Heonik Kwon

The Other Cold War

...the global cold war also entails the unequal relations of power among the political communities that pursued or were driven to pursue a specific path of progress within the binary structure of the global order. 2

...the history of the cold war is increasingly about a particular power structure of domination, invented and realized along the bipolarization of modernity, rather than singularly about the contest of power waged between opposing versions and visions of modernity. 4

The biopolarized human community of the twentieth century experienced political bifurcation in radically different ways across societies--ways that cannot be forced into a single coherent conceptual whole. For nations in Europe and North America, the history of the cold war meant a "long peace" distinct from the previous era, in which these nations were embroiled in the mass destruction of human lives. But for many new postcolonial nations elsewhere the onset of the cold war meant entering an epoch of "unbridled reality" characterized by vicious civil wars and other exceptional forms of political violence. 6

Gaddis believes that the bipolar structure of the world order, despite the many anomalies and negative effects it generated, contributed to containing an overt armed confrontation among industrial powers. As Walter LaFeber notes, however, this view of the cold war speaks a half-truth of bipolar history. The view represents the dominant Western (and Soviet) experience of the cold war as an "imaginary war," referring to the politics of competitively preparing for war in the hope of avoiding an actual outbreak of war, but the identification of the second half of the twentieth century as an exceptionally long period of international peace would hardly be intelligible to most of the rest of the world. The cold war era resulted in forty million human casualties of war in different parts of the world, as LaFeber mentions; how to reconcile this exceptionally violent historical reality with the predominant Western perception of an exceptionally long peace is a crucial question for grasping the meaning of the global cold war. 17

If the bipolar conflict involved a mass destruction of human lives, its wounds may still be vigorously alive in communal existence even though the superpower contest of power is declared over and done with. 18

The United States maintained a distance from the rising white-supremacy claims made by South Africa's National Party during the second half of the 1940s, considering these claims to be in line with the politics of the Nazi regime against which it had just fought a major war. When a war broke out in the Korean Peninsula in 1950, however, this view changed, and the Harry S. Truman administration, concerned primarily with the preservation of stability in the non-Communist world, decided to support Pretoria and subsequently became what Thomas Borstelmann calls "apartheid's reluctant uncle." (38)

Because of its refusal or inability to embrace the known forms of postsocialist transition, North Korea has earned the references frequently made to it as a reclusive, isolated, and anachronistic political entity, unable to shake off the political ethos of the cold war era and therefore incapable of joining postsocialist developmental steams. Prominent in the domestic political arena of North Korea, however, are issues of colonial and postcolonial history: the history of armed resistance activity in Manchuria against Japan's colonial occupation of Korea and northeastern China by the region's displaced population of Korean origins in the 1920s and 1930s as well as the sublimation of this history as the founding episode for the constitution of North Korea's political order in the postcolonial era. (51)

This Western experience of the cold war was more about the fear of mass annihilation of human lives than about the reality of mass death and displacement. If we attend to bipolar history elsewhere as well as herewith and include it in the experience of violent political confrontations within local and national communities, which is what the global cold war actually meant in much of the world in the past century, the political bifurcation of the human community and the moral polarization of death become closely interrelated phenomena. In the history of the global conflict in the latter sense, communities were driven to select politically "good death" from other war death and extract an ideologically coherent genealogy out of the enmeshed history of violence across the ideological border. 99

The epic heroine Antigone met death by choosing family law over state law; in contrast, survival for many families in postwar South Korea meant following the state's law and thus sacrificing their right to grieve and seek consolation for the death of their kinsmen. The state's repression of the right to grieve was conditioned by the wider politics of the cold war. Emerging from colonial occupation as one of two divided and hostile states, the new state of South Korea found its legitimacy partly in the performance of anti-Communist containment. Its militant anti-Communist policies included making a pure ideological breed and containing impure traditional ties, and they engendered the concept of unlawful, nonnormative kinship. In this context, sharing blood relations with an individual believed to harbor sympathy for the opposite side of the bipolar world meant being an enemy of the political community as an extension of the individual. Left or right in this political history was not merely about bodies of ideas in dispute but also about determining the bodily existence of individuals and collectives. 114

Looking at the wider context, we cannot think of the history of right and left without thinking of the history of mass death. Both right and left were part of anticolonial nationalism, signifying different routes toward the ideal of national liberation and self- determination. In the ensuing bipolar era, the ideas of right and left transformed into the ideology of civil strife and war, in which achieving national unity became equivalent to annihilating one or the other side of the body politic. In this context, the political history of right and left is not to be considered separately from the history of human lives and social institutions torn by the distinction, nor is "the new kinship" after the cold war to be separated from the memory of the dead ruins of this history. 116

If nationalisms in the rest of the world have to choose their imagined community from certain 'modular' forms already made available to them by Europe and the Americas, what do they have left to imagine? History, it would seem, has decreed that we in the postcolonial world shall only be perpetual consumers of modernity. Europe and the Americas, the only true subjects of history, have thought out on our behalf not only the script of colonial enlightenment and exploitation but also that of our anticolonial resistance and postcolonial misery. Even our imaginations must remain forever colonized. ---Chatterjee from The Nation and Its Fragments, quoted in Kwon, p. 125

Europe in the second half of the twentieth century was not the same entity as the Europe we know from colonial history, and the transition from one to the other was coincidental with some of the most violent events experienced in Asia and Africa. Whereas decolonization and political bipolarization were concurrent processes in much of the non-Western world and the violent postcolonial struggles took place within the context of the cold war, the scholarship of postcolonial criticism relegates the political history of the cold war to an analytical void. As a result, it fails to place in proper historical context both its critical aim of cultural decolonization and the main object of hits cultural criticism---European political modernity. 130

Although the circumstances in which the massacres in South Korea in 1948-50 took place were somewhat different from the circumstances of the Indonesian experience, they, too, speak to the fact that the viability of postcolonial states in bipolar geopolitics was determined according to the quality of their performance in anti-Communist militancy. The diffusion of the "American way" to these places, in contrast to the equivalent process in the West, involved the proliferation of physical coercive measures and related incidents of mass civilian killing. Understanding the culture of the cold war, therefore, calls for a theory of culture that embraces the contradictory manifestations of the cold war construction, not for a language of culture and power that is incapable of accounting for the vfolent side of bipolar history even when describing a region that suffered a notable episode of such violence. 149

If the global cold war was both an imaginary war and at the same time a generalized experience of political terror and mass death, we need to tell his history accordingly, inclusive of the seismic death events experienced by communities, rather than considering the latter only perfunctory, marginal episodes in an otherwise peaceful, balanced contest of power. The general concept of the cold war resists this effort, but we must not allow this deceptively named struggle for power to continue to deceive us and to shield us from seeing that it left behind countless dead, many of whom are still unaccounted for. The end of the cold war, therefore, signifies much more than the end of a particular political order. It means an end to the traditional way of centering this political order on the paradigm of imaginary war; it means revitalizing the semantic struggle against the dominant meaning of the cold war and beginning to think of it in an alternative, more modern way, free from a hierarchical center/periphery composition. 157