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The Asian side of the world - II

Jean-François Sabouret

Part One. Regional dynamics and globalization

The Korean Peninsula: source of incompréhension

Marie-Orange Rivé-Lasan

Texte intégral

1July 2013

“Korea” no longer exists!

2The English term “Korea” designates something that is both complex and blurred. Although it is familiar, as it is omnipresent in the media, it is associated with diverse fields: technological achievements, world records, a global menace and cultural strangeness.

3Between the Middle Ages (Koryŏ Kingdom, 935-1392) and the premodern period (Chosŏn Kingdom, 1392-1897), Korea was a structured political entity, rooted in a fixed territory, a readily recognizable peninsula, with a certain ethnic, cultural and linguistic homogeneity. It was divided by internal quarrels among factions, but these characterized its political culture. Korea was therefore clearly distinguishable from its Chinese and Japanese neighbours, but for westerners it was a discreet entity in northeast Asia. During the 20th century, however, this view was shattered: even though Japanese colonization brought about only slight changes, as the entire Korean territory was colonized and its international recognition was not increased, the mentality of Koreans and the sense of “Koreanness” changed radically. Part of the Korean population resisted the occupiers or simply left the peninsula as economic refugees and adventurers, to settle in the Japanese archipelago and Manchuria and also in Russia (then the USSR) and North and South America. The arrival of Korean diasporas in various locations overturned the world view of Koreans, who forged ties outside the peninsula. At this stage, “political” Korea existed only in resistance movements far from the peninsula, with a government in exile that was not recognized by the international community after liberation in 1945. Economic Korea was exploited, and cultural Korea was scorned on the peninsula. Korea existed only through the repression and negation that it underwent. It became a phantasm; people died for it.

4The end of the Second World War, in summer 1945, saw the partition of Korea at the 38th parallel. This arbitrary division, by the then-Allied forces of the Soviets and the Americans, was initially a temporary measure to facilitate the demilitarization of the defeated Japanese but endured in the context of the Cold War that began after the War. The opposing Communist and capitalist blocs had a zone of contact in Korea, which was formalized by the establishment of two distinct, antagonistic states in 1948. All the ideological debates of the time took place on the peninsula, both north and south of the demarcation line. Hopes for construction of a new, politically unified, modern Korea were dashed. The Korean War (1950-1953), which was so costly in terms of human lives and was a real ecological and psychological disaster, also meant that this objective could not be attained at the urns.

5In the second half of the 20th century, a “unified” Korea existed only in people’s dreams. There were now at least three Koreas: the Democratic People’s Republic in the north, the Republic in the south and a scattered diaspora, which, depending on where it was geographically and when, was influenced by one of the two competing Korean states. “Reunification” was stated to be the official objective in both the North and the South, but no action was taken after the Korean War to make this a reality, as reflected in the absence of a peace treaty after the armistice of 1953 and the persistence of a tightly closed frontier zone! The “Sunshine policy”, led by South Korean progressives for a decade (1997-2007), resulted in some inter-Korean cooperation, which was largely economic and symbolic. This opening was unilaterally reversed in 2008 by the conservative government of Lee Myung-back, on the basis of the view that it had been a “failure” in terms of economic advantages and profits for the South. There is now no patience, no mutual respect and no frank, cordial mutual aid: confrontation at global level and mutual mistrust at regional level have blocked all attempts at conciliation since the beginning of the 2000s.

6It makes no sense to speak of “Korea” today. The Koreans themselves no longer call themselves or their country by this name, using various words in Korean depending on their place of residence for the past 50 years. South Koreans use the term Han’guk (Han country) and North Koreans use the term Nam Chosŏn (southern Chosŏn) to refer to South Korea. A South Korean will use the term Puk Han (northern Han) to designate North Korea, while a North Korean will use the term Chosŏn, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Even the members of the diaspora refer to themselves in different ways (Koryŏ saram in the ex-Soviet Union and Chosŏn-jok in China) and to their “motherland”, indicating the complexity of positions regarding the concepts of Koreanness, orthodoxy and tradition. When one speaks of Korea in Korean, one has to position oneself ideologically, unlike in English, in which the ambiguous word “Korea” retains a certain flexibility. Korean speakers are trapped: there is no alternative but to take a quasi-ideological or even diplomatic stance in speaking of Korea and of that which is Korean, when other lexical possibilities are forbidden by education and the media, as in North and South Korea.

