Redefining the communityAnother year draws to a close, although this year-end feels unusually heavy and unsettled. North Korea’s execution of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of its young leader Kim Jong-un, was a grim incident that cast the darkest of shadows over the prospect of unification of the Korean Peninsula. Aside from the enduring worry that the North’s totalitarian system of brutality managed to survive until the 21st century, our concerns grow deeper about the pathological phenomenon of North Korean society, with which we will eventually have to live with.
To create a unified country, social integration is an absolute must. Inside the perimeter of the Korean Peninsula, the Korean people have lived together for thousands of years. What guaranteed our identity was one culture, one language and a spirit of community that springs from a single bloodline. It is not possible to ignore the idea of social integration while thinking about the unification of the two Koreas because it has been the tradition of our political culture to highlight the unity rather than the differences between the two countries and their people.
As a result of the superpowers’ secret negotiations, a legacy of the imperialistic era, we were forced to separate. Amid the global ideological conflict of the cold war, the two Koreas established two separate government systems. We, then, experienced the biggest tragedy in our thousands of years of history - the 1950-53 Korean War.
Two historic turning points coinciding with the end of the cold war - the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the German reunification - gave us a strategic opportunity to move forward to achieve a peaceful unification.
In the fall of 1989, amid the fever and excitement of democratization, the South Korean people’s sentiments were united and the National Assembly adopted the bipartisan “Unification Plan for the Korean National Community,” which served as an opportunity to reconfirm the tradition and integration of the racially homogeneous country.
The plan was designed to achieve peaceful unification through mutual existence and cooperation of the two government systems under the umbrella of a single Korean community. The plan appeared feasible as the two Koreas adopted the Basic Agreement and the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and joined the United Nations at the same time.
Unfortunately, however, North Korea ignored the efforts of its Communist allies such as Russia, China and Vietnam to join certain currents in world history, particularly adopting a market economy, and instead chose extreme isolation, dismissing the potential development of the Korean community. Furthermore, it chose to develop nuclear arms to protect its unelected regime, prompting an urgent crisis that now threatens not only the international community but especially the immediate security of the Korean people.
The past 25 years has been a period of radical progress in globalization. South Korea, after hosting the Olympics and the World Cup games, emerged as a leader in globalized politics, economics and popular culture. In contrast, the North fell behind in globalization with its policy of extreme isolation, becoming an outcast from the international community.
As a result, the North’s social and cultural gap with the South and the international community became more dangerous than ever and the possibility of unification vanished, making the Korean Peninsula danger zone. This is why we can no longer wait to fundamentally reinforce the strategy of the Korean community’s unification.
Most of all, we must redefine the relationship of the Korean community to the global community. We must also redefine the relationship between the Republic of Korea, a democratic nation-state, and the Korean community, which focuses on single-race nationalism.
We came to reconsider the idea that a member of the Korean community will automatically become a citizen of the Republic of Korea after unification. Identifying the positions of the Korean diaspora in 175 countries from around the world will be a tricky question.
When we adopted the “Unification Plan for the Korean National Community” in 1989, it was the national opinion that the Korean diaspora wouldn’t be a serious problem because of our racial homogeneity. But 25 years have passed and we face a need to clearly define the political and legal status of the millions of ethnic Koreans living overseas because preparing a legal process for social integration to accommodate unification is not a simple task.
We have long maintained the belief that “blood is thicker than water.” But the spirit of a homogenous race cannot be effective anymore in today’s Korea, which actively embraced the concept of a multi-ethnic society, or tomorrow’s Korean community. We are already moving forward on a path for the Korean community and unified Korea that is open, democratic and globalized. The New Year will mark the 25th anniversary of the adaptation of the “Unification Plan for the Korean National Community,” and we must use it as an opportunity to redefine the new spirit of community.
*The author, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Hong-koo