Nationalism, the Left-Right divide and the crisis in North Korea: Interview with Derick Varn (Part Two)

IMG_1657The continuation of this week’s interview with Derick.

I’d like to know more what you mean by left and right not being entirely organic to Korea – presumably it had some form of democratic movements before capitalism? I’m thinking in the social history sense, peasants’ movements and the like.

Well, that is a bit complicated. In the sense that there were peasant revolts, one of the most famous and important would be the Manjok rebellion in 1198 in the Goryeo period.  It, however, is important to contextualize these locally. Most of them were in Goryeo and Shilla periods before Confucianism was the dominant ideology of the country and when Buddhism was the dominant religion. Buddhism, honestly, had not produced a fully developed secular code of governance like that of Legalist, Taoists, or Confucian thought.  So there are readings that make this out to be fully opportunistic.  I think it’s particularly misleading to say that even peasant and nascent proto-democratic movements in Europe are left or right, and so applying them to the Korean past – the Joseon period – is particularly hard until we hit the 1980s or so.

[small o, the best Korean hipster band you’ve never heard of. They sound like a combination of The Decemberists and Billy Bragg. Or just sincere people with guitars. My musical references are hopelessly dated – ed.]

In Joseon, there were also revolts against rulers who were unjust, particularly local ones. This, however, was totally in a Neo-Confucian context and as Joseon fully developed, a particularly rigid form of it. So if one wants to see left- and right-Confucianism in that context: Confucianism itself was hostile to market values in both forms, but some thinkers stressed the mutuality of the relationship between ruler and ruled as a father-son dynamic in a mutual sense and others stressed the singular importance of hierarchy.  There were liberalizing elements, particularly the Gwangmu reform, in the  대한제국. (Taehanjeguk – The Great Han Empire), which is where the current Republic of Korea gets it’s name in its native tongue.  So I suppose we can date it there, but these still largely come from a sense of competing or preserving oneself against Western powers and a developing Russia and Japan.
This is still misleading. For example, in North Korea, which no one denies at least began as a something of a left-wing movement, the name of the country in its language is Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk. In this alone, and even in the early period before the Juche reforms, one can see a distancing from the liberalizing elements in the Great Han Empire. This was largely because, even prior to the Russo-Japanese war, the liberal government was seen as complicit with Japan.  You can see in all these instances it’s very hard to clearly map any of this onto a post-Enlightenment European political map. Even the first President/Dictator Syngman Rhee is hard to map onto the left-right spectrum as it was understood in the US at the time, until after Rhee’s conversion to Christianity in prison at the turn of the last century.

I am just glossing all this to point out how problematic it is to try to neatly map our political spectrum unto a pre-capitalism that nevertheless had a fully developed indigenous political tradition where there are opposing ideologies, but none of them meet most of our modern definitions, even relative ones.


The murder of millions of leftists in the civil war, the threat from the North and American backing must have opened up a lot of political space for the ruling class to experiment. Do you think the cold war led the South Korean right to adopt development models of the left? (Using the latter term loosely, of course.)

Yes, and no. One, it is important to look at the history of the right-wing Asian nationalist parties. Both the Kuomintang, in both its popular front period and its anti-communist period, and the Singapore People’s Action Party saw themselves as adopting Leninist party organization as a means of adapting to communists.   In Korea, it was a little more complicated because the anti-communists, with the notable exception of Park Chung-Hee, came out of the Christian community and were more hesitant to officially play around with Soviet-like ideas.  However, given the popularity of the uprisings, particularly in areas like Gwanggu and Jeju, a mixture of command economy and then a sort of military Keynesian-ism developed. Large sectors of the economy remained nationalized, and 18th/19th century style protectionism was used to boost the economy.


Two, given the large number of revolts and revolutions that Korea had seen between 1900 and the early 1960s, a boasting of the economy was seen as direly necessary for social stability particularly given the appealing conditions of South Korea.  It is telling that in the 1960s, there is a story that I can’t confirm in English that Ethiopia gave Korea food aid.  North Korea looked like the much higher-developed nation.  So yes, there was an attitude of “any means necessary to procure our future.” One sees this in a lot of East Asia, even in those countries particularly in the American sphere after World War 2.   Much more of this was allowed by the military authorities than the US typically allowed in Latin America.

