Korea in the World: Identity and Foreign Policy

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Self-identification Practices in South Korea’s UN Peacekeeping

he following chapter is the first of two case studies on self-identification practices, understood as specific linkages of role conceptions and self-images, in the South Korean global foreign policy discourse. It is focused on the policy field of United Nations peacekeeping operations (UN PKO), which has been identified as one of the key areas of South Korean global foreign policy ambition in the respective literature. 381 The first subchapter briefly introduces the history as well as the academic literature on South Korean peacekeeping, followed by the results of my empirical analysis. The focus hereby lies on role conceptions and key themes exhibited and contested by different actors in the South Korean peacekeeping discourse of the last decade. The last subchapters are dedicated to the retrieved self-images that, linked to role conceptions as specific practices of self-identification, allow a small glimpse of the larger identity narratives underlying South Korea’s global foreign policy.

An introduction to South Korean peacekeeping

Shortly after finally becoming a UN member state in 1991 as a “relative latecomer,”382 South Korea’s first contribution to UN peacekeeping was in 1993, when Seoul sent an engineering battalion of 252 soldiers to Somalia as part of the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) II.383 During the 1990s mostly engineering units, medics or military observers were deployed in non-military assignments to places like Western Sahara, Bosnia, Angola, Georgia, India and Pakistan. Only in 1999 did President Kim Dae-jung decide for the first time to send combat forces, an infantry battalion, as a contribution to the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET), a Multinational Force (MNF) led by Australia that subsequently turned into a Peacekeeping Operation under a UN mandate. Since then, South Korea’s involvement with UN peacekeeping grew increasingly and in 2009 the National Assembly passed the ‘United Nations Peacekeeping Operations Participation Act’ in order to speed up and streamline procedure for future deployments under the UN umbrella. 384 Other measures that were part of the PKO act are the establishment of a standing unit for overseas deployment, the Onnuri Unit (meaning ‘the whole world’), and the expansion of the Peacekeeping Training Centre at the National Defense University.385 Recently, South Korean peacekeepers have served in more robust assignments, such as the 350-personnel strong Dongmyeong Unit as part of the second UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL II) since 2007, the disaster relief-focused 240-person engineering-focused Danbi Unit to the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) from 2010 until 2012, and the deployment of the Hanbit Unit with just under 300 medics, engineers and infantry to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) since 2013. Today, Seoul has deployed around 120,000 personnel to various assignments in 128 countries, with around 642 personnel being deployed at the end of 2016.386 Because of the geopolitical situation on the Korean peninsula, military deployment decisions have always been a politically sensitive matter. For long, overseas troop deployments, whether in PKO or MNF assignments, were mostly seen either as a necessity of or an opportunity to strengthen the US-ROK defence alliance. Hwang, for example, refers to PKOs as traditional “utilitarian tool of [US] alliance management” with little independent value for South Korean foreign policy makers.387 Given the tense security environment on the peninsula, Seoul is said to “privilege […] commitments to the US over commitments to the UN” 388 when having to decide over the deployment of ultimately limited defence capabilities. From a military standpoint, however, PKOs have been seen as a welcome opportunity to gain operational experience in an international environment.389 In terms of public support for peacekeeping operations abroad, the literature on South Korean peacekeeping identifies a widespread sentiment that South Korea is a “child of the UN” and hence has a moral obligation to “pay back” to the international community.390 This development from being “the host of the largest UN enforcement operation to date”391 in the Korean War to being a significant troop contributor country nowadays is a widespread narrative regularly shared by South Korean decision makers. Further, in his assessment of South Korean overseas troop deployments, Hong contrasts this ‘paying back syndrome’ with a ‘Vietnam syndrome,’ stemming from the contentious South Korean participation in the