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This essay aims to provide a critical view of South Korean intellectuals and unification policy makers who stress the undisputed role of nationalism, across the diverse ideological spectrums, in constructing ‘inter-Korea’ reconciliation in South Korean society. They contend that meanings of counter-hegemonic practice against anti-North Korean ideology are already determined within the politics of national identification. However, this mode of thinking remains a predicament of the South Korean public’s critical engagement with the way in which a moral claim to national identification is conflated with inter-Korea economic collaboration along the lines of neo-liberalism. But I also want to illuminate the connection that neo-liberalism and new conservatism in South Korea make in the attempt to help anti-North Koreanism survive democratic challenges. My critical evaluation of the connection suggests a discursive condition of what I call ‘inter-Korea sociability’, in which the South Korean public can appropriate social and historical claims about the inter-Korea relationship that range from the atrocious and violent events in the war to the so-called North Korean human rights crisis. I argue that two Koreas’ reconciliation can come through resisting the romanticization of Koreans’ own normative commitment to idealized national authenticity and liberal human rights.

National Reconciliation , North Korea , Nationalism , Otherization , Human Rights

    A challenge to anti-North Koreanism in South Korea has still been an obviously daunting political-cultural project in spite of the political liberalization of South Korean society since the late 1980s. Whenever any radical democratic politics is posed, its legitimacy and acceptability is measured by an ideological ruler of the reified collective memory politics of the Korean War that prescribes the reasoning of waging a war with communist North Koreans. The ideological integrity of any thought and activity related to North Korean issues is still censored through a very limited access to the historic event of the war. Those who want to challenge the ideological manipulation inevitably have to rely on the manipulated contents, because we would otherwise always have to be in an endless pursuit of truthful contents. This Nietzschean metaphor of a confrontation with our world speaks not to the pessimism that we do not have a truth about our history but to a commitment to critical analysis from within us.

    Drawing on the critical endeavor, this essay aims to provide a critical view of South Korean intellectuals and unification policy makers who stress the undisputed role of nationalism, across the diverse ideological spectrums, in constructing ‘inter-Korea’ reconciliation in South Korean society. They contend that meanings of counter-hegemonic practice against anti-North Korean ideology are already determined within the politics of national identification. However, this mode of thinking remains a predicament of the South Korean public’s critical engagement with the way in which a moral claim to national identification is conflated with inter-Korea economic collaboration along the lines of neoliberalism. But I also want to illuminate the connection that neo-liberalism and new conservatism in South Korea make in the attempt to help anti-North Koreanism survive democratic challenges. My critical evaluation of the connection suggests a discursive condition of what I call ‘inter-Korea sociability’, in which the South Korean public can appropriate social and historical claims about the inter-Korean relationship that range from the atrocious and violent events in the war to the so-called North Korean human rights crisis. Here, I define inter-Korea sociability as the making of diverse discursive spaces that do not undermine or exploit our abilities to challenge anti-North Koreanism and to offer opportunities for Koreans to inquire into the established status of inter-Korean historical, political, and cultural events. By breaking down the questionable aura of self-evidence explaining inter-Korean relations, the idea of inter-Korea sociability helps Koreans expose themselves to, and participate in, the pluralized narratives of the inter-Korean relationship.

    The South Korean public has realized and challenged the problems of neoliberalism in domestic economic reform, especially since the national economic crisis in the late 1990s (Cho-Han 1998). But it has also been confounded by the insistence that a neo-liberalism-programmed unification policy can be the best means of promoting a sense of inter-Korea reconciliation in good faith (Sung 2009). Under the circumstances, the public’s healthy skepticism toward neo-liberal reform or claims of transnational globalization is compromised unless the unification policy is substantially challenged. Nevertheless, some South Korean critical intellectuals problematically acknowledge that inter-Korea economic collaboration can invariably result in the equal formation of national belonging if the unification policy is legitimized under the premise that North Korea should remain the recipient of knowledge and capital transfers generously made by South Korea and other Western countries. For example, the South Korean scholarly journal Munhwa/kwahak’s p’yŏnjip wiwŏnhoe (Culture/Science’s Editorial Committee) publicly contends:

