[OUTLOOK]Identity in an age of division

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[OUTLOOK]Identity in an age of division

A difficult term called “national identity” is talked about occasionally these days. We should preserve it, some voices say. But the problem is that it is no simple job to define the identity that we should keep.
Even in the case of an individual, the problem of examining his “identity,” that is, what kind of a person he truly is, is very complicated. It goes beyond the simple identification process of a name and resident registration number. Even so, how complicated it would be to define the identity of a country where numerous people gather to carry on the long years of history. Granting an identity to a country at all, some strongly argue, goes against the global standards of academic circles.
In a constitutional state, the primary document to define the country’s identity is the constitution. But even if the constitution has wonderful clauses to define identity, actually establishing that identity is not easy. In Korea, there is a particularly wide gap between the constitutional definition and reality.
For example, Article 3 of our Constitution declares an identity of a unified country by stipulating that the territory of the Republic of Korea consists of the Korean Peninsula and its adjacent islands. But the government’s actual authority to govern is not only limited to the half of that territory, but also the enactment of that constitution was led by those who accepted that limited authority by establishing a separate government.
As a result, Article 3 was often used to incite inter-Korean confrontation instead of helping the government build an identity of a unified country.
Furthermore, in the process of national division and inter-Korean confrontation, those who had accepted the national identity of imperial Japan as their national identity in the past participated in the government in large numbers. When they could not gain support from the people, they had to submit to foreign countries outside and resort to autocracy inside. Naturally, they could hardly observe the provisions of Article 1 of the Constitution, “The Republic of Korea is a democratic republic,” and “The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea resides in the people, and all state authority emanates from the people.”
Such special historical experiences of ours make it difficult to discuss the issue of national identity. For instance, although there was a national organization even under Japanese colonial rule, the national identity it represented was the identity of the suzerain state. So we needed to have a complex perception that our country should establish a new national identity separate from Japan’s.
As the colonial period gave way to the period of division, the problem became more complicated. Although liberation brought the minimum conditions for forming a new national identity, the identity of a unified and independent nation that everybody dereamed of was fundamentally flawed.
As a consequence, on the one hand, a national identity has been formed in the divided country, but on the other hand, there have always been questions over how to accept this incomplete identity and how to change the incomplete identity to a more complete one. This is a burden on all of us and a challenge unique to us in the age of division.
It becomes clear that keeping the old system and traditions that were misused or abused by the government in the age of national division, in violation of Articles 1 and 3 of the Constitution, is not helping our national identify. That will only obscure the identity of Korea and block the way to national unity.
On the other hand, it is also unrealistic to take an attitude of denying the identity of the Republic of Korea as if it were an extension of the colonial rule just because it started as a divided country, could not punish pro-Japanese collaborators and has a history stained with dictatorships and dependence on foreign forces. Even a divided country has an identity in its own way. Moreover, by developing our economy, promoting democracy and beginning inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation even under the yoke of national division, haven’t we come to have a vision to construct a better system than the divided Koreas?
Even when we agree on the identity of the Republic of Korea and argue for progressive change, we should not forget the peculiarity of the age of division. Judging liberals and conservatives by the yardsticks of an undivided society might run counter to overcoming national division. The age of division requires coexistence, not as an abstract slogan but in the sense that people living in an age of division should cooperate to overcome the division.
This age also requires a wise moderate line.

* The writer is a professor emeritus at Seoul National University and the editor-in-chief of the quarterly magazine Changjak-kwa-bipyong. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Paik Nak-chung
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