, depending on the given situation, the two groups together could even form a local alliance with the ‘di Lampedusa school’. As a matter of fact, this would amount to nothing more than the familiar winning strategy of keeping the enemy camp divided and minimizing differences within one’s own, and may harbor global applicability. But one must not forget that the other camp too, especially its accommodationist wing, would have its own strategy for dividing opponents and co-opting a portion of them, so that even a satisfactory outcome in the Korean peninsula would not provide a formula for automatic application elsewhere.



  1. Asia, Modernity, Thought


I shall close with some cursory remarks on three immense topics represented by the three words, ‘Modern Asian Thought’. Shifting the order a little, I shall start with ‘Asia’.

As everybody knows, ‘Asia’ is a Eurocentric construct indicating what in the Eurasian Continent is not Europe. Growth in awareness of the problems posed by Eurocentrism and of the need for solidarity among non-Western peoples is injecting more content into the term, but in my view not yet enough to make Asia a cohesive region.

Subcategories such as Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Northeast Asia seem to have more traction. Of these, Korean Peninsula unambiguously belongs both to East Asia and Northeast Asia, but even so, the terms do not allow for a clear-cut definition. Northeast Asia, for instance, signifies more than the cartographical Northern half of Eastern Asia, for the term is most frequently employed in addressing security considerations and includes (as in the Beijing Six-Party Talks) the United States and Russia as well as China, Japan and the two Koreas. East Asia, too, has a fluctuating contour depending on whether one is talking of the economy or an area with shared civilizational legacies. In the latter case, much of Southeast Asia and certainly the United States would have to be excluded, and even in economic discourse, America’s presence as a Pacific power and a hegemon of the world-system would be acknowledge without one’s including the U.S. as a full member in an East Asian regional framework.

If things are thus complicated for Korea, how much more should it be for a huge country like China, which can be assigned to East Asia only because it is located to the east of Central Asia and north of South Asia and no other term would serve to approximate its regional identity. But it would be unreasonable to expect China to confine its interests to the East Asian region, although, depending on the given agenda, the Chinese might do well to develop a stronger self-awareness as East Asian or Northeast Asian persons.

At any rate, the goal of the ‘third party’ in Korea’s reunification process is initially to loosen rather than abolish outright the inter-Korean border and eventually to help make all territorial borders more permeable, so that ‘regions’ would be defined not in terms of sovereign states as in the European Union, but created ‘from below’ on the basis of the actual movement of people, goods, and ideas, which would determine and sustain the various (and varying) sites of regional solidarity. Not that national borders will disappear any time soon, but if we succeed in building a more humane world than the existing world-system, the latter’s ‘interstate system’ too will have been transformed, and the permeable and changeable boundaries of ‘civilizations’ and ‘cultural zones’ will become the more important facts of life.

‘Modernity’ seems an even larger subject than ‘Asia’. I tried to deal with it in connection with problems of the Korean peninsula in an essay called ‘Coloniality in Korea and a South Korean Project for Overcoming Modernity’ (Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 2:1, 2000, pp. 73-86), and I plan to expatiate on some of the themes at our Main Forum later in this conference. Here I will just mention a few basic notions of mine.

First, as must be obvious by now, I mean by modernity the capitalist world-system, also called the modern world-system, which has existed since (say) the sixteenth century. I understand that this system, although in terminal crisis, is still the only global system in existence. Talk of ‘post-modernity’, therefore, should either delimit itself to identifying those elements within modernity that presage or are preparing for the post-capitalist era, or otherwise invite charges of misjudging reality and even obstructing efforts to overcome modernity.

Secondly, modernity in this sense is something that needs very much to be overcome but cannot be abolished at will. While it lasts, one must live in it and with it but also, to the best of one’s ability, continue to work for its overcoming. Indeed, it may be argued that one can live with it well only by working to overcome it and one contributes effectively to its overcoming only by managing to live with it. Hence, the “double project of simultaneously adapting to and overcoming modernity” (p. 79) in my essay. The idea is as old as the Marxian—even Hegelian—dialectic, only formulated anew in contrast, on the one hand, to various breeds of modernizing ideologies (for which achieving modernity in one form or another is touted as the universal goal), and to the self-styled ‘radical’ claims for the arrival already of post-modernity, on the other hand.

Nearer the ground, the efforts to overcome Korea’s division system provide a good example of the ‘double project’, as they work to make lives of the peninsula’s population more livable under the modern world-system, while at the same time their success will greatly add to the global endeavors to create a more humane post-capitalist system. Each of these two tasks, moreover, will be effectively carried out only when accompanied by the other.

And to come to our third topic, what are we to think of ‘thought’? This is another theme touched upon in the above-mentioned essay and thus left for elaboration on another day. But again I shall give a brief overview of my position.

The Western tradition since Ancient Athens has placed philosophical knowledge or intellection at the apex of human thinking, and the modern privileging of scientific knowledge as the only valid mode of cognition is a carry-over from it. But this tradition has been increasingly questioned by Western philosophers and scientists themselves. Nietzsche comes to mind as an early precursor, and Heidegger seems to have conducted a more thorough work of overcoming Western metaphysics (though some including Jacques Derrida would disagree), followed by ‘deconstructionists’ and some scientists of our day.

The point I want to emphasize, however, is that such efforts in the West will not fully succeed in rethinking ‘truth’ and ‘thought’ unless they are enriched by a productive dialogue with non-Western thinkers, just as East Asian or Indian thought in its turn needs to come to terms with Western thinking, including Western philosophy and modern science, if it is to enjoy a new life in the world. Moreover, such a dialogue and coming to terms will not take place in vacuum, but in the midst of practical struggles for a better world and a new world-system. The unity of theory and practice, so highly valued in Marxism, cannot be reduced merely to the principle of putting theory to the proof of practice, or of ‘practicing what one preaches’. It calls for nothing less than a thorough rethinking of what thought is and what truth is. This should be another major agenda for modern Asian thought.



1 For example, in Paik Nak-chung, The Division System in Crisis: Essays on Contemporary Korea (University of California Press, 2011).


2 As most recently restated in Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Politics of Civilizational Transformation,” talk at Conference on ’Civilization, Humanity, and Politics’ at the Peace BAR Festival sponsored by The Global Academy for Future Civilizations of Kyung Hee University, Seoul, Korea, September 17-18, 2012. Quotations in this section are from this lecture, and I thank the author for providing me with a copy of the text.