    This proposition is implicitly predicated upon the smug idea of ‘soft power’, in which knowledge and values in cultural and economic practice as ‘global public goods’ come to be the best means of rehabilitating ‘a more general inability to respond to modernity’ (Nye 2004, 80, 43). The significance of technocratic politics that smacks of modernization theory is stressed as best suited to the imagination of a civil society for unification. In this ‘soft-powered’ cultural civil society, the role of the apparatuses such as the mass media in transferring knowledge and skills is presumed as highly neutral in terms of ideological implications (McCarthy 2007). It is also highly naturalized in this scheme that public advocacy of unification is pared down through policy administration.

    The traces of the Korean nation manifested in the politics of national identification are integral to maintaining the territorial boundary through which North Korea is undoubtedly yet problematically imagined as a geo-political space of uncivilization (Lee 2002).1 More recently, this fetishism of the Orientalist Other is maintained through the neo-liberal arrangements of inter-Korea collaboration, wherein the nation’s survival and prosperity is only possibly imaginable when the messianism of liberal capitalism can ‘modernize’ the hermit country (McCarthy 2007). However, as critical scholars have demonstrated (Asad 2000; Žižek 2005; Brown 2006), the legitimacy of the civilizing/modernizing force of liberal capitalism is frequently disguised in the contentious claim of humanitarianism, in which North Korean refugees in South Korea are exploited in the new conservative mobilization of anti-North Korean ideology as well as in the neoliberal flexible labor marketplace (Sung 2010).

    1The North Korean regime has also lent itself to its own essentialist ethnic idea of the nation. See B. R. Myers (2010).


    If we continue to be obsessed with the idea of recovering the project of building up a nation-state for the purpose of recasting the meaning of ‘inter-Korea’ in national reconciliation, we will confront two critical problems among others. First, especially, South Korean critical intellectuals and policymakers who draw on Pundan ch’eje-ron(the division system thesis)—a liberal left quasi-world-system criticism attributing social-economic and political issues of South and North Koreas to the structural nature of the national division—largely rely on the selfrighteous claim that national unification would greatly help the nation successfully sustain itself in an era of globalization (Paik 1993, 2006, 2008, 2010; Park 1999; Hong 2007). For instance, Paik Nak-chung (2006), who coined the term Pundan ch’eje, urges the South Korean public to acknowledge the necessity of economic inter-Korea collaboration. Under the scheme, the capital investment of South Korea should be guaranteed so that the benefits from the accumulation of capital can effectively trickle down to the North Korean population (as well as the South Korean population). Paik also asserts:

    Although explicitly this meaning of ‘inter-Korea’ seems not to subscribe to the authoritarian anti-North Korean ideology that prevailed during the cold war decades, its emphasis on the institutionalization of a (neo-)liberal economic regime in a future unified Korean nation-state sidesteps problems fundamentally embedded in, and persistently emerging from, the world-system. The Pundan ch’ejeron definitely insists that the cause of the national division be attributed to the continuation of the world-system under the cold war era, through which South Korea began to be baptized with the developmentalist ideology of modernization in the post-WWII decades (Wallerstein 2005). The progressive argument of unification attracts critical attention from the South Korean public by engaging with the political economic structure of the national division. In it, economic developmentalism along with the obsession with the idea of the nation-state disciplines and prompts the public for political mobilization (Radice 2000; Chen 2010). However, while aspiring to unification as a progressive social drive for the nation, this insistence problematically maintains the ideology of developmentalism coordinated with neo-liberalism. According to Paik, it is natural that we thus accept ‘neo-liberalism’ as ‘an inevitable force prevailing in the operation of the world-system…with which we can create a middle-ground revolutionary strategy for political negotiation regarding national unification’ (Paik 2008, 110). Paik’s proposition recognizes the capitalist world economy not so much as a regime that must be challenged but as a regime to which the nation has no choice but to inevitably adapt itself unless and until the structural collapse of the world-system finally takes place. The reification of ‘inter-Korea’ under the economic arrangements of national collaboration risks abstracting the practice of reconciliation within the scope of market reasoning.2

