[Viewpoint] The X factor is national identity

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[Viewpoint] The X factor is national identity


There are many explanations about the motivations and implications of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. While it is right for analysts to consider the issues of succession and leverage, the importance of national identity is being overlooked.

In planning for Kim Jong-il’s succession, the members of Kim’s family, the Korean People’s Army and the Workers’ Party of Korea have every reason to stake out hard-line positions - whether for purposes of internal competition or to deter international efforts to destabilize a regime in transition.

The bigger picture, however, is that North Korea’s behavior is being driven by a particularly aggressive nationalism.

With its economy a dramatic failure compared with South Korea’s, North Korea seems reliant on demonstrations of military power and defiance of exaggerated external threats to bolster its pride and demonstrate the legitimacy of its government. North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles have become integral parts of its national identity.

If an effective international response to North Korea is to be realized, the X factor is not the outcome of deliberations at the United Nations or the diplomatic tone struck by the United States and Japan.

It is how the changing national identities in South Korea and China will inform those governments’ interests and policies concerning Pyongyang.

The two previous South Korean administrations engendered pan-peninsula nationalism while enshrining democracy at the core of South Korea’s national identity.

The current administration of President Lee Myung-bak came to office promising inter-Korean reciprocity and pledging to re-brand South Korea as an innovative economic power.

Recent developments challenge these national identity concepts.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, the fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist at the Mount Kumgang resort, the detention of a South Korean businessman at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and the nullification of various inter-Korean agreements have called pan-peninsula identity into question.

Meanwhile, the Lee administration’s troubled interactions - with opposition legislators, protesters, the media and private citizens who question the government - have progressives accusing him of turning back the clock on South Korea’s hard-won democracy.

That assessment spread in the wake of the late former President Roh Moo-hyun’s apparent suicide, which followed a government investigation into his family’s financial dealings.

Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans have publicly paid their respects to Roh, while criticizing the current administration for failing to understand South Korea’s democratic identity.

This adds up to a daunting task for a South Korean president already facing a global recession that hinders the economic goals he has set for the country.

As progressives mobilize around Roh’s death and conservatives focus on North Korea’s provocations, many South Koreans feel they are battling for the soul of the nation.

Without public support, the South Korean government will have difficulty coordinating policies with the U.S. and Japan.

So the main question before Lee’s summit with President Barack Obama in mid-June is how well his administration can bridge the divides in South Korean society.

The other major factor for effectively dealing with North Korea involves China’s national identity.

The ideas of communist revolution and laying low to focus on modernization are becoming obsolete in China.

China covets its traditional role at the center of Asia, the power it brings and the respect and responsibility that go with it. Such ambition is possible thanks to the success of an economic model that has brought China closer to the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

In contrast, Pyongyang’s bellicosity and failed economy have left North Korea isolated.

China has long seen its national interests served by the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.

Keeping to a Cold War perspective about strategic balance and a post-Cold War emphasis on internal development, Beijing prioritized keeping the Kim regime alive for the sake of maintaining a buffer state and preventing North Korea’s problems from spilling over China’s border.

While Beijing remains fixated on the costs of uncertainty and change, the chances of it “getting tough” with Pyongyang are low.

However, the growing gap between China and North Korea is showing signs of changing the way China views its own interests.

Political debates inside China now ask whether Beijing underestimates the costs of a nuclear-armed North Korea that threatens regional stability, the costs to its reputation as the Kim regime’s largest supporter, and the economic costs of a relationship in which North Korea takes a lot from China but doesn’t have much respect for it in return.

At the same time, there are questions about whether China overestimates the usefulness of a buffer state, the challenge of North Korean refugees fleeing across the border, and the chances of international military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

The China of today is not the China that came to Pyongyang’s aid during the Korean War; its national identity has evolved over decades of rapid development and international integration.

Given the country that China wants to become, the costs of maintaining a relationship with North Korea may come to exceed the costs of abandoning it.

Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests not only reveal North Korea’s nationalism, but also test how changing national identities in South Korea and China shape strategic interests and ultimately security policy.

The extent to which Seoul and Beijing cooperate with Washington and Tokyo hangs in the balance.


The writer is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University’s department of government.

by Leif-Eric Easley

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