My paper highlights a central element that is often overlooked in studies on South Korea’s policies toward North Korea and Taiwan’s relations with mainland China: the profound effect on inter-Korean and cross-Strait ties brought about by the political evolution of Seoul and Taipei in the last 15 years from authoritarianism to democracy. Democratisation exacerbates social division within a country, as a result of which relations with foreign countries get ameliorated or aggravated, depending on the revealed preference of the median voter. Democratic transition and consolidation in South Korea and Taiwan have undoubtedly furthered the politicisation of foreign and security issues, by opening up the political space which allows for their articulation, and widening the spectrum of ideological debate to include “ethnic” and “class” issues, which in turn affected public sympathies for intercourse with Pyongyang and Beijing respectively.
Although there were ups and downs in inter-Korean and cross-Strait relations for the past decade-and-a-half, on the whole, the major foreign policy repercussions of democratisation in South Korea and Taiwan has been such that relations between the two Koreas improved, while relations between Taiwan and China worsened. Participation by supposed “leftist” labour, student, and clerical forces in the political process of South Korea has legitimised and popularised the hitherto suppressed or muted calls for better relations with the North, and even led to a change in the security thinking of the government in Seoul, from equating state security with regime security, to identifying it with the security of all Koreans, wherever they are. This led to the adoption of a more accommodating stance by Seoul toward the North. In the context of Taiwan, localisation or “Taiwanization” of politics on the island has resulted in the heightening of the consciousness of a distinct local Fujianese-speaking Taiwanese identity. Since Taiwanese nationalism was born out of confrontation by pro-independence forces against the Kuomintang regime, which was dominated by “people from other provinces”, and had always considered Taiwan a part of China, its appearance has, by extension, accentuated differences at the governmental level between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. Consequently, the possibility of an independent Taiwan emerging became very real, with the defensive security posture of the island such that even the rhetoric of the eventual recovery of the Chinese mainland has been all but abandoned.
In the “Democratic Peace” literature, Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder have argued that democratising states tend to be belligerent, because both old and new elites often resort to nationalist / ideological appeals to mobilise mass allies to defend their threatened positions and to stake out new ones, and then found that the masses, once mobilised, are difficult to control. This essay submits that, whether a democratising state will want to court conflict with another state depends very much on what these nationalist / ideological positions are, which connect these democratising elites with their mass constituents.
Last updated on 01/07/2014