That said, capitalism has its own logic, and neo-liberalism has been pushed here in response to slowing growth and fiscal crisis in East Asia. So its creativity seems increasingly limited and, also strangely, increasingly counter-productive. Korea’s politics increasingly reflect the dual dominant party system that one sees in both the US and the parliaments of Europe. Coalition politics does matter in a way it can’t in the US, but increasingly it follows a similar pattern; even if parties dissolve here on an almost yearly basis, the people in them are remarkably consistent.

To the extent that the neo-liberal right is internationalist, due to the demographic and trade reasons you identify, does this provoke a nationalist response from the left? My understanding is that the juche leftists here, while small in number, still have a measure of institutional power and this sets up left-wing resistance as nationalist. Most importantly, what do you think the prospects are for internationalist leftism in South Korea?

To a large degree, I think so, but I also think in Korea there is a history that has be taken into account that is almost unique to it. While the image of the Hermit Kingdom of the Joseon period are slightly exaggerated, it is not entirely so. Furthermore, the end of the Joseon period saw various powers assume portions of the Korean ethnic population that was once part of the pre-Joseon periods.  For example, consider the large number of Korean communities around Vladivostok, for which the Soviets did not create an autonomous zone for despite Lenin’s stated policy on the matter.  Large parts of the Korean community are in Eastern China in an autonomous zone of “Korean Chinese.”  From the Mongul expansion to 1946, Korea was constantly attacked and briefly taken over.  It’s experience of imperialism was not as direct from “Western” powers as most of the rest of Asia, and definitely largely colored as being against modernizing neighbors, as opposed to, say, the British or even the Imperial Russians. So left and right here have been dealing with national struggles from before the beginning of the cold war.


Still, imagined communities remain just as imaginary, and even though the situation is completely understandable, it is not necessarily a good development.  There are internationalist tendencies in “the left” here despite Juche and, more likely due the National Security Law, crypto-Juche types.  Still, it’s been part of the popular discourse here for a long time, and even the neo-liberal right here speaks out of both ends of its mouth collectively (see the last administration’s use of Dokdo as a kind of cynical point). There are some Trotskyist and anarchist groups as well as Democratic Socialist and ecological party types that see themselves as internationalist, although it is VERY hard for me to say how much influence they will have here, as it is hard for me to see clearly how large these groups actually are, but they seem smaller than even other parties and groups in, say, Japan or Taiwan.  The right is ascendent here for the past decade, and that obscures all this even more.


If the Korean left was more Confucian-oriented and focused on resisting incursion rather than resisting landowners and tyrants (and therefore not leftist in the Enlightenment sense, if I understand you correctly), how do you see this past affecting the contemporary left? To what extent is the Korean left still struggling with modernity and post modernity? What kind of mental map of Korean politics needs to be developed –  what might be its contours or axes? (If that’s not too big a question!)

A: I think the Korean left is more or less in a similar vein as the Japanese left and those countries on the American side of the East Asian cold war split.  There is lingering racial nationalism that can get blended into their anti-imperialism, and trade union struggles here can be very hard fought but often leaving the non-Korean immigrants from South East Asia in the dust.   IMG_1646

This may be changing as the demographic pressures on Korea change, and while the Confucianism-orientation is a cultural problem, the problems of the Korean left are often micro-factional. The sheer number of general “progressive parties” here is somewhat staggering even my European standards: The Democratic United Party, the Unified Progressive Party, The Progressive Justice Party, etc. Even to followers of Korean politics, the differences between these parties seem more problems of personalities and regional alliances than ideological differences.