Vietnam War.392 In order to comply with requests from the United States, their main ally and geopolitical protector, and in exchange for Washington’s investment commitments, hefty compensations and most importantly lucrative business opportunities in the US war economy, South Korea deployed around 300,000 soldiers to Vietnam until 1973.393 According to an Asan Institute survey from 2012, 57 percent of Koreans believed the participation in the Vietnam War was the right choice and around half, 54 percent, “think that ROK forces were deployed to gain economic benefits for Korea.”394 According to Breuker, in mainstream historiography today the Vietnam War is mostly seen as a way of ‘jump starting’ South Korea’s export driven economic development under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee.395 Still, Hong sees a key challenge in how peacekeeping operations are legitimated domestically.396 Especially for the political left, the participation in the Vietnam War “was a wrong decision […] forced by the United States.”397 Even despite their general support for PKOs, the main concern of the political parties in the National Assembly as well as the population is the safety of the deployed personnel. Understandably, then, Ruffa notes in her comparative study of different armies in the UNIFIL II mission to Lebanon that the Korean army, being rather new to peacekeeping, chose a comparatively cautious operational approach with a high perceived threat level, a focus on force protection and specific resources allocated to civil-military cooperation, such as on-site Taekwondo training for locals, ultimately aimed at improving the image of South Korean peacekeepers.398 Finally, international expectations for Korea to contribute to international peace and security certainly play a role as well,399 especially when voiced by a Korean at the helm of the UN, the former Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is also a former South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Lee and Park nod further to a study that links the support for PKO deployments to the ambition to support ‘one of their own’ as Secretary General.400 A further political motivation for an active engagement with global governance in general and peacekeeping in particular is seen in the rivalry for international support with other East Asian states, most prominently China and Japan.401 For South Korea, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as a permanent member and thus veto power in the UN Security Council, and Japan, as a major contributor to the UN budget, are both already well established rivals within the UN framework in a race for international support.402 Beijing’s position on peacekeeping, however, remains rather ambiguous because, despite a role as staunch defender of the non-interference principle, it is still deploying peacekeepers to resource rich areas in Africa. Japan, on the other hand, with a pacifist constitution and pacifist constituencies remains largely uneasy about overseas troop deployments. 403 Against this background in Korea, a pro-active peacekeeping profile is seen as an opportunity to demonstrate a committed middle power role, with China and Japan being restricted to the side-lines. International observers now attribute to Korea a growing status and influence as a “rising middle power”, with the country “becoming more of a provider of global security than solely a consumer.”404 Under the ‘Global Korea’ National Security strategy of President Lee Myung-bak, especially, peacekeeping played a central part in Seoul’s aspiration for “middle power activism” 405 or in the ambition to “embrace international responsibilities and actively contribute to resolve global challenges.”406 The follow subchapters are now not so much an assessment of the performance or efficiency of South Korean peacekeeping but are focused on how major peacekeeping deployments during the Presidencies of Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye have been legitimated in the wider domestic political discourse. These are, basically starting in 2006, the contributions to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), as well as the ‘United Nations Peacekeeping Operations Participation Act’. Because the wider political discourse consists of the government, in this case the President, the respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs and National Defense, as well as the political opposition, this approach foregrounds domestic contestation (especially in the National Assembly) as well as changes over time. At the centre of the analysis are questions about which specific role conceptions and self-images have been used by different political actors to justify the peacekeeping deployments and legislation.

