[OUTLOOK]We aren’t one ― not anymore

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[OUTLOOK]We aren’t one ― not anymore

The August 15 Grand National Festival for Self-Reliant and Peaceful Unification has ended. Various measures for reconciliation and cooperation between South and North Korea have been announced, one after another. The removal of propaganda from the Demilitarized Zone has been completed; the Yellow Sea naval hotline has been put into service; Sangam World Cup Stadium was filled with thousands for the friendly North-South soccer match, shouting the slogan “We are one.”
The climax of the reconciliation was Pyongyang’s drastic decision to have its delegation visit the National Assembly in Yeouido and the National Cemetery. Those visits, both firsts since the division of the peninsula, represent a qualitative leap forward in the relationship between the Koreas.
There is still dispute over what Pyongyang’s real intentions are. But we should not be stingy in interpreting these recent gestures as an extension of the inter-Korean summit of 2000. As North Korea goes through a serious systematic crisis, Pyongyang has no choice but to try various measures to overcome the crisis in whatever way it can, and it is good that it is improving inter-Korean relations in doing so. The trends before and since the festival deserve to be recognized in the context of the quest for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
But what is important here is that we not be swayed by emotion. The dynamics of international politics on the Korean Peninsula at the time of the Korean War, which frustrated North Korea’s military adventurism, proved that unification is not a one-time event.
The North Korean economy, which surpassed that of the South until the mid-1970s, has collapsed, and only the empty shell of juche socialism remains today.
While the rivalry between the systems seems already to have ended, the structure of that rivalry has not changed much, even now, in the early 21st century. The geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula have structurally held back the sort of unification in which one side absorbs the other. That’s why the North Korean nuclear crisis has not exploded physically, even as the tension over the North’s nuclear program has escalated.
Of course, the best scenario would be for the Koreans to overcome their division themselves. But the North, despite its past claims that it would grow into a mighty nation, faces simply maintaining its system as its foremost task. And in the meantime, the South seems to have gotten lost on its way to becoming a fully developed nation.
A more serious problem than the economic one, however is the complete social and cultural divergence between South and North that has developed over the course of more than five decades apart.
There is little mutual ground to be found between the people of the South and the North, not just in political ideology, but in lifestyle and values. The people of the Korean Peninsula have shared a language, an ethnic lineage and a history since the Silla Kingdom, but the fact that we are no longer one was symbolically confirmed in the recent tearful unions of separated families by video conference.
The deep chasm between North Koreans, who seem to finish every conversation with “at the instruction of the late Great Leader and the teachings of the Dear Leader,” and the South Koreans, for whom democracy and capitalism have become natural, cannot be bridged simply by the fact that we have family names in common. The emotional assertion that we are the same people will not broach our solemn and very real divide once the brief festivities of tears and excitement are over.
Even after meetings and ex-changes have become far more frequent, the absence of a shared lifestyle and shared values will be likely to make a rushed unification more a disaster than a blessing. This is no mere hypothesis. The unification of Ger-many has proven to be more a failure than a success, not just in economic terms but in terms of social integration. This verified precedent is an important lesson for Koreans to absorb.
The constant emotional and theoretical debates over unification do not touch on the specifics of how we should achieve unification, or what kind of unification we want. But those are the most important questions.
We need to review these key points: Will South Korean citizens compromise principles of democracy and the free market for unification? Will North Koreans give up juche socialism for it? Or can both sides make concessions and pursue a mutual convergence of some kind?
The so-called “third way” of unification, which is preferred by many people, sounds convincing but would be futile in reality. Liberal democracy and juche socialism are two ideological systems that by nature cannot coexist.
If we indeed hope for unification, we should refrain from indulging in an excess of unification rhetoric. The premise “we are one” is surely beautiful. But it will only have meaning once we have acknowledged that it isn’t true yet.

* The writer is a professor of social philosophy at Hanshin University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Yoon Pyong-joong
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