    As a consequence, it is no surprise that this political claim of ‘inter-Korea’ carries with itself a serious problem when the South Korean public engages in the so-called North Korean human rights crisis. Far from making a progressive agenda of the human rights issue, it would only help to leave little opportunity for the public to critically respond to the neo-liberal reality that North Korean settlers in South Korean society have faced in the flexible labor market in South Korea (Sung 2010). The neo-liberal ideal of the self-promoting citizen, imposed on those settlers who are undoubtedly expected to accept it in their social adaptation, is naturalized, so that the public’s challenge to the neo-liberal restructuring of South Korean society comes to discursively be made as if it is doomed to be futile. The claim’s ineptitude and inability to question liberal human rights discourse makes the new conservative categorical claim of humanitarian intervention rhetorically appealing to the South Korean public, which has faced the spectacle of the transgression of human dignity in North Korea.

    Second, the idea of reconciliation cultivated through critically engaging with political violence materially manifested in historical tragedies (Nietzsche 1997; Koselleck 2004; Huyseen 1995) helps develop historical discussions with respect to various issues ranging from the origin of the Korean War to the reunion of ‘dispersed family members/wartime border-crossers’ (called isan’gajok) since the war. Recently, South Korean new conservative historians and sociologists have posed challenges to the ways in which those historical tragedies are remembered.

    For example, Jeon Sang-In (2001) calls such a counter-challenge ‘a critique of the (neo-)Marxist revisionist approach to modern and contemporary Korean history’. More specifically, Jeon dubs Bruce Cumings’s historical exploration of the origin of the Korean War, in which the US-led anti-communist containment foreign policy at the time is conceived as a detonator of the outbreak of the war, ‘conspiracy theory-laden arbitrary subjectivism’ (Jeon 2001, 372). More strikingly, Jeon suggests that we pay more careful attention to the way in which the Korean people perceived the historical reality, because, in his view, ‘the revisionist approach overshadows dynamic interactions among the people who experienced the historical upheavals with the overarching political economic claims’ (Jeon 2001, 381). Yet, Jeon’s call for scrutiny of the historical dynamic ends up being flawed, as his empirical evidence merely presents the then U.S. Military Government’s public opinion survey, whose ideological attributes of propaganda have already been critically investigated (Cha 1994). Any attempt of this sort significantly reduces our critical abilities to encounter those events in the memories and praxis of the public, problematically turning the memory politics of the historical past into self-denial.

    As Andreas Huyssen (1995, 165) aptly points out, a critical memory politics thus needs to be a claim to ‘Selbsterfahrung (self-experience) rather than self-denial’ about historical events. As such, the practice of national reconciliation as an act of reclaiming self-experience about ‘inter-Korea’ historical events can be initiated by ‘staking out’ all three subjects of memory politics including ‘historians, disputants, and commentators’ in constructing different and shared narratives, claims, and tropes of these events (Gronbeck 1998). The rise and survival of new conservatism in South Korea is an attempt to re-interpret the history of contemporary Korea under this ideological closure, in which all democratic challenges to the South Korean political dictatorships are not entitled to claim historical accuracy due to this ideological (i.e. allegedly pro-communist/pro-North Korean) prejudice. The problem with this new conservative approach lies not in whether or not the ideological prejudice can be hypothetically or actually demonstrated—because the new conservative pedagogy in question is also highly ideological in nature—but in whether or not it is legitimate to insist the monopoly of historical memories. Thus, against this backdrop, I argue that the advocacy of persistently reclaiming self-experience should resist any ideological foreclosure or narcissistic celebration of immature and vulnerable ideas and claims about historical events.

