Many who observed the Brexit decision consider Pandora’s box now to be open. Was the Brexit ballot box indeed Pandora’s box? Were the Brexit decision and the “Trump phenomenon” flares of erupting distrust and frustration with the establishment, anti-immigrant sentiments, xenophobia, animosity toward international institutions, and isolationism, as many have noted?
The world has prospered by widening markets, but not without costs. The fruits of prosperity were not distributed equally, but rather required sacrifice and contributed to inequality. Advanced industries in Europe and North America were the winners; they reaped the most benefit from globalization, while producing many domestic losers.
Globalized corporations and capital benefited greatly because they were able to accumulate vast amounts of wealth through the surge in new opportunities and profits, while middle to low income laborers suffered from falling wages and depreciating assets. The change not only affected the economy but also the international political order.
Beneath the Brexit decision lies nostalgia for the British Empire and wounded pride from being pushed off by Germany and France. Beneath the Trump phenomenon is the fall of the US after the 2008 financial crisis and the fear of a rising China. Trump’s “America First” and Brexit’s “Britain First” illustrate that the failures within one’s borders are being attributed to those outside borders. Remnants of hegemony instigate aggressive foreign policies; fatigue with international cooperation abets isolationism; and antagonism toward an open economy and immigration spurs xenophobia. Isolationism is able to cohabit with confrontation.
The reactions and assessments of South Koreans toward the Trump phenomenon and the Brexit decision are diverse and ideologically divided. Some see the Trump phenomenon simply as an eccentric individual, or as an electoral strategy, while others see it as full-scale resistance against the established political-economic order that could affect the rest of the world.
Some see the Brexit decision as a one-time thing, that it is just British laborers “kicking” their government, while others see it as a rupture in the neo-liberal order. The world is heading towards closed nationalism: exaggerating security threats and crying out for an arms race.
Ivan Krastev of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria argues that the Brexit decision is reversing the flows brought about by German reunification, and is even a starting point for dissolving the cooperation and integration that Europe has pursued since 1945. But it is in Northeast Asia where troubles are heating up from deep below. The region is facing another era of schism and confrontation without being able to resolve divisions and the Cold War system. Neo-nationalism and the arms race are fiercer in Northeast Asia than in any other region in the world.
All of the region’s leaders – President Barack Obama, President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Vladimir Putin, Chairman Kim Jong-un and President Park Geun-hye – are relying on security populism to hold onto domestic power more firmly.
South Koreans mostly focus on the security implications of the Trump phenomenon. Trump advocates an isolationist foreign policy while boasting he will rebuild the US military, tguaranteeing that it will have no competitors. Moreover, he says he would make US allies, including South Korea, take a larger part in shared defense expenditures at the risk of the US pulling out.
Conservatives in South Korea argue in fear that a new president alone won’t be able to achieve any such fundamental change, because the US is a country with firm rule of law and an institutionalized system. They advocate, with their fingers crossed, that the South Korea-US alliance will not suffer and that pressures for a higher burden of defense expenditures or protectionist trade policies can be alleviated if South Korea works to persuade the US.
Progressives agree on their hatred of the far-right tendencies of Trump. Some among them, however, argue that it will be a long time before we can correct the unbalanced South Korea-US relationship, or before we can better relations between the two Koreas if Democrats continue to remain in power. They argue that Trump could be a better bet in terms of changes in these areas because he, at least, talks of pulling US troops out of South Korea and of negotiating directly with Kim Jong-un.
The Brexit decision is mostly discussed in terms of its economic repercussions on South Korea. It is clearly unfavorable for South Korea because its economy depends on trade. The decision will destabilize foreign currency markets and the stock market for South Korea in the short run. In the long run, South Korean exports would suffer, which would in turn weaken its already faltering economy.
Many agree on these as the factual effects of Brexit, but their interpretation of these effects and their prescriptions for them differ radically among ideological positions. Progressives read the Brexit decision as a revolt against neo-liberal globalization and the establishment within Britain, the solution being welfare and economic democratization in order to reduce inequality.
On the other hand, the conservative elites see it as in line with economic crisis, advocating that we should rally behind the government. President Park’s stance is typical in this sense, as when she said that “countries collapsed because of those who instigate internal discord,” soon after the Brexit decision.
CNN called the Brexit vote the UK’s “Donald Trump moment.” What moment is South Korea going through, and what will it go through? People’s rage against inequality can be easy prey for extreme right populism; a version of the Brexit decision or the Trump phenomenon might just occur in South Korea. The extreme right’s fast rise to power is not visible because the extreme right has already been in power for several decades; the people have suffered frustration while, at the same time, being immune to it.
