[Outlook]The lines that bind

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[Outlook]The lines that bind

Koreans have more or less the same memory of our first impression of Switzerland. When we were elementary school kids, we were fascinated by beautiful pictures of it on calendars.

But our fantasy about the European country was shattered in our middle school days, when we learned about the world’s geography. As Switzerland is a landlocked, mountainous country, we felt that the Swiss must have felt stuck living there.

Meanwhile, an old married couple who had been separated for half a century - with one in South Korea and the other in the North - finally met briefly. Their conversation went like this: “When can we meet again?” “When the South and the North are reunited.” “You have to stay alive until the Koreas unite!” All Koreans are familiar with this kind of scene.

These two stories seem unconnected, but they are in fact deeply related. The tales demonstrate the typically parochial, limited perspective of Koreans.

In both stories, Koreans mistakenly believe that political borderlines cannot be passed. As Koreans have shared the same history within the geographic limits of the Korean Peninsula, we tend to believe that other areas and other people must be similar. Such thinking stems from our unique history, in which we have become accustomed to putting too much emphasis on political borders.

Switzerland has no ocean borders. But the people of Switzerland have no restrictions when they want to go to the North Sea or the Baltic Sea through France or Germany. If they go over the Alps they can reach the Mediterranean. The Swiss do not feel stuck, despite the fact that their country is landlocked, just as residents of North Chungcheong Province, who live under the same geographical conditions, don’t feel stuck living there.

It’s actually we South Koreans who feel stuck because we can’t travel anywhere outside Korea by land. The routes are blocked by a truce line that is not even an official border.

The borders of most countries in the world are not strictly protected around the clock by iron fences and troops, as our truce line is. Conflicts are one international constant, but not many regions have neighboring countries caught in disputes over borders or truce lines.

But on the Korean Peninsula, relations between the two Koreas have been exhaustingly hostile, even though there has been no hot war for 60 years. History textbooks in the future will certainly describe the current situation as bizarre.

When my son was in elementary school, he got some homework about why we need to reunify the country. When he asked me, I told him several different reasons, just as any other parent would.

Koreans had shared the same country and the same history for thousands of years. We are of the same ethnicity and we share a language. If the two Koreas are reunited, tension will be resolved and military spending will be cut.

But while my child wrote down these answers, I wondered whether these points were really good enough reasons to make reunification absolutely necessary.

There are many countries that have multiple ethnic groups. In other cases, one ethnic group is sometimes scattered in multiple countries.

Even if people speak the same language and share the same history, they can be citizens of different countries. Multiple cultures or multiple nationalities often make up federal states. It is very rare that the arbitrary political concept of the state puts restraints on people’s movement, as it does in Korea.

We need to change our point of view and accept that people of the same ethnicity forming two countries is a natural and universal phenomenon. If we agree on this, we can focus more on easing [inter-Korean] hostility and increasing exchanges.

The South and the North can remain separated as two different countries. We can just turn the truce line into a border between friendly countries.

Would that prolong our separation? No, it would actually help us to achieve reunification sooner. If all parties are happy, the two countries can remain as two separate states. If we want reunification, we can reunite the countries later on when the time is ripe.

The first thing to do is to scrap Article 3 of the Constitution that states, “The territory of the Republic of Korea shall consist of the Korean Peninsula and its adjacent islands.”

It is nothing to be ashamed of if the following sentence appears in future history textbook:

“Korea had formed a single nation for thousands of years after its foundation, before it was split into two states with different ideologies and regimes in 1948.”

What we should be ashamed of is another sentence that could follow:

“After that, the South and the North continued their antagonism and hostility for decades, not engaging in exchanges with each other and banning people from traveling to the other country.”

*The writer has authored books on humanities and social issues. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Nam Kyung-tae
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