The National Security Law in South Korea and its implications for a future re-unification process of the Korean peninsula – what has been learned from the German history?

The National Security Law is nothing but a shame for the South Korean people. It is obvious that its application is highly arbitrary. Under a more liberal government between 1998 and 2007 there was much less prosecutions as compared to the now ruling government. 

Article 7 and 10 of this law are willfully organized in such a way it can be applied to a lot of very different cases. A materialistic analysis of the legislative process reveals that, although the legal system and its functioning is in part owned to a internal system logic, laws are the outcome of historical struggles between different factions of society. 

The laws which exist today remind us of past social struggles and balances of power in the past. In the case of the NSL it is easy to understand its genesis from the history of South Korea with its right wing military dictatorships and the international pressure from the USA on the security system of South Korea. 

Although it is true that the laws we have today are results of past social struggles, it is not easy to understand why certain laws still exist in the present as they are subjects to current struggles in the larger society today, too.

Regarding the NSL it is not easy to understand its existence today as it is not sufficient to explain that it might fulfill certain functions for the increasingly authoritarian Neoliberalism in South Korea. Not so long ago South Korea was governed by a fairly liberal government for nearly a decade, from 1998 to 2007. It was worldwide acclaimed for its “Sunshine” policy towards North Korea, but internally there was much less reason to cheer as the NSL was not abandoned or at least changed to the better.

The main question is: why has a supposedly liberal government not changed this law, which abolition is so central for the genesis of a real liberal civil society? The liberal government was in fact a coalition government with a smaller conservative party a partner. While the main party focused on the liberalization of the economy the smaller party stood in the way of any change to the NSL. Why has a conservative party, which represents the oligopolistic factions of the South Korean capital let the economy being liberalized, which means an attack on the material power base of the capitalist, but concentrated rather on the “superstructure”?

The answer might be that the conservative forces in South Korea have learned something from the German re-unification process. Capitalism is not only about a profit generating process on the market, but it is embedded in a wider social structure which has its own repercussions on the capitalist economy. 

What might be is that the oligopolistic factions of the South Korean capital have learned their lesson well from the German re-unification process which was in fact rather a neo-colonial incorporation of the former socialist East Germany.1 

Each actor, may it be an organization or a person, has a hierarchy of interest which are pursued according to this hierarchy, starting with the most important one.2 As this hierarchy differs between actors and as the interests which are actually pursed by these actors change with time we can see differences in the room to maneuver for the different actors. 

If one actor is, due to its concentration of interests of the higher order in its hierarchy of interests, does not concentrate, due to lack of resources or perception, on objects of lower urgency the room to maneuver is enlarged for other actors to achieve gains in exactly this object area. If we describe the actor constellation in the government coalition under Kim Dae Jung we learn something about the importance of the superstructure in capitalist societies. 

As we can presume that conservative actors in a capitalist society naturally tend towards the defense of capitalist interests it does quiet astonish that obviously they rather defend a special law, in our case the NSL, than market related topics. We can only assume that the prevention of contact between progressive actors in North and South Korea is more important for the hegemonic block in Seoul, than securing the oligopolistic structure of the market. Why than is this law so important?

Left parties are the natural opponents of any oligopolistic capitalistic structure. For that reason they are the main targets of political action of these capital factions. The main argument of this article is that the NLS is a tool in the hand of the conservative forces of South Korea to prepare their room to maneuver vis-à-vis the progressive forces in South Korea in the case of a future re-unification with the North. 

The basic point is very simple to understand. It is very easy for the capitalists to organize the environment according to their needs. They need a small state administration to secure a stable legal system and well educated workers. In a small and open economy like South Korea there is not even the need for adequate wages, as the domestic market is far too small for the sale of the nationally produced goods anyway. 

It is far more complicated for workers to organize themselves. The divisions between different industries and branches, different knowledge based systems, cultures, income and habitus – all this makes it very complicated for workers not to end just as a mass of people, but as a class for itself.

The situation of the German left is an example of these problems. It recent history began in the 1980s when reformist socialists in East Germany perceived the fact, that the development of socialism in East Germany had come to a dead end. The basic idea of socialism as naturally being a democratic process was being betrayed by the ruling communist elites in East Germany. Small circles of reformists started a complete “overhaul” of what socialism could mean in the 21st century3

After reunification the ex-state party became one of the three major parties in East Germany. In West Germany there was no radical left party at the time. When the German green-red government initiated neo-liberal reforms in the labor market between 1998 and 2005 ex-social democratic trade unionists founded a small left party in West Germany4

In 2007 the East German socialist party (PDS) merged with the West German new left party (WASG) and they formed the new left party “Die Linke”. This party was founded under sever time pressure so that there was no chance for having open discussions about common perceptions of challenges and possible solutions. 

Although the party is pretty successful in bringing up new topics in the public discourse there exist internal fighting between different factions. There are of course material reasons for these differences inside the party, as the social background of the voters and party members are very different in East and West Germany, but there are also ideological differences which could be worked out in a fair and open debate5

This takes time as the different groups have to come together and to start a real open discussion about their self-perception, about their own background before they can come to common conclusion how to (re-)act vis-à-vis the political opponents. The internal division of the German “Die Linke” is one of the greatest obstacle to become more successful.

We can learn from the current problems of the left party in Germany that political success of left parties are at least partially based on an open minded debate inside the party so that the party can avoid infighting. The function of the NSL is to prevent the progressive forces of the Korean peninsula to come together, to learn about the other, to learn and to respect the differences between the groups. 

For good reasons one can say that the NSL is not a “thing of the past” but is a tool in the hands of the hegemonic block in South Korea to prepare for a future re-unification. It aims at enlarging the room to maneuver for the conservative forces by hindering the progressive organizations to learn about each other, to build up mutual respect, which would be the first step for building up a common left party in a re-unified democratic and people centred Korea. 

Roland Kulke

1Elsenhans; Lange: The Transformation of the Eastern German University System, Incomplete Colonization and Reform Blockage, The Example of the University Leipzig, in: Garcia-Zamor (ed), Bureaucratic, Societal, and Ethical Transformation of the Former East Germany, New York, 2004, pp 67-102

2 Elsenhans, Hartmut, 1997: Handlungsspielraum, in: Albrecht; Vogler: Lexikon der Internationalen Politik,pp. 203-205.

3 A short introduction to some of these aspects: Dieter Segert: Maintaining socialism by reforming it – GDR discourses in autumn 1989,

4 On the neoliberal reform agenda of this government, Elmar Altvater: The Red-Green Paint Comes Off, 23rd July 2005,

5 Cornelia Hildebrandt: The Left in Germany,

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