    Walter Benjamin (1979, 129) was one of the critical thinkers theorizing the enactment of self-experience, posing the idea of ‘more sober children, who possess in technology [of war] not a fetish of doom but a key to happiness’. Out of devastating material and moral havoc, such as the cult of war from the First World War, Benjamin was calling for, as an ethical attitude toward post-war life, ‘the great opportunity of the loser…to shift the fight to another sphere’ (Benjamin 1979, 124). For Benjamin, ‘another sphere’ does not suggest an idyllic terrain in which the distinction between the past and the present as the act of reflecting on the pain of war is dissolved, but it would be rather a distinctive place of hope for historical redemption to intransigently resist a mystified reconciliation between the past and the present.

    As Martin Jay (2003, 14) puts it, Benjamin ‘wanted to compel his readers to face squarely what had happened and confront its deepest sources rather than let the wounds [of war] scar over’. In reference to Benjamin’s deliberate resistance to the symbolic celebration and narcissistic cult of a historical tragedy, Giorgio Agamben seeks to conceptualize an enunciative space in which one can vocalize his/her own values about ‘happy life’ by ‘playing with’ the sovereign command of destroying the anomaly of the non-being existence (Mills 2008). The act of appropriating the meaning of politicized beings (i.e. bios) is significant, because it helps us imagine how the practice of national reconciliation can be articulated as a claim to inter-Korea sociability. This critical move can come through expanding the scope of self-experience about historical events without being enmeshed within the obsession with the Other of North Korea (Lee 2007).

    2It is instructive to point out that the reification of ‘inter-Korea’ under the economic arrangements of national collaboration has, to some extent, resulted from a critical effort of selfexperience whose main collective manifestation was the Minjung movement in the 1980s and 1990s. The democratization movements helped the South Korean public create spheres to reclaim their experience with North Korea and unification issues. But it also produced normative discourses prescribing what the nation should be and how two Koreas could fit into the principle of national identification. It is true that this self-experience began to be institutionalized for the economic arrangements, especially when many activists from the democratic movement came to power in the Kim Tae-jung (1997–2002) and No Mu-hyŏn (2003–2008) governments that intensified the economic policy of transnational capitalism (Sung 2009). Therefore, as my work ultimately suggests, it is crucial to not leave discursive fields of self-experience for inter-Korea sociability to the self-fulfilling tactics of national identification along the lines of transnational capitalism.


    My challenge to the neo-liberal and new conservative politics, with respect to the historical tragedy and political violence, is concerned with the reclaiming of inter-Korea sociability through which the Korean public can be discursively engaged in a politics of reconciliation. I argue with Benjamin, as discussed above, that this politics of reconciliation involve a deliberate discursive space in which the public can effectively enact and expand the practice of self-experience about historical claims by tracing historical events. The enactment and expansion can be explored through discovering a mode of contemplation outside the universe of the archival—ideologically institutionalized—knowledge of North Korea and tragic historical/political inter-Korean events. It can also be examined by claiming space in which Koreans can gather to share happiness of life, engage in political debate, and develop ethical accountability for life—not in the way in which North Koreans turn into a permanent enemy anomalous to the authentic national culture including the idea of the inheritance of pure bloodedness. In short, selfexperience invokes an alternative, testing ground for inter-Korea sociability. For this, one may want to suggest recent non-governmental, inter-Korean collaborations that aim to restore historical heritage from the Koguryŏ and Koryŏ periods. While attempting to refute China’s claim to its ownership of the history of Kojosŏn, which is called Tongbuk kongjŏng, the heritage restoration projects are identified as non-political or politically neutral enough to help the two Koreas confirm in themselves the authenticity and homogeneity of the nation (Choe 2011). However, in the attempt to authenticate the sense of national belonging through such a history restoration rationale, the meaning of inter-Korea is restricted to the identity logic of the nation. As shall be discussed shortly, the identity logic dismisses the significance of a discursive space for North Koreans to publicly speak out for whatever they consider to be necessary, crucial, and suitable for their social and cultural well-being, while questionably invoking the idea of socially and culturally heterogeneous and anomalous human beings from the scene in which North Korean refugees embody the most tragic historical moment in inter-Korean relations. Therefore, the enactment and expansion of self-experience about historical claims must begin by calling into question selfreferential claims of the Otherizing of North Koreans and human rights claims subsumed under the neo-liberal market reasoning.3 The practice of selfexperience does not pursue any transcendental entity or force, out of which the public identifies authentic characteristics of ‘ideal depth’ for inter-Korea reconciliation (Foucault 1984). In this section, while more specifically addressing the Otherizing of North Koreans as part of the significant dimension of inter-Korea sociability, I also critically discuss a politics of liberal humanitarianism, because claims in liberal human rights discourse regarding North Korean refugees have been gaining moral power in programming inter-Korea sociability.

