The trap of state-led nationalism

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The trap of state-led nationalism


Chun Young-gi
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Nationalistic passions should be managed politically. Nationalism can be a lofty sentiment, but when it’s fueled by an ideology or other more narrow passion, we must be careful — its loftiness may disappear and countries can fall into a crisis, such as in Venezuela. After its prosperous, oil-backed economy collapsed, people’s average weight decreased by 11 kilograms (24 pounds) after only one year. It is a country on the brink, with two presidents fighting each other for power.

Venezuela’s tragedy began with Hugo Chávez’s 1999 nationalist socialism. Looking back on the past 20 years, the nationalism of Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, was nothing more than ethnocentrism. It was a means to serve the political purpose of anti-Americanism. Their socialism was a cheap political product devised to justify the draining of state coffers to maintain the fantasy that Venezuela was a heaven of fairness. Venezuela’s anti-American ethnocentrism is coming to an end as the nation has been torn apart.

South Korea is currently ruled by the leftist, nationalistic Moon Jae-in administration. The administration must listen to the warning by Korea University Professor Emeritus Choi Jang-jip, who served as the policy planning committee head of the Blue House during the liberal Kim Dae-jung administration. Last Friday, Prof. Choi gave a presentation at an academic seminar to mark the centennial anniversary of the March 1, 1919, Independence Movement. The Moon administration’s campaign to re-evaluate history — an attempt to clear up the remainders of pro-Japanese collaborators, in particular — is a classic example of state-led nationalism, Choi said.

In his presentation, titled “On the polyphonic characters of Korean nationalism,” Prof. Choi said history should be dealt with within academia and the free space of civic society, not through state-controlled education. He said the government’s scheme to clear up the legacies of Japanese colonialism basically originates with the need to combine its justification with historic legitimacy of the two Koreas.

In a speech to commemorate the March 1, 1919, Independence Movement, President Moon underscored the need to root out longstanding legacies of pro-Japanese collaborators. Choi interpreted his remarks as a counterattack on the conservatives, who have persistently attacked the liberals as communists. By linking the conservatives to pro-Japanese collaborators, Moon cast them as a group that has forgotten history and disgraced the independence movement. Simply put, Moon’s target was the conservatives.

The problem with state-led nationalism is two-fold. First, the harder a nation pushes for the liquidation of the past, the more divided the country becomes. Second, the campaign will most likely end up comparing Japan to Nazis or demonize the country, thus shutting down any room for political solutions.


President Moon Jae-in addresses North Koreans at a stadium in Pyongyang on the second day of his visit to North Korea for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Sept. 19, 2018. He stressed the importance of the Korean people’s peaceful unification. [YONHAP]

One of Korea’s most well-renowned political scientists, Prof. Choi has long been considered an advocate of the liberals. His presentation will therefore be a shock to the Moon administration and its supporters. Later on in his presentation, he went so far as to argue that there is no reason for South Korea to pursue the “one people, one country system” with North Korea just because we are the same people. Such remarks strongly suggest he prioritizes the values of liberal democracy, capitalism and market economy over nationalist sentiments. He was pointing out the dangerous mistakes and errors that the Moon administration may commit if it is blinded by nationalistic passion.

I have never seen any reason for free South Korea — an excellent democracy — to be united with North Korea — a totalitarian, feudal kingdom. Germany and Austria share a similar heritage, but they coexist as two different countries. Likewise, I have long believed that it will be better for South and North Korea to live as separate countries.

I cringe when activists promote the idea that we must unite with North Korea. I raise my guard against the idea that nationalist passion will marry with idiotic — or politically-engineered — forces.

Choi’s presentation is a rare, straightforward argument in a political environment dominated by hypocrisy. It is giving us many things to reflect on.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 18, Page 30
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