Role conceptions, key themes and significant Others

There are a number of retrieved role conceptions that have been employed in the South Korean peacekeeping discourse from 2006 to 2016 throughout the political spectrum: the dominant being ‘responsible member of the international community’, minor ones like ‘guardian of world peace’ and ‘global model nation’, as well as the main rival role conception of ‘anti-militarist power’. The main role conception over the whole observation period was the little contested and thus hegemonic ‘responsible member of the international community’, championed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which was complemented by the minor ‘guardian of world peace’ role conception put forward by representatives from the Ministry of National Defense and the minor ‘global model nation’ role conception pushed for by the Lee Myung-Bak administration. The sole rival role conception is titled ‘anti-militarist power’, which has been put forward by minor parties from the political left, but also from progressive lawmakers from the main opposition party, in its various platforms as Uri Party, Minjoo or Democratic Party (DP). The three role conceptions will be dealt with separately in the following subchapters. Overall, there was broad bipartisan support for the participation in UN peacekeeping missions since 2006, as illustrated by the two following figures. In table 1, there is a list of the votes against the ‘United Nations Peacekeeping Operations Participation Act’,407 which was tabled in the National Assembly on 29 December 2009 and was approved by 64.8 percent of lawmakers. The law stipulates a clear and transparent institutional process for contributing South Korean troops only to UN missions and ensures the parliament’s rights for the approval, extension and cancellation of deployments. 408 It also allows for the establishment of standing forces, an aspect that was met with significant criticism during the debate in the National Assembly. Out of 199 votes, there were 129 in favour of the act, with 54 ‘no’-votes and 16 abstentions.409 This can be considered broad support for Seoul’s PKO profile. The ‘no’-votes, however, came from all parties then present in the parliament, from the ruling conservative Grand National Party (Hannaradang; GNP) over the main opposition party, the progressive Democratic Party (Minjoodang; DP) to the left-wing Democratic Labor Party (Minju Nodongdang; DLP). Also noteworthy is that half of the representatives from the progressive Democratic Party did not support the PKO bill. After all, the DP is the main opposition party and has had their candidates successfully run for President, as in the cases of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. When looking into the plenary debate about the PKO bill in the National Assembly, the main points of disapproval concerned the perceived attempt by the government to limit the parliament’s constitutional right in the approval of overseas deployment potential, as well as the risk of being drawn into international crises once standing units had been set up. Representative Cho Seung-soo from the minor left-wing NPP, for example, warned his colleagues that quicker approval guidelines might be abused by the government to pressure the National Assembly with reference to international expectations into agreeing with their deployment proposals.410 The conservative lawmaker Park Seon-yeong from the minor Liberty Forward Party compared voting for the bill to “committing suicide as parliamentarians.”411 Another explanation for the high number of no-votes or abstentions might be found in the fact that the issue of overseas troop deployments was politically still sensitive after the more controversial decision to contribute the Zaytun Unit to the US led ‘coalition-of-the-willing’ Multi National Force (MNF) in Iraq from 2004 to 2008. The support for the Zaytun Unit’s deployment to Iraq was orchestrated by the progressive President Roh Moo-hyun, despite criticism from his own party, as a necessity in order to strengthen the US-ROK alliance. This initial hesitance and disapproval by parliamentarians concerning PKO deployments did fade however, as can be seen in table 2. The approval for the extensions of UNIFIL and UNMISS deployments was consistently high, despite left-wing parliamentarians disapproving and for some years even without any debate before the voting in the National Assembly.

1. Introduction
1.1. Research questions
1.2. Outline
2. Korea in the World: Identity and Foreign Policy
2.1. Korea in the Sino-centric world
2.2. Korea in the world during colonization and national division
2.3. Korea in the post-Cold War world
2.4. Bridging the empirical-conceptual double gap
3. An Elusive Concept in IR Theory: ‘Fixing’ Identity
3.1. Identity in constructivism
3.2. A multidimensional model of identity: narrative, performance and emotion
3.3. The potential for integration: role and identity
4. Methodology: From Roles to Self-identifications
4.1. Conceptualization and definitions
4.2. Case selection and data collection
5. Self-identification Practices in South Korea’s UN Peacekeeping
5.1. An introduction to South Korean peacekeeping
5.2. Role conceptions, key themes and significant Others
5.3. Self-images
5.4. Concluding remarks
6. Self-identification Practices in South Korea’s Climate Diplomacy
6.1. An introduction to South Korean climate diplomacy
6.2. Role conceptions, key themes and significant Others
6.3. Self-images
6.4. Concluding remarks
7. The Dream of a Responsible, Mature and Autonomous Country
7.1. Role identities, role conceptions and self-images
7.2. Seeking international standing and national autonomy
8. Conclusion and Limitations
9. Appendix
10. Bibliography

Korea’s Growing Role(s) on the World Stage – South Korean Identity and Global Foreign Policy in the Early 21st Century

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