Academic journal article North Korean Review

Engagement? Containment?: The Role of Identity in the Formation of South Korea's Policy toward Pyongyang

Academic journal article North Korean Review

Engagement? Containment?: The Role of Identity in the Formation of South Korea's Policy toward Pyongyang

Article excerpt


This article focuses on the role of identity in the formation of South Korea's foreign policy behavior. Given its geopolitical location at the intersection of neighboring powers' strategic and economic calculations, Korea has been profoundly influenced by the fluctuating regional environment. Indeed, it has inhabited different identities in relation to neighboring countries at different historical junctures. For example, throughout the Japanese occupation of 1910-1945, the Korean War of 1950-1953, and the Cold War, different identities took the form of opposition to Japan, and then North Korea, that is,. an adversarial identity; and, in the case of the U.S., an associational identity.

With the demise of the Cold War it was assumed that tension on the Korean Peninsula would ease. In addition, the Republic of Korea's (ROK) dramatic policy shifttoward the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), exemplified in President Roh Tae-woo's 7/7 Announcement in 1988-calling for peaceful coexistence-generated an expectation that inter-Korean relations would improve. Indeed, the South's rapprochement toward the North during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moohyun governments resulted in significantly improved relations. One outcome was the emergence of an affirmative associational national identity toward Pyongyang. However, these rapprochement approaches were abruptly halted by the Lee Myung-bak government.

This alerts us to the problematized nature of the South's sense of national identity vis-à-vis the North. An affirmative identity collided with the archetypical adversarial identity, and sat uneasily with serious concerns about Pyongyang's emerging nuclear ambitions, a development which had begun to reshape the post-Cold War regional security environment and to pose a serious challenge to South Korea. This article argues that the essential tension around the nature of changing ROK national identities toward the DPRK holds the key to understanding the sources of Seoul's different foreign policy behaviors.

The article proceeds in three parts: firstly, it explores the constructivist analysis, which argues that identity-constructs drive a state's behavior. Building on a critique of the conventional constructivist approach, it suggests how the key concept, "identity," recurrently addressed in conventional constructivist texts, might be refreshed, and introduces an alternative analysis of a state's foreign policy development. Secondly, it explores the formation of South Korea's national identity toward North Korea during the Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), and Lee Myung-bak (2008-) governments, and examines how national identity has been constructed and reconstructed in the interplay of domestic, regional and international political realities. It develops a typology that sets out the different ROK policy manifestations and investigates its foreign policy behavior by exploring the historical development of inter-Korean relations and examining the continuities and discontinuities of policy behavior toward North Korea from 1998 onwards. It traces the emergence of the contested nontraditional national identity adopted by South Korea (i.e., affirmative identification toward North Korea), examines how it shaped conceptions of national interests, and investigates subsequent policy outcomes. To conclude, it synthesizes and reflects on theoretical and empirical findings and briefly explores policy implications.

Theoretical Approaches

States determine policy in response to external threats, not only according to the distribution of power and interest, but also to the weight of ideas. The article focuses on how a state may develop a range of foreign policy options based on identity.

Conventional Approaches

The concept of identity has achieved scholarly recognition in recent mainstream international relations ( IR) debate. One result has been a marriage between mainstream IR schools of thought and conventional constructivism. …

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