      >  (1) The Otherizing of North Koreans

    I would like to elaborate on the notion of self-experience in terms of how it can be used to articulate a claim of inter-Korea sociability resisting the Otherizing of North Koreans. I define the Otherizing of North Koreans as the discursive formation of the incessant purification of degenerate, inferior North Korean populations along the lines of the problematic formation of national belonging, which naturalizes free market democracies for inter-Korean reconciliation. This Otherizing, as a quasi-self-reversal tactic, prescribes national identification as an antidote to anti-North Koreanism, but the contradictory discursive practice fails to address the precariousness and volatility inherent in that formation. For example, North Korean settlers in South Korean society testify to the contradiction when they are put to work for their social adaptation, while registering themselves to remain labeled as North Korean, in the sense that they would never forgo the heterogeneous psychological and lifestyle traits that they presumably acquired from their homeland. Their challenged social adaptation to South Korean society manifests a quandary of national identification politics. Admittedly, in everyday life they are frequently confronted with the expectation of belonging to the Korean nation, on the South Korean listening schema, which they believe will help them to be recognized as South Korean. However, they are always anxious about their speech styles, which, more often than not, end up being derided by South Koreans. For example, in SBS Documentary Special: Tallae ŭmaktan ŭi naeil i omyŏn (Lulling Flower Music Band’s If Tomorrow Is Coming, broadcasted in 2006),4 a 19-year-old North Korean settler Im Yu-gyŏng narrates ‘If I speak like North Koreans I can be overcharged when I get a taxi. In order to avoid such a situation, I practice and repeat a hundred times West Bus Terminal please to emulate the same pronunciation most South Koreans make’. This ambivalent act of concealment fails when she markets herself in the South Korean entertainment industry that craves the authentic North Korean characteristics, such as speech accents and lifestyles, for the industry’s interests. As with the stark reality of her other fellow North Korean settlers in South Korea, the only way for Im to become an autonomous, competent, and responsible citizen in a market-driven capitalist society is to inevitably reveal her irrevocable, innate North Korean tastes and lifestyles, which she otherwise presumably wants to conceal. In sum, the principle of national identification posited as a legitimate source of exercising inter-Korean mutual understanding is so precarious and volatile that pressing recognition commitments instantly turn into bizarre discrimination. North Korean settlers subscribe to an identity logic, which Otherizes them then.

    As such, the Otherization in the preoccupation with the nation’s authenticity intrinsically implicates a strong presumption that the recovery of national authenticity is the unitary precondition for inter-Korea reconciliation. The idea of the Other of North Koreans is a manifestation of the South’s political desire to restore the loss of the northern land of the Korean nation (Im 2004), and has begun to be modified in the political demand to foster the South’s economic development in the 1960s. From the late 1960s, the South Korean dictator Pak Chŏng-hŭi’s regime was entering into a political crisis brought about by politically dissenting voices arising out of the economic exploitation and poverty (Cho 2000). As the world-system faced increasing global economic downturns at the turn of the 1970s, the South Korean economy likewise began to crash because of the crisis of domestic capital accumulation ensuing from the shrinking of foreign export markets and the limiting of consumer purchasing power in the domestic market. As the Pak regime faced such political challenges from within as well as from the world system, it had taken advantage of the ideological combination of anti-North Koreanism and nationalism. On July 4, 1972, the Pak regime made a public announcement about the impending historic first inter-Korea talk (29 August to 3 September in P’yŏngyang) since the Korean War. The ideological sway of anti-North Koreanism under the trauma of the war still remained powerful in controlling dissenting voices from below in the state of emergency. But the sway also had to revise the delivery of anti-North Koreanism through which to enable it to put into effect its full regulatory impact on the South Korean public. The historic event was circulating the conciliatory idea of recuperating the national identification of national homogeneity, in which shared values of nation are abstracted as essential, deterministic attributes of defining the nation.

