The tale of Two Koreas

The Winter Olympics this year (2018) has given rise to some magnificent spectacles, not only for sports fans but also for an event that is of enormous political significance: the visit of Kim Jong-Un’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong, as the North Korean (NK) representative to South Korea (SK). The historical tensions between the two Koreas are well-known and ongoing, and this has been particularly prominent in 2017 due to the continual pressure exerted by the US to curb NK’s nuclear development and military preparations. While these figureheads continue their war of words and provocative actions, one wonders just what the common people think of all this, especially the North Koreans who are secluded in the most repressive and isolated state in the modern world. It is common to find negative connotations of NK, both its government and its people, in the West, since they are sworn enemies of the US and have publicly declared pre-emptive military action in the form of nuclear warfare. It would be natural to extend this impression to the people of NK who are widely portrayed as ignorant and uneducated due to their economic deprivation and hence the biggest obstacle towards the long overdue Korean reunification. It is therefore unsurprising to find people in the West believing that South Koreans are civilised and peaceful whereas North Koreans are hostile and, in essence, evil, like their current and past leaders. There are many logical fallacies in all this stereotyping, which lies at the core of today’s media whose truthfulness is always in question. Furthermore, there is actually evidence to suggest that North Koreans may actually want reunification equally as much as, if not more than, South Koreans do.

It is perfectly reasonable to expect North Koreans to desire reunification, since their living conditions are so dire that staying in the same place should be the last thing they would want, and this would explain the very high number of defections (successful and unsuccessful) from NK to SK and beyond (e.g. China). Also, recent polls have shown that the majority of South Koreans, especially the younger generations, actually refuse reunification, which is a dramatic turnaround from the first ever polls back in the early days before the Korean War. The reasons for refusal are manifold and reasonable, as many South Koreans are cited as fearful of the economic and social consequences of reunification, given that NK is dramatically poorer in every aspect of life than SK, and so even if reunification is a romantic idea from a patriotic point of view, the practical and realist complications somewhat outweigh such sentiments in many South Koreans’ minds. Furthermore, societal prejudice against North Koreans in SK is well-documented, since although the SK government provides rehabilitation to all (surviving) North Korean defectors, it is not at all the case that defectors reach paradise in SK by crossing the boundaries at the risk of death. In fact, many North Koreans lead a very harsh and lean existence in SK (and probably much worse elsewhere where they do not even speak the language), since they are demoted to low and poorly paid jobs and their northern origins, which are very discernible from their distinctive accent, immediately dash all hopes of respect and acceptance in South Korean society. The sociopolitical situation in Korea, therefore, could be quite different and much more complicated than most people think.

There is one fairly recent episode which is particularly revealing in this regard. When the previous ruler of NK, Kim Jong-Il, passed away in December 2011, there was a high level of political tension in SK, since while NK went into national mourning, SK went into military alert for fear of unexpected actions from the North. However, there is an incident which is widely known in SK (and probably in NK) but poorly broadcast in the West, and that is the No Su-Hui incident in 2012. No is one of the leading figures in the South Korean reunification pan-alliance, and it so happened that he crossed the boundary and sneaked into NK in order to pay his respects to his North Korean counterparts for their recent loss of their dear Leader. This was badly received by the SK government who immediately issued No’s arrest as it was illegal for South Koreans to visit NK without governmental approval for reasons of ‘national security’ (see my last post on this). No’s return to SK has been captured by the Associated Press, and in it we see No exchanging warm gestures of farewell with his North Korean comrades as he re-entered SK just before he was about to fall into the hands of SK police force. No even shouted chants of national reunification which was widely reverberated among the North Koreans. As they were waving their flags of a unified Korea (as seen in the Winter Olympics), No was forcefully arrested and carried away by the SK police, to which the North Koreans shouted abuse in fury. After the incident, several members of the North Korean brigade were interviewed on the spot and they all expressed gratitude to No for his kind visit and were critical of the South Korean government whom they labelled as the main obstacle to their much-desired reunification. From this perspective, it seems that North Koreans are much more hospitable (and much closer) to visitors from the South than people think, whereas the South Korean government, who are renown for being vigilant, suspicious and hostile to the North, come across as the ‘bad guys’ in the thorny issue of Korean reunification.

There may be many reasons for why this interesting episode is not widely covered by mainstream Western media, since it reverses political allegiances by making NK come across as friendly and SK as hostile. Nonetheless, there is good evidence in addition to this that the common people of NK welcome reunification much more than their southern compatriots, since the latter, given their economic, technological and cultural superiority, seem to look down on the former, which is indeed a major social issue in contemporary South Korean society (see Park Yeonmi’s publications for more first-hand evidence). On the official level, the NK government certainly comes across as hostile and obstinate in inter-Korean affairs (or that is how they are portrayed by Western media), but the people’s desire for reunification should be beyond doubt, even if there are those in the South who may not want it. All eyes are now on the Korean peninsula as the world prepares for the dismantlement of the last political and military border of the Cold War. It is cultural tragedy that a common race of people should have been divided arbitrarily by western powers, which has led to so many needless conflicts, assassinations and tensions, but practical complications aside, I think the whole world would welcome the reunification of Korea, not only because many Koreans (especially those from the North) need it very badly, most (if not all) of them seem to want it equally badly too.

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Langley Henry

Langley Henry is a postdoctorate Research fellow in political science at St John’s College, University of Cambridge after having done his undergraduate (Politics, Philosophy, Economics (PPE)) and postgraduate (Political Science and History of Western Thought) degrees (B.A., M.Sc., DPhil) at Balliol College, University of Oxford. He is the author of several essays that have been published in peer-reviewed journals and is now working on publishing his Oxford doctoral thesis as a monograph with Oxford University Press. Other than his academic work, he is a keen blogger and has written on contemporary and historical political topics as well as on western contemporary music.

Email: humanlangling@gmail.com

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