In a way, South Korea’s establishment ruling coalition is a cut above, because they used various tactics to not cross the critical point. Like a pressure cooker which gradually emits steam to prevent explosion, steam has been removed by employing security populism, by the sophistry that welfare and growth are opposites, and by welfare expansion without new taxes. The phrase “Hell Joseon,” referring to how tough and hellish life in South Korea is, and the “dirt spoon theory,” where economic status is passed down, as in those born into underprivileged families, are treated as a storm in a teacup.
It is difficult to foresee how long such methods will be accepted. Also, after the Brexit decision, there were hot debates on the Internet claiming the need to abolish multicultural policies in South Korea before it is too late. These people responded similarly when Trump’s blunt, racially discriminatory remarks on migrants and Muslims were broadcast.
There is also high potential for South Korea to deceive people with a false solution to polarization, as in isolationism and racial discrimination. South Korea is already turning into a high-conflict society, with issues such as xenophobia, generational discord and gender conflicts.
South Korea’s diplomatic position is more difficult than ever. Conflict between the US and China and the increasing security dilemma within Northeast Asia are difficult challenges. The US is strengthening its alliance network to contain a rising China, while China is resisting this. Despite heightening US-China conflict, considering their high mutual dependency, it is surely unlikely to lead to military collision.
However, with continuing mutual distrust, it is also challenging to reach cooperation and coexistence, which presumes concessions between the two. It is also difficult to exclude collision when China’s acquisitive expansion on issues of regional leadership and the US’s aggressive defense of its existing leadership role magnifies the conflict between the two.
In particular, the key is to establish borders around each country’s sphere of influence. Such issues include the Korean Peninsula, Cross-Strait relations between China and Taiwan, and the disputes in the South China Sea.
Among these flash points, the Korean Peninsula may become the most intense one between the US and China. South Korea needs to choose whether to stand on the fault lines and strengthen its position, or to mitigate the confrontation at the border. The latter is desirable for South Korea’s national interests and regional peace, but sadly, the situation is moving in the opposite direction.
Settling hostile relations is essential, but North Korea’s nuclear development and South Korea’s hardline policy towards North Korea are becoming a pretext for US-China conflicts. Thee recent decision by South Korea and the US to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) may become a decisive inflection point deepening the fault lines within Northeast Asia.
China, with Russia, stands at odds with the US, which is using North Korea’s nuclear development as an excuse to deploy a missile defense system, and also with South Korea, which is faithfully carrying out that plan. Such a choice can push the Korean Peninsula into a so-called crossfire of military deployment that is strengthening among the US, China and Russia.
Internal inequality needs to be solved through active welfare and openness. However, the state has lost its means to implement such methods. Worsening global inequality needs to be resolved through cooperation and integration, but global governance has encountered a crisis. The reason that capitalism was maintained despite its many weaknesses is because the state, although incomplete, controlled the market’s indiscreet accumulation of private interests by using public authority, provided public goods where private capital fails to serve, and conducted redistribution through taxation and welfare.
However, the expansion of neo-liberalism premised on reducing state intervention inevitably led to the reduction of the public nature of the state, and the state in turn was deprived of the will and means to take care of the losers in the market. Capital and markets will not improve themselves under current structuralized inequality, and the state operates in support of them rather than controlling them.
The “trilemma” of globalization, nation, and democracy as described by Professor Dani Rodrik of Harvard University is deepening. The extreme right solution is malicious, but the diagnosis and solution from the progressive side is the result of misinterpretation and recycling. Although the socialist resolution to income inequality was completely defeated numerous times by neo-liberalism, it is not self-correcting.
While it is true that the Brexit decision and the Trump phenomenon are the backlash to neo-liberalism, they also do not represent progressivism. The stratum that is expressing these complaints is actually not at all progressive. They are rather vulnerable to the extreme right forces that are suggesting incorrect solutions. Also, they do not have the composure to believe the progressive promises to solve complaints on reality.
Despite the gloomy forecast, time and opportunity still exist. Liberty is a value to be defended for the sake of our future, even as the tyranny of neo-liberalism should be fought against. By recovering the public nature of the state, we should cope with widening inequality and pursue coexistence and peace through foreign policy.
We should prevent the fault lines in Northeast Asia from becoming permanent by improving the relationship between the two Koreas. There can be hope if a Korean Peninsula currently lacking in peace fills that deficit. The hope lying at the bottom of Pandora’s box is an alternative that is more democratic, integrated and peaceful. Now more than ever, leadership with such a critical mind and zeitgeist is required.
The views expressed here are those of the author, Joonhyung Kim, Professor of International and Area Studies, Handong Global University. Published with permission.