    The greater motivation for national authenticity in the photographical and textual representation of North Koreans in the 1972 inter-Korea talk events in P’yŏngyang provided the South Korean public with exclusive purview over the Other of North Koreans. For example, in travelogues after the visit to P’yŏngyang, eyewitness reports displayed moral authority and nostalgic authenticity of the nation while conjuring up an exotic curiosity about the scenes:

    The striking contrast between the restless eyewitnesses who are aroused by the desire for snapping something like rare wildlife and the character of lifeless North Korean reality gives rise to a narcissistic mode of cultural differentiation. This narrative refutes the trace of modernization or social mobility in North Korea and relocates it onto a discursive terrain of cultural immutability. The politics of national identification, made in the visualization of the nation’s characters, operates deep anxieties and fears about the very essence of the nation that the eyewitness accounts willfully pursue.

    This is an act of closure in which such an exclusive desire prevents other parameters of national reconciliation from enacting themselves to play off of one another. Challenging this arbitrary and self-contained act, reclaiming selfexperience aims to maintain discursive realms of inter-Korea sociability so that they can be opened up to contingent strategies, gaps, failures of voices and memories in order to better facilitate reconciliation. I want to call this act of selfexperience freeing up possibilities of inter-Korea sociability, in which one can be left with a discursive event that enables oneself to remain concerned with, but not obsessed with, the idea of national authenticity.

      >  (2) Reconciliation in the North Korean Human Rights Crisis

    This rhetorical claim of national reconciliation—we can survive only when we are formed into a unified nation-state under national authenticity—is strikingly ambivalent, because simultaneously it must ideologically prioritize the (neo-)liberal capitalist institutionalization of political consensus over cultural assimilation. In doing so, the ambivalent characterization of reconciliation crystallizes the discursive realm of inter-Korea relations at the institutional level; in this process, economic arrangements in inter-Korea relations are incontrovertibly conceived as a more progressive force in challenging deep-seated anti-North Korean sentiments among the South Korean public than any other arrangement. This valorization of reconciliation discourse hampers an adequate understanding of creating a possibility of inter-Korea sociability.

    First, Moellendorf (2007, 207) suggests that ‘Reconciliation requires general acceptance for the institutional order’. But it should be noted that the valorization of reconciliation discourse at the institutional level subjugates alternative voices of reconciliation to the government unification policies defining inter-Korea collaboration as a top-down process. I have attempted to discuss the way in which the economic dimension of inter-Korea collaboration has been privileged as an integral part of national reconciliation. Many of the South Korean popular nationalist social movement groups that significantly contributed to the political democratization of South Korean society in the 1980s came to power later in the Kim Tae-jung and No Mu-hyŏn governments. But they also soon adopted neoliberal schemes of economic development and social welfare. Although South Korean new conservatives blamed the Kim and No governments’ unification policy as a bailout scheme for the Kim Jong Il regime, the policy came to be portrayed as the most normative ideal for alleviating inter-Korea ideological antagonism. Indeed any skepticism of the unification policy was regarded as ideological submission to an anachronism or even new conservatism.