Furthermore, like in the United States and Japan, but unlike Western Europe, Korean liberalism and soft leftism are immediately linked in the minds of the public.  The politics seem to break down along similar lines that one has seen in Canada. The marginalization of the socialists in the New Progressive Party has been complete with the socialists unable to get 3% of the vote. They were de-listed as a parliamentary party and are off the ballots until 2016. There are IST-related Trotskyist groups here and a few illegal parties with Juche sympathies, such as the Anti-Imperialist National Democratic Front. That said, I think the haunting of the left by its own flirtation with racialist theories has completely hindered it in pivoting to something that can either have mass popular appeal in South Korea or really appealing to an internationalist base. But I am no specialist on the politics of the New Progressive Party.


I suppose it is important to remember that while the history is complicated and left-right distinctions break down in some since due to the unique history in East Asian politics, it is also important to remember that this is a place where the Cold War is still very real.  So there are different kinds of complications than in, say, Japan.  It is a modern problem, but I don’t think it has a lot of strong parallels elsewhere in the contemporary world.

Finally, this discussion would be incomplete without considering the latest developments, in terms of sabre-rattling by the UN and the North. How dangerous is this new development, and what do you think the left’s position and actions should be – particularly given the difficult and unique circumstances that have shaped it?


Speaking of the cold war being very real, the current situation in Korea is hairy to say the least. China would not have backed sanctions if a) it really thought the North would drag it into war with the US or South Korea, but also b) if it didn’t think the new administration in the North didn’t need a lesson.  If the armstice is truly off on March 11, 2013 like the North says, things will be destabilized, but you will also see China kick into overdrive. It is having its own particular transition right now, and doesn’t want tons of North Korean refugees flooding into its part of North East Asia into Yanbain, the Korean autonomous prefecture in the PRC.  The United States’ game is more transparent: it obviously does not want to destabilize East Asia for economic reasons, nor does it want to set things into motion that could lead to another North East Asian war.  The US would not mind, however, China “taking care” of problems and transitioning the region by force.

The locals do not seem particularly worried about the severity of attack here in the South.  I would say, however, the situation is serious in the medium term and the exact mechanics as to what is going on is unknown. Even Russian North Korea analysts seem to be VERY hesitant to speculate on exactly what is going on there, despite having more access than a lot of people in the Western media.  The influx of celebrities there indicates that there are several public relations fronts going on in the North, but who knows exactly what is going to happen.  Still I suspect China holds more keys than we know, but there is so much going internal to China at the moment, it is really hard to tell what is going on. It is one of the moments when no side of the battle winning, nor things staying the same, is optimal.


Anyway, I have compiled a reading list of English language sources for some of what I am talking about in this interview, although I don’t cover all the topics in these book. There is all sorts of bias–Western, Korean, Communist, Confucian, etc–in these sources, but a close reader should be able to do some comparison work.  Most of them are available in North America.  If one reads Korean with academic fluency, which I don’t, the sources become much more myriad:

  • The Politics of Korean Nationalism by Chong-sik Lee
  • Song of Ariran, A Korean Communist in the Chinese Revolution by Nym Wales and Kim San.
  • The Korean Communist Movement, 1918-1948 by Dae-sook Suh
  • Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze by E. Taylor Adkins
  • The Cleanest Race by B.R. Myers
  • Confucianism and Korean thoughts by Keum Jang-tae
  • Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945 by Mark Caprio
  • The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan by Ken Kawashima
  • Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, And Legacy by Gi-Wook Shin
  • Peasant Protests and Social Change in Colonial Korea by Gi-Wook Shin
  • The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha
  • The Two Koreas: Revised And Updated A Contemporary History by Don Oberdor
  • Offspring of Empire: The Koch’ang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism, 1876-1945 by Carter J. Ekhart
  • The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea by Namhee Lee
  • Reading Colonial Japan: Text, Context, and Critique editted by Helen Lee and Michele Mason
  • Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization by Kuan-Hsing Chen
  • The Forgotten War: A Brief History of the Korean War by  James K. Wheaton
  • A History of Korean Anarchist Movement by Ha Ki-Rak
  • State and Society in Contemporary Korea by Hagen Koo



One thought on “Nationalism, the Left-Right divide and the crisis in North Korea: Interview with Derick Varn (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: Greg Sharzer’s Second part of the interview with me: Nationalism, the Left-Right divide and the crisis in North Korea | The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity:

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