SEOUL – South Korea’s foreign minister was meeting his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing on Friday as Seoul’s national security advisor jets across the Pacific for a meeting in Washington with his Japanese and US counterparts.
The divergences implicit in these missions are difficult to encompass with a single metaphor: Is Korea walking a diplomatic tightrope? Or is it feeling its legs stretch at a diplomatic crossroad?
Either way, the conundrum is gaining ever-greater force, for according to a high-profile former diplomat and academic in Seoul, global paradigms are changing and new alignments are coming into play.
Countries are shifting away from the Cold War-era politics of values toward more introspective politics of identity. The latter encompass policies of victimhood and of antagonism – either unilateral or multilateral.
Within this complex space, South Korea is conflicted. It is a conflict that may become apparent in Washington – and with considerably higher visibility at the G7+3 leaders’ meeting in London in June.
What is at play? South Korea’s national identity and its global strategy as both a polity and an economy.
New cracks in geopolitical maps
For decades after 1945, the world’s political fault line was the Cold War. That conflict was ideologically defined by a bloc of communist states and dirigiste economies opposing a coalition of democracies and market economies.
Only in 1991 did the winner and loser become apparent. The seismic shift was the implosion of the flag bearer of communism, the Soviet Union. In its wake, thinkers scrambled for new paradigms to define the post-Cold War world.
Francis Fukuyama posited that a history of struggle was over – that the West’s political/economic format had won, and would become the new global norm. Another US scholar, Samuel Huntington, posited that a new conflict was taking shape – a clash of civilizations.
Neither proved correct.
The inexorable rise of authoritarian China, wielding an economy that was capitalist but closely controlled, today presents a massive challenge to the market capitalism of the democracies.
Meanwhile, the “war on terror” pitted a US-led coalition against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and their state supporters. But it never spiraled into an existential war between Western states versus Islamic states.
What, then, could be the next paradigm to explain geopolitics?
According to South Korean scholar Han Sung-joo, the world may be entering a new era – that of “identity politics.”
Han knows whereof he speaks. A former foreign minister and South Korea ambassador to the United States, he held multiple roles in the United Nations and currently heads up a conservative think tank, the Asan Institute in Seoul.
“Identify politics” as a concept has largely been defined among primarily race, but also gender-based groups asserting specified identities under the broad banner of “American” identity in the United States.
Han, however, suggests the concept can be expanded to the global space. And recent global developments suggest its force.
In the West, Donald Trump’s “MAGA” movement led to new assertiveness among predominantly white, middle Americans. Brexit spurred an upsurge in Scottish nationalism, and a resurgent surge in Englishness that may result in the break up of the UK.
In continental Europe, national identities have not been subsumed by membership of the EU, a powerful economic union but one that struggles to find a unified