    Second, the identity politics of national reconciliation is vulnerable to the depoliticization of humanitarianism, wherein civic virtues of humanitarianism are merely reduced to a major site of neo-liberal market reasoning to cure the lack of self-autonomy and self-promotion in individuals. The politics of national identification appears to be seen as if it welcomes North Korean refugees in South Korea without condition. But once it finds the lack of national authenticity suffered by those settlers who are supposed to be classified as part of the Korean nation, as SBS Documentary Special: Tallae ŭmaktan ŭi naeil i omyŏn strikingly shows, it relegates such cultural traits to the source of conflicts in their social adaptation. The discursive nexus of liberal human rights and national identification offers moral universalism for accommodating those banished people. However, the ambivalent claim of the right-holding individual and the duties of cultural membership in collectivist terms reduce the question of the Other to a ‘particularity’ that should be disciplined and constrained by moral universals [that are manifested as the right-holding person]’ (Ignatieff 2001, 9).

    At this point, it is worth referring to what Slavoj Žižek (2005) poses to challenge the liberal human rights discourse. Žižek uses the example of Muslim women in the UK, pointing to the fundamental limitations of the liberal attitude of tolerance predicated on the conceptions of freedom and choice:

    As Hannah Arendt (1973, 175) puts it, ‘Human plurality, the basic condition of both action and speech, has the twofold character of equality and distinction’. Those strangers’ equality and distinction are viciously depoliticized only to be valorized as self-promotion and discrimination. Similarly, North Korean settlers in South Korea appear to remain subject to the human rights discourse to implicitly bolster the South Korean political and ideological position. This discursive process helps reframe those defectors who are not simply victims of North Korea’s totalitarian regime but also citizens who must develop (neo-)liberal individual autonomy and self-responsibility in order to be accepted as legitimate South Koreans.

    Many scholars have cast serious doubts upon what is considered liberal human rights discourse. For example, Jacques Rancière (2004, 306) draws our attention to the idea of the human rights-holding subject, suggesting that to negotiate consensus through human rights without scrutinizing the question of the subject of human rights is nothing other than ‘vicious depolitization’ of the democratic polity:

    The idea of human rights consensus is bound to explicitly make its own claim on a universal status self-contradictory, especially in that human rights in this formulation end up being ‘boiled down to a distribution within which each part of the social body would obtain the best share that it can obtain’ (Rancière 2004, 306). The attempt to predicate human rights on consensus reinforces a process of social differentiation, by which human rights are politically reconfigured into the claim of those ‘who cannot enact them’ (Rancière 2004, 307). In other words, the political claim of human rights consensus inscribes the body politics of mutual recognition through the primacy of the rights-holding individual. As Étienne Balibar (2004, 316–318) also argues, such a human rights consensus claim fails to inform the public that human rights indeed are the ‘effect of consensus’.

    This is a very important questioning of the liberal authorization of human rights as consensus. First of all, such questioning is significant in the light of articulating the crisis of human rights as a citizenship politics but not without leaving a solution in the realm of institutions that limits the problem of displacing human rights to a formal process of legislation. The view of human rights as the source of consensus for the democratic polity imposes a moral command of human rights as the common ground of democratic process on which criteria of human dignity must be agreed upon and stipulated in accordance with the premise that the sacredness of the human cannot be possible without recognizing the significance of the rights-holding individual (Dalacoura 2007, 17–18). This inscription of human dignity in the rights-holding individual can then become the precondition by which individual liberty can be borne out. That is, the liberal rights talk politicizes the act of freedom in favor of individual autonomy, which must be protected from any collective will formation. As such, human rights in liberal discourse become the source of effectuating the moral universalism of individual autonomy, which initiates and guarantees equality among rights-holding individuals.

    3Testimonies of surviving victims and perpetrators of war crimes, such as the No Gun Ri massacre, can be a good example of the enactment and expansion in a collective memory politics that unfolds the historical atrocities of the Korean War (Hanley, Choe, and Mendoza 2001). Gathering together in a public space to share such painful experiences from both Koreas would be a daunting consideration, given the political and juridical restrictions that the South and North have still hold to govern the national division, which arguably prevents the South and North Korean public from speaking out. Nevertheless, it is crucial to continue with such collective memory events in order to keep realms of self-experience for inter-Korea sociability from being reduced to a single premise of national reconciliation under the archival knowledge of inter-Korean relations.  4This television documentary featured a group of five female North Korean settlers who are working hard to become successful celebrities in the South Korean entertainment market. In doing so, they are resolutely working to demonstrate that they have changed their North Korean characters of personality and attitudes toward society.


