IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia


The Korean Nation and the 'World System'

The current global malaise is taken by many as prima facie evidence that the world is describable, at least with regard to economics, in terms of a unifying system. In South Korea, where until recently calls for internationalization were made with increasing frequency and confidence, the demonstrated risks involved are now turning attention more urgently to questions about the global system: what is the nature of the beast, what is the relation of the two Koreas to the world-system, and what place can the Korean nation have as a self-determining cultural entity within the world-system? In short, is there a nation-state future for Korea?

By Kenneth M. Wells

The concept of a division era has been refined as a theory of division contradictions. Son Hoch' l, the sociologist, has analysed whether the division is an effect of imperialism or an effect of capitalism. This created an impasse over whether democracy had to wait upon reunification or whether the reverse was the case, and a search began for a unified theory of contradictions relating to the division. But the search was motivated also by a desire to find a particularly Korean, third way between the Vietnamese and German reunifications and a Korean alternative to capitalism and degenerated socialism that is appropriate to both northern and southern regions of the peninsula (Son, 1994:318-22).

A significant attempt to break the PD (People's Democracy) - NL (National Liberation) impasse over theory and practice has been made by the literary critic and publisher Paek Nakch' ng, who advanced the theory of a division 'system' that encompasses north and south as one whole, in the sense that its contradictions are not between the two states but between their combined populaces and the world-system that maintains the regimes that rule and divide them.
The thrust of Paek Nakch' ng's theory of a division-system is that all the social, economic, military, political, and cultural contradictions of Korea are systemic. Paek draws heavily on Immanuel Wallerstein's writings on the world-economy, particularly the view that virtually the entire world has become a system of capitalist division of labour. Thus the interstate system - the system of nation-states - is the political expression of the capitalist world-economy (Wallerstein, 1984:4). For Paek, the two Koreas together form a single boundary within which there is a major contradiction, the division, which means that no satisfactory change can occur in either north or south since this contradiction will always stymie the attainment of real democracy and real autonomy so long as it exists.

Unique position

The place of the Korean nation is clarified by Paek's formulation of the relation between the Korean division and the world-system: 'While a subordinate system to the world-system, [the division-system] is a unique union of north and south Korean systems that has its own definite characteristics' (Quoted in Son, 323). This unique union has its own self-reproducing dynamic, which can only be tackled satisfactorily by the Korean minjung (ordinary populace). More than this, the unique characteristics of the Korean case are due to Korea's being the sharpest focus of the contradiction of the world-system, and as such are in the forefront of global development. The solution found by Koreans to their division-system will become the pattern for the solution of the world-system itself (Paek, 1994:113, 322-6). Hence it is prescribed by the world-system and Korea's unique position within it that a Korean national movement must flourish at this point.
For Paek, the test of their validity is whether national movements are anti-systemic, and he argues that even though they have obvious imperfections, reforms which issue from these movements are nevertheless real in themselves and must be understood in relation to the overall movement to topple the division-system, a movement Paek believes is clearly winning (Paek,1995: 204). Again, this echoes Wallerstein who adopts an optimistic view even of anti-systemic movements that seem to disappoint the purpose. Social movements have found it very difficult to remain essentially anti-systemic once in power, and nationalistic movements have found it virtually impossible' (Wallerstein, 130). Wallerstein believes that the cumulative effect of these movements will be to create a crisis for the world-economy that will favour socialism. In a sense, the key element in Paek's arguments about the role of recent movements in Korea and his willingness to promote the issue in national terms may be understood as an adoption of Wallerstein's faith that such movements can be 'revitalized,' and that 'we can feed our knowledge back into these movements and thus contribute to progress in the mode of operation of the movements themselves' (Paek, 1995:205).
Not only the sophistication but also the motives behind Paek Nakch' ng's elaboration of a 'division-system' theory stimulate rethinking one's view of the world as well as on Korea's particularity. Moreover, he corrects the common tendency to attribute all negative aspects of Korea's past and present to non-Korean factors and thus endows Koreans with the dignity of being significantly involved in the course of their own affairs.
The commitment equally directs attention to the question of analysis, which is not, it seems, without its problems. In this respect one might well question literature or historiography that promotes nationalism either as the only possible or desirable arrangement (as an end in itself) or as the proper strategic form for the time in question (as a means to an end). To the extent that nationalism concerns the political organization of peoples, it is an arena of concentrated power-seeking or power-building, and nationalist historiography becomes willy-nilly an aspect of this, affirming the validity of its modus operandi even where it is written on behalf of an opposition movement.
This is to say that for the kind of aims desired - reunification, democracy, abolition of productive inequalities and contradictions - nationalism or nationalistic historiography might be neither helpful nor necessary. Can nationalism be simultaneously promoted and restrained; can it ultimately be turned to the desired ends and dropped once its 'strategic' usefulness ends? There is, of course, a larger issue in the case of the division-system theory over the validity of Wallerstein's world-system and the function of initially anti-systemic nationalist and other movements within that system. There are some points specifically relating to nationalism that should be addressed, even if I can only do so briefly.

