North Korea and Identity Politics in South Korea

At his inauguration, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak proclaimed that his country “must move from the age of ideology into the age of pragmatism.” At a time when South Korean voters were fatigued by outgoing President Roh’s particular brand of politics heavily steeped in ideology, Lee’s image as an effective, non-deological manager had proved appealing. Though during the campaign Lee had vowed to strengthen the alliance with the United States and to insist on greater conditionality in inter-Korean relations, these issues were not the headlines of the 2007 presidential contest—in sharp contrast to the previous one. In fact, they received little traction. Instead, economic issues had top billing and Lee won based on economic promises. In a sense, this zeitgeist represents a departure from the previous 10 years of Korean politics, when the reassessment of the South Korea’s relationships with North Korea and the United States were central and divisive issues.

Yet, it would be imprudent to declare the demise of identity politics in South Korea. As Suh asserts, the country has been “caught between two conflicting identities: the alliance identity that sees the United States as a friendly provider and the nationalist identity that pits Korean identity against the United States.” Sharp division and disputes over the North and the alliance will not disappear in the near future because, for Koreans, these issues are intimately related to the basic and contested question of national identity. In fact, as clearly displayed during his first visit to Washington in April 2008, Lee’s “pragmatic” policy is firmly grounded in the “alliance” identity and has already provoked strong reaction from progressive forces that have promoted the nationalist identity.

Using newly collected data from the South Korean media, this article examines differing South Korean views of the North from 1992 to 2003, the critical time of the post–Cold War era, during which traditional notions of national identity have been challenged. While significant attention has been paid to how diff ering U.S. and South Korean perceptions of the North led to strains in the alliance, less is known about how these issues have been discussed, debated, and contested within the South, as well as why this fractious national debate has been laden with such intensity and emotion. We need to understand how these debates were related to efforts to (re)conceptualize South Korean identity vis-à-vis two principal “significant others”—the North and the United States—and how identity politics will continue to shape alliance relations as well as inter-Korean relations.