The following keynote speech was delivered at the International Conference on ‘Configuration of Peacelessness on the Korea Peninsula: Dialogue between Humanities and Social Science’, organized by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (IPUS) of Seoul National University, held at Plaza Hotel, Seoul, 25 July 2012.
ⓒ Paik Nak-chung 2012
Need for Multi-Dimensional Civic Participation for Peace on the Korean Peninsula
Paik Nak-chung (Professor Emeritus, SNU; Editor, The Quarterly Changbi)
It is a great honor to give the keynote speech at this conference, and I am grateful to IPUS for bestowing the honor on me, a literary critic and student of English Literature. True, I have published some five volumes addressing peace and reunification issues on the Korean Peninsula, but I am not vain enough to think that my academic colleagues at IPUS, who are mostly social scientists, have studied them with any assiduity. I probably owe my good fortune to the decision on the part of the HK Peace and Humanities Research Group at IPUS to open a ‘Dialogue between Humanities and Social Science’ (as the conference subtitle reads).
In any case I heartily welcome initiatives for such dialogue. But I would go one step further and say that a mere dialogue between the humanities and social science as two discrete fields is not enough. We need to develop a set of entirely new ‘post-disciplinary studies’ amounting to something like ‘a single historical social science linked to politics’ (Immanuel Wallerstein’s terminology), or humane studies that, while resembling pre-modern humanities in encompassing the totality of learning, manage to incorporate modern scientific knowledge (both social and natural) in a new manner.1 This is not to deny the need for specialization, but only to affirm that specializations will have to be reconfigured and practiced in the context of that larger endeavor. For the humanities that lack rigorous social analysis run the risk of becoming irrelevant, while social analysis ungrounded in the humanities will prove fragmentary, one-sided, and often superficial.
But let me turn to peace and peacelessness on the Korean Peninsula. Peacelessness is multi-layered anywhere, not only because peace means more than the absence of war, but because war itself is a multi-dimensional affair. This is especially true of the Korean case.
To begin with, the Korean War (1950-53) was a combination of civil war, an international war involving opposing ideological blocs, and a ‘police action’ on the part of the United Nations unparalleled in scale and bloodiness—just to name a few prominent features of that war. But the structure of peacelessness became even more complex and anomalous in its aftermath. For the armistice that put an end to warfare in 1953 has persisted for nearly sixty years without a peace agreement to replace it. This is indeed a rare phenomenon in the annals of the world, and has produced and solidified a peculiar structure of peacelessness on the peninsula.
First, the continuation of a juridiclal state of war has provided a strong case for a national security state on either side of the Armistice Line. Of course, the degree of democracy achieved despite such constraint varies greatly from one side to the other, but the inherently insecure armistice regime has lent structural support for anti-democratic forces on both sides. Secondly, great power involvement in the creation and maintenance of this peninsular structure has seriously limited national autonomy for both Koreas. Even the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) with its vaunted ‘self-reliance’ (juche) and record of defying foreign powers must be found seriously wanting if autonomy is measured in terms of the ability of a nation to achieve its objectives in the international arena.
But this regime does not owe its longevity and relative stability merely to interventions by foreign powers or to a small clique in collusion with them. The ravages of the Korean War created popular sentiments preferring even a precarious armistice to new outbreak of war, and the prolonged existence of this state has produced sizable forces on either side with vested interest in the anti-democratic, heteronomous regime of division, vociferously hostile to their counterpart on the other side but often in conscious or unconscious symbiosis with it for the preservation of the status quo.