Over-publicized events in the North and under-publicized events in the South

7Korea is often referred to in superlatives by the media. But what are they referring to? Korea creates sensationalism. Journalists are generally interested in what is happening in North Korea, or more precisely the threat that it is supposed to pose. It is true that the North Korean Government excels not only in aggressive and threatening declarations, as occurred last winter, but also in the expert orchestration of missile launchings and nuclear tests, which maintain the suspense. It knows how to create a sensation, take extreme positions, ensure sudden reversals, make waves in its international relations and defy the United Nations. It thus maintains its position by occupying traditional media space and also, more recently, by using cybernetic space to increase its influence both domestically and internationally. By sending out information that is “alarming” for global security, journalists around the world do a huge favour not only to North Korea but also to the big powers, which want to maintain the status quo on the Korean peninsula. The North Korean threat is a used to justify American military strategies in the Asia– Pacific region, including possible remilitarization of Japan. China prefers to have North Korea, even if it is slightly fanatic, at its door rather than a pro-American state, especially as China benefits economically from North Korea, as long as other partners are not welcomed there.

8In an atypical case of family succession in the leadership of a socialist people’s republic, the North Korean regime makes the world tremble, with its arms exports and the parades of its huge army with official commemorations of the glory of its leaders. The regime has not deviated from its basic tenets since the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, the Father who became the “eternal President”. Everyone predicted the collapse of the regime, as the country was coping with an unprecedented economic crisis in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of support from the Soviet bloc; but, against all expectations, the regime has survived. The objectives of the North Korean power elite are to build an antinuclear shield, to be self-sufficient and to impose a single ideological system, all of which justify some collateral damage. The millions of deaths resulting from the great famines and chronic malnutrition, which are sacrifices to allow the elite of the Labour Party of Chosŏn to live better, the eradication of all “anti-revolutionists” by purges and sending them to labour camps to be reeducated over three generations, and the consequences of the absolute worship of the Kim leaders in terms of violations of human rights, with application of the death penalty, incited certain North Koreans to flee their country (25,000 refugees in the South) but not yet to overthrow the regime. Kim Jong-un, grandson of the “eternal President” and son of Kim Jong-il, “eternal General Secretary of the Labour Party of Chosŏn”, appointed at the end of 2011 after the death of his father, has taken the reins of power. Serendipitously, in 2012, the grandiose festivities commemorating the 100th anniversary of his grandfather’s birth enabled him to consolidate his power over the people. Nevertheless, his lack of experience within the system and his youth are obstacles. The recent internal inspection campaign of the entire administration in spring 2013, coupled with the international campaign against external enemies, indicate that he is regaining power and changing North Korean politics, which remain to be evaluated.

9Paradoxically, the extensive knowledge available about South Korea, the 11th world power in 2011, which has been analysed in detail by researchers, does not give it its rightful place in the media: much more is written on North Korea, about which little verified information is available. In South Korea, the division and the North Korean question are secondary issues on the political agenda, because South Korean’s internal divisions and South-South antagonism between the progressive and the conservative camps are of much greater everyday interest for South Koreans than the North Korean threat. Even during the highest points of the media storm about the North Korean threat during the past few months, the calm and even the indifference of the disillusioned, realistic South Koreans contrasted with the agitation at international level. The new President of the Republic of Korea did not panic or yield to provocations. Park Geun-hye, elected at the end of 2012 and representing the conservative camp, is the daughter of the famous General Park Chung-hee, who led the military dictatorship that was responsible for economic development in the 1960s and 1970s; her mother was assassinated by the North Koreans in 1974. In the South, according to observers such as Koen De Ceuster at the University of Leiden, there has been a change in the concept of national identity, which until 2007 left a place for North Korea in the hope of reunification but which now is tending to a vision of a nation reduced to the South Korean State alone. The words are already available to express this categorization of Koreanness, and South Korean public opinion, disappointed by and even scornful of the North, adheres less and less to a hypothetical project of reunification, which would probably be very expensive economically and symbolically.