    Freeing up possibilities of inter-Korea sociability would rely on how we challenge the persistent reduction of an intolerably threatening political and culturing being to the ambivalent zone of inclusion and exclusion of the bare life of others (Agamben 2005). Those who are forced to live in an intolerable situation should be treated as the category of absolute victim whose loss of human rights should be enacted by infinite justice (Rancière 2004). As inter-Korea relations have been shaped in the authoritarian dichotomy between tolerable/civilized/Western and intolerable/barbarian/non-Western, one of the meaningful inter-Korea tasks is an effort to reveal an irresistible desire that trickles down rights and responsibility of the former in a manner that turns the latter into a genuine recipient.

    A desire to redistribute [rights and responsibility] is not the unproblematic consequence of a well-fed society. In order to get that desire moving by the cultural imperative of education, you have to fix the possibility of putting not just wrong over against rights, with all the genealogical lines compressed within it, but also to suggest that another antonym of rights is responsibility, and further, that the possibility of such responsibility is underived from rights. (Spivak 2004, 534)

    In a landmark study of the origin of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt (1973) demonstrates the fundamental crisis of the modern nation-state. Along with World War I, she argues, the ideal of modern Western democracy began to hopelessly collapse and even turn out to be hypocritical, as minorities who were displaced outside aspects of identity within the nation-state became unwanted in the purview of the nation. The establishment of the peace treaties after the end of World War I dismantled the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish empires, resulting in dispersing millions of denationalized minorities throughout Europe in the 1930s. Inalienable rights to social status, work, property, and political participation as the outcome and requirement of building up a modern nationstate were no longer guaranteed to those denationalized people. As Arendt laments it, this ‘end of Rights of Man’ implies that:

    Such a vivid illustration of the crisis of the modern nation-state can also be terrifying to entitled citizens themselves in the nation-state, because the crisis is no other than ‘the obsolescence of [the Rights of Man]’, under the condition of which the citizens can no longer be legitimately protected. For the disquieting fact that denationalized minorities were forced to the ‘conditions of absolute lawlessness’ (Arendt 1973, 269) amounts not just to the loss of organized community but also to the destruction of life itself in any given sense. The crisis of the modern nation-state reaches the point of extreme cruelty, as the rightless innocents ‘are deprived, not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion’ (Arendt 1973, 296). As the rightless become inhuman, those who are entitled to the rights are inscribed in the permanent space of political exception.

    In the crisis of the modern nation-state, not only are the rightless minorities propelled to the status of exclusive alienation outside the nation-state, but they are also discursively exploited within the nation-state for an impending scene in which anybody, no matter to what category they may be attributed, can be rendered vulnerable under the disguising banner of the Other. The crisis of the modern nation-state magnifies the ominous categorization of unwanted minorities such as refugees, the stateless, and the rightless, imploding the dichotomy of wanted and unwanted into the single category of life threat under the utilitarian gesture of tolerance. If we understand the crisis of the modern nation-state in this ontological trap of the Rights of Man, how can we encounter, but not flee from, this radically suspending political space? The two Koreas’ reconciliation can come through resisting the romanticization of Koreans’ own normative commitment to idealized national authenticity and liberal human rights.

  • 1. Agamben Giorgio 2005 State of Exception. Translated by Kevin Attel. google
  • 2. Arendt Hannah 1973 The Origins of Totalitarianism. google
  • 3. Asad Talal 2000 “What Do Human Rights Do? An Anthropological Enquiry.” [Theory and Event] Vol.4 P.1-56 google
  • 4. Balibar Etienne 2004 “Is a Philosophy of Human Civic Rights Possible? New Reflections on Equaliberty.” [South Atlantic Quarterly] Vol.103 P.311-22 google doi
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