I have used the term ‘the division system’ to characterize this reality. Here is not the place to explicate the notion at any length, least of all to go into the sterile debate over whether use of the term ‘system’ is justified. I shall only quote a sentence from a recent statement of the case in English: “[The notion of ‘the division system’] finds in this [peninsula-wide] reality a certain ‘systemic’ nature, a durability worthy of a social system (though a ‘system’ only in a loose sense), which calls for an analysis more systematic and holistic than studying each Korea as two discrete components of the world-system.”2
I may add two more points. One, the concept does not attribute everything wrong in Korea to the division. To the contrary, it implies a turn from a national to a global perspective, finding the division system not a self-enclosed system but a local manifestation of the world-system in and around the Korean Peninsula. Both Koreas thus share problems with other (mostly undivided) countries of the modern world. It also recognizes actors outside the peninsula, notably the United States and China, as significant agents in the operation of the division system. Two, the concept implies a turn from a state- to people-oriented perspective, calling not for any unification whatsoever but for a reunification process that would entail a substantial improvement in the lives of the population throughout the peninsula. Thus, it subsumes and even presupposes various ‘domestic’ reform agendas for such a reunification process to succeed.
It is a sobering fact that, despite all efforts toward this goal, the division system has persisted to this day. Indeed, its peacelessness appears to have become more dangerous and virulent over the past few years. Yet it is important to realize that this is precisely the signs of a long-term trend destabilizing the division system as a whole.
Nor should we forget that the June 1987 Uprising in South Korea with subsequent democratization of the country dealt a permanent blow to the division system. Dictatorial rule formed an integral part of the division system from the start, so that its collapse on one side, though not necessarily producing a similar consequence on the other side, has put the whole system into crisis. The blow was all the more powerful as it was accompanied and followed by a great geopolitical change—the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the East-West Cold War—removing a major international pillar of the division system.
Destabilization, however, does not necessarily lead to a new system, nor to a speedy collapse of the old. It can more easily result in a prolonged period of increasing chaos unless a new path is opened toward a better future. And in Korea such a breakthrough did occur in June 2000 in the first-ever inter-Korean summit meeting. It produced the June 15 Joint Declaration that agreed (in Article 2) on a gradual, phased reunification process including an intermediate stage of confederation or union of states, and thus enabled a quantum leap in inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation. Of course, we know that the process of reconciliation and reunification so begun has since traversed a rocky road, facing numerous barriers along the way, including the change of U. S. Administration (from Bill Clinton’s to George W. Bush’s) in the same year 2000 and more recently the advent of the Lee Myung-bak regime in the South in 2008. DPRK’s hard-line, at times paranoiac response certainly has not helped.
One consequence of the June 15 Joint Declaration, perhaps unintended by the two leaders who signed it, was to create a space for participation by ordinary citizens in the reunification process. For as soon as the process becomes a slow, phased, and open-ended process, government authorities cannot dominate or control it as in a military conquest or speedy one-shot unification. And let me stress that civic participation should not be confined to actual inter-Korean contact and cooperation: citizens can—and, at least in the South Korean case, increasingly do—intervene by carrying out various domestic reform agendas suited to a more peaceful, democratic, and eco-friendly peninsula, by affecting government priorities, and, if the government will not listen, by effecting a regime change through the electoral process.
But what of North Korea where little of such multi-dimensional civic participation seems possible? That certainly is a nagging question which must be answered more fully on a different occasion, based on serious and impartial research. Here I shall stop at noting two points of general principle. First, the fact that civic participation in the North is far more limited than in the South offers cannot justify out giving up on the attempt to maximize our own input whenever and wherever possible. Secondly, the almost total absence in the North of ‘civil society’ as understood in the South should not lead to the hasty conclusion that ordinary people in North Korea are making no input at all in the making of history except under the dictates of the party and the state, nor that more consciously independent actors will not increase in number and visibility as the process of inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation is revived (as it is bound to be) in the coming years.
Civic participation for peace on the Korean Peninsula will then become even more multi-dimensional, and only such participation can ensure that people on the peninsula will enjoy genuine peace, rather than mere absence of war.
1 See Paik Nak-chung, “The ‘two cultures’ problem and renewal of the humanities,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Vol. 11 No. 4 (Special Issue on Paik Nak-chung, December 2010), 524-30.
2 Paik Nak-chung, ‘Preface to the English-Language Edition’, The Division System in Crisis: Essays on Contemporary Korea (University of California Press 2011), xvi.