10The “Korean economic miracle” and the technological prowess of Korean chaebols (conglomerates) are sometimes headlined in newspapers, although this information is often perceived as negative in a period of economic crisis in terms of competition and market shares. Thus, some journalists are becoming interested in South Korea through more neutral subjects such as education and South Korean soft power. The phenomenon of “the South Korean cultural wave” (hallyu) gained recognition in France through the unexpected success of the singer Psy, with his parody clip Gangnam Style, which made a buzz on the Internet. The passion of a young public for Korea, based initially on exported television series on the Internet, manhwa (Korean comics) and K-pop (Korean pop music), has now extended to online video games and vocations: more and more French university students are registering for Korean studies. For the past 5 years, the South Korean Government has actively promoted a policy of “nation branding”, with the aim of promoting the image of South Korea abroad and correcting “false ideas”. It thus proposes an orthodox vision of what should be known and said about “Korea”. This policy has had a huge impact because there are not enough specialists on Korea in the world to cope with the demand and especially to moderate the point of view that the South Korean Government is trying to impose.

Specialists on “contemporary Korea” and the media

11The question of how researchers in the social sciences specializing in contemporary Korea should react to the demands for expertise from the media and the public is a delicate one in view of the context described above. They are usually asked to comment immediately on sensational events, such as the long-range missile tests, and not on long-term evolution, which is less “sexy” for the public. As they are not specialists in arms or in international politics with regard to military economics, their opinions appear dated: either “out of date” or “visionary”. They are often disappointing, as they do not whip up the excitement of the media on North Korea, cannot predict the future and do not provide “scoops”. North Korean and South Korean perceptions is a study in itself, and other approaches can be used, particularly by outside observers. Researchers should not take sides and should make their analyses as neutral as possible, while retaining their critical judgement and resisting both North and South Korean pressures. Thus, the so-called ineffectiveness of the Sunshine policy, accepted by part of the South Korean political sphere and public opinion, can otherwise be interpreted in terms of the North– South interface on the Korean peninsula. The realization by all the protagonists that the situation was evolving much more rapidly than predicted, because of the policy of building closer relations begun at the beginning of the 2000s, resulted in a certain introversion and the end of a “romanticization of the Sunshine policy”. According to Valérie Gelézeau, lecturer at L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), we are seeing a phenomenon of “re-bordering” Korea, after a phase of “de-bordering”.

12The future of knowledge about contemporary Korea will be based not only on accepting the two Koreas and their “normality”, without prejudging their orthodoxy and the obvious but socially unrecognized existence of North Korea in the south and of South Korea in the north, but also by the choice of ideologically independent research topics. To do this, collaboration with researchers from the diaspora will be essential, as well as direct contact with researchers in both North and South Korea.


Bibliographical indications

Gelézeau, Valérie, De Ceuster, Koen et Delissen, Alain (dir.), Debordering Korea: Tangible and Intangible Legacies of the Sunshine Policy, Routledge, 2013. (projet de recherche collectif du Centre de recherches sur la Corée de l’UMR 8173 Chine, Corée, Japon (CNRS/EHESS-université Paris-Diderot)

Yim, Eunsil, Coréens au Kazakhstan. Construction sociale de l’identité « minorité-diaspora », thèse d’anthropologie soutenue à l’EHESS en 2012 sous la direction de Jean-Francois Gossiaux.

Thévenet, Stéphane, « Comment les séries mondialisent la culture sud-coréenne. Un engouement national », Le Monde diplomatique, mai 2013 AFP, Corée : ultimatum de Pyongyang à Séoul après des «actes monstrueux », 16/04/2013

Rivé-Lasan, Marie-Orange, « La démocratie sud-coréenne : absence de logiques dynastiques ? », Critique Internationale, no 33, octobre-décembre 2006, p. 165-179.

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