Anti-systemic movements

Although I do not find evidence that Kang Man'gil accepts the world-system in Wallerstein's sense, or even perhaps the division-system in Paek's sense, it is clear that he favours historical research that promotes nationalist categories. When he predicates the establishment of his 'minjok chuch'e saron' (historical theory of the national subject) on first identifying 'non-national, anti-historical' elements, it is not clear what 'anti-historical' means. Does it imply that 'history' is something transparent that is spread out before us from past to future as a process of which the goal is known? One cannot help noticing a strong element of romanticism in Wallerstein's formulation of this relation, which masks the all too well known facts concerning the enormous human calamities of this century - a century that Hobsbawm aptly characterizes as an 'age of extremes.'
So long as nation-states exist, they are the necessary arenas of the class movement and the galvanizing force for anti-systemic movements of various kinds. A nationalistic movement, where the term is appropriate, must be on behalf of the nation-state in relation to others; a class movement must be on behalf of that class's interests primarily within the nation-state and only secondarily in relation to other nation-states. If it were possible for the primary and secondary aspects of a class movement to coincide with the interests of the nation-state qua nation-state, such a phenomenon would be counterfactual to the very notion of a genuine capitalist world-system in which the nation-state is its 'expression of power.' On the other hand, if this is not possible, there is certainly no logical reason for the claim that there is a cumulative, progressive effect of movements of 'false consciousness' that comprise the absorption of class struggle into nationalist movements.
There is no logical reason for moving from the observation that anti-systemic movements such as Pol Pot's Cambodia 'have discovered no single state-structure [and] can enact a transformation either of the interstate system or of the world-economy' (Wallerstein, 107), to the assertion that these movements indicate a looming, fatal crisis for capitalism, and that therefore their complicity in nationalism is not ultimately problematic. For if it is really the case that the ideological or moral commitment of the leaders of such movements is powerless against the 'social relation' they find themselves in when they do gain power, which is to say that they are in the same structural position of the capitalist leadership they set out to replace and therefore in no sense 'anti-systemic,' then the case is, on logical grounds, hopeless.
That the strategic appeal to nationalism and the principle of 'revitalization' appear to be grounded in nothing other than appeals to those who feel victims of the system is the Achilles' heel of the whole scheme. In such a case, how can 'revitalization' become anything other than 'repetition'? And in the process we must, apparently, witness the savage excesses of nationalist movements or socialist-revolutionary movements that if politically successful become perpetrators of the chilling oppressions with which this century has become horribly familiar. Further, we are to expect and accept that the Korean scholars whose values we might now appreciate will even now be transforming into protagonists of principles contradictory to their present positions, since 'how can proponents of a Marxist world view . . . doubt that the contradictions of a capitalist world-economy would find expression in their own actions (just as much as in the actions of other social actors)?' (Wallerstein, 9-10).
This 'explanation' not only of nationalism but of betrayal and the accompanying mass suffering, surely gives one pause. One might say the world-system theory is eminently flexible, capable of encompassing a great variety of phenomena and likely to be upset by very few developments. On the other hand, this reduces its utility and raises a number of doubts. It is difficult - and not always meaningful - to negotiate with a position to which almost any development can be assimilated. The many hundreds of thousands of people who continue to be slaughtered this decade on the altar of ethnic or racial 'identities,' which provide the soil of nationalist movements and opportunities for other powers' interests, are also 'real' concerns of our times that should not be absent from historians' consciousness. One certainly does not need a nationalist perspective in order to agree that treatment under military regimes, colonial occupation, monopolistic economic giants responsible to no electorate, and so on, is something to oppose. One wonders, when faced with the downside of the world-system as we are now, whether strengthening ethnic and supposedly single-culture bases of identity and political organization will either topple the 'system' or lead into better conditions of human dignity.


Son Hoch' l, 'Pundan ch'ejeron i pip'anj k koch'al,' in Ch'angjakkwa pip'y ng, 1994
Paek Nakch' ng, H nd llin n pundan ch'eje, Seoul, Ch'angjakkwa pip'y ngsa, 1998
Immanuel Wallerstein, The Politics of the World-economy: The States, the Movements, and the Civilizations, 1984.
Dr Kenneth Wells (Wellsk@coombs.anu.edu.au) was an affiliated fellow at the IIAS from 1 August 1997 until 1 July 1998.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia