Is Globalization Irreversible?
This is the first in a series of articles featuring what Korea should change to be respected in a globalizing world. ― ED.
By Michael Breen
Here's a question: By globalizing as eagerly as their government wishes, are Koreans
In other words, if a people are globalized, will their country need to exist? What will Korea mean if its government ceases to have a role and shape for the people a distinct identity?
There is some sense to such a question because countries, you could say, are defined by the barriers they erect ― their borders, their tariffs, currencies, systems and languages.
This side of the river, for example, where the soybeans grow and smoke is puffing out of chimneys, is China, and over there, where the thin man in the brown uniform is pointing a gun at the people, is North Korea.
Globalization is all about removing barriers. It takes the smoke out of the chimney, for the sake of the environment, and the gun out of the hand of the soldier, in the name of universal rights, and lets the people freely live and work on whichever side they wish.
When everyone is better off, it will be natural to ask, "Do China and North Korea meaningfully exist as separate entities?"
It's a difficult question to get the mind around, even when your country oppresses you. Countries are so taken for granted that, it seems, you've got to be a bearded weirdo to question their existence.
Nowhere is this truer than in modern Korea. Nationalistic education has been such in recent decades that the nation for Koreans serves the role of Christ for Christians.
It is the highest purpose, which is why the brutalizing of Koreans by Koreans in the rebel-held North prompts less angry emotion in the South than Japan's claim on the disputed and singularly useless Dokdo Islets.
Our own sins can be repented of, but the attack on our faith by the infidel must be repelled with all the fury we can muster.
And in drawing this analogy, I include the hypocrites in the congregation. While service to the nation is preached from the pulpit, it cannot really be forced. Thus, while many acknowledge the virtue of sacrifice, they in fact, through the routine avoidance of military service, for example, clearly put themselves and their families ahead of national interest.
The nationalist, devout or not, accepts the existence of other nations. In fact, he believes that the way the world is presently structured, around the nation-state, is how it should be.
Each state has an instinct identity, he thinks, not because someone drew a line in the sand, but because there is a meaningful distinction, be it values, history, culture, language and less acceptably, as in the case of Korea and Japan, race.
What he doesn't realize is that these distinctions are not always that real, as evidenced by the fact that the nation is a rather new idea, historically speaking. These days, when a stranger introduces himself, he might say, "I am Italian." But, not so long ago, he would have said, "I am a trader."
The benefit of the nation-state is that it has allowed modern humans to broaden their identity from their clan and tribe to a larger geographical entity.
If you accept that the desired and inevitable goal for human development is one harmonious middle class family of mankind, nationalism can be interpreted as a necessary phase along the way.
It does of course have its unhealthy aspect, such as when psychopaths take power. But the way the entire inhabited globe, minus the poles, is partitioned into nations, protects us from domination by any one tribe, which is a good thing, even when that one tribe could be yours.
The British Empire got close. One hundred years ago, a person in London could feel he lived in a globalized world. Such was the impact of British rule that he could, the economist John Maynard Keynes once said, "Order by telephone, sipping his morning tea, the various products of the whole Earth, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep.
Militarism and imperialism of racial and cultural rivalries were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper.
What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man when that age which came to an end in August 1914."
Because of the world war, Britain was, fortunately, unable to maintain its empire and reassumed its position as a country among others.
But globalization is happening 100 years later because countries see it as in their interests. Not all countries take part.
Saudi Arabia came last of 122 countries in the 2008 Index of Globalization by a Swiss consultancy called KOF.
North Korea, which jails people who express a desire to leave its embrace, and even executes some who do and are sent back, was not even included in the study.
Given the voluntary nature of globalization, nations will almost certainly choose to retain their identity, long after it is no longer necessary, as today in most of Europe, because people like it that way. They have an attachment to country even if it's just for a football team to support. No one will force them to give up what they don't want to give up.
This prediction that nation-states will survive may also include iffy cases like Taiwan and North Korea. In a globalizing world, it is possible China may cease to care that much whether Taiwan calls itself a province or a separate country. The re-establishment of a single Korea seems inevitable from a historical viewpoint, but less so from another perspective.
South Korea already opposes unification with the North (although it's expressed as a preference for a "gradual" ― ie, not on my watch - process) for the same reasons that it is globalizing ― in the better interests of its people's economic and social wellbeing.
For its part, a post-communist North is hardly likely to insist on becoming the poor cousin of a new Unified Korea.
If it can be achieved painlessly, when North Korea is on an economic par with the South, Koreans may obey the ancestral urging and opt for unification. Or they may remain like Wales and England ― basically the same country but able to field different rugby and football teams.
Other countries, or parts of them, may yet disappear because we are not yet a world at peace and nation states still have their own armies and the will to engage in warfare.
So, if the nation state remains with us in a globalized world, what will it look like?
That question begins to answer itself when you look at what globalization brings. With the technological changes of recent years, and in particular the arrival of the Internet, and the way that every literate person has suddenly become a typist ― a specialized job a generation ago ― communication is greater than ever.
We get more interconnected every day. We hire, buy, and outsource across borders as a matter of course. We fly for business to Tokyo and Dubai and on holiday to Bali and Switzerland.
In Europe now, there is unrestricted movement of EU nationals. A Hungarian can move to Belfast for work and take a mortgage on a house in Spain as easily as an Irishman or a Spaniard may do.
As countries develop, we can envisage such ease of movement increasing. The border guards will melt their passport stamps into ploughshares.
As this process continues, countries will become like states of the United States, most of which are large country-sized areas which have their own laws although are overridden by federal laws that forbid, for example, the introduction of tariffs.
Or, in other cases, they may become like counties with a state, with a signpost, a slogan, a county council responsible for garbage collection and other services and a leader whose name most citizens don't know.
So, where is this all headed? World government? If Europe is any measure, people don't like governments and don't like the idea of a world one, and certainly not a president of the world.
Politics attracts people who are drawn to manipulate as much as they are inspired to lead, and given this, their numbers are best kept to a minimum. The last thing we need is children dreaming of one day being president of all mankind and practicing on their classmates.
The chances are that the types of international bodies that we now see, like the World Health Organization, will take on greater global roles. There will almost certainly be a global currency. And, if our prayers are answered, global security forces replacing national armies and engaged in disaster relief, policing and so on, with levels of decision-making down to the local levels.
That is a difficult issue and one that the Europeans, who lead the globalization charts, haven't got to yet.
Nationality will still provide us with an identity but it will almost certainly have a weaker hold. And, nationalists take heed, as nations have been so much trouble in our modern history, that would be a good thing.