Is reunification a choice?
Recently I led a discussion about the future of Korea and the challenges of unification in my class at Kyung Hee University. When I asked students what the proper road forward for Korea might be, one declared with great confidence that he did not feel those of his generation would chose unification, especially in light of the exorbitant costs reported in the media.
I thought for a long time about that student’s comment after the class and wondered whether perhaps many Koreans assume history offers us such choices. I believe that we have choices in terms of our response to destiny, but we may never have a choice between unification and division.
The best known saying about unification is to be found in the preface to the Chinese historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Samgukji in Korean), an epic relating the competing visions for unification at the close of the Han Dynasty: “Any state that has been divided for a long time will inevitably come back together; any state that has been unified for a long time will inevitably split apart.”
The implication is that the unification and division of nations are phenomena driven by larger historical and geopolitical factors and that they are ineluctable in nature. It would more accurate to say that we have a choice between a successful unification and a failed unification; there is no choice about unification itself.
The process of unification on the Korean Peninsula has already begun. North Koreans are being drawn into the global economy regardless of South Korean or American policies. The privileged of Pyongyang travel to Beijing and Moscow to purchase luxury goods and are entirely capable of acquiring foreign reserves and even opening accounts through which they can invest around the world, including in South Korea, without being easily detected. China also is investing in North Korea on a large scale and making that economy more integrated with the world.
In sum, economic and financial integration between the North and South is slowly taking place under the radar. And we have every reason to believe that indirect economic interaction, although not immediately visible, will continue.
So also are the ideological distinctions between North and South crumbling. Whereas 20 years ago it was obvious who was a North Korean from his clothes and expressions twenty, that distinction is becoming blurred. The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s words, gestures and outfits do not seem all that different these days from what you might find among youth his age in Beijing or Seoul. As the party and military of Pyongyang are transformed from a machine driven by communist ideology into an entrenched oligarchy pursuing simple financial benefits, we can expect the blurring of cultures and values will increase.
If the process of integration between North and South takes place only in hidden places, off the record and in secret, we run the risk that such integration will not be recognized or guided by policy makers and opinion leaders. The danger then will be that the two countries will be drawn together toward reunification by criminal and secretive elements of society, rather than by the proper government and private sector institutions.
Such a trend ultimately would result in a reunification, but a tragic and undesirable form of reunification that would set Korea back 100 years. We must acknowledge that if we refuse to recognize the reality of unification and fail to come up with viable solutions for the difficult task of achieving a cultural and institutional reunification, that refusal to respond would not mean the process of unification would slow down. It would only mean that we are flying blind.
Clearly, the North and South are divided by a DMZ that blocks communication and makes direct exchanges between people nearly impossible. But we should not assume the DMZ is the only wall in Korea. Divides are emerging in South Korea and in North Korea that split people into economic classes and ideological cliques incapable of coming together as a community and unable to agree on a common future, on a common agenda. These are invisible DMZs that creep up in all corners of our society, barriers that erode the historic sense of community that drove Korean development in the 1960s and ’70s.
In a worst-case scenario, we could end up with a Korea that is unified in terms of the flow of money and goods, but also one in which a new economy emerges that is invisible to us, not controlled by the government and not documented by the media. If it is such invisible forces that bind us together, unification would be accompanied by a tremendous fragmentation in our society at every level.
There also is a scenario in which both North Korea and South Korea are drawn together not by the intentions of Koreans themselves, but by the development strategies of Chinese, Russian or other foreigners who are investing now in both countries. If Koreans cannot articulate for themselves an overarching plan for how the peninsula will be reunited, the peninsula will be brought together piecemeal through the plans of those who are already investing in both North and South for their own purposes.
We need to achieve unification at every level in our society, and to reaffirm that we are all equal citizens, that we share common values and are committed to helping each other. If we fail to come together in the South - and in the North - as a community, as a common culture, that does not mean that the current economic integration will be halted. Rather, the inevitable reunification could end up profoundly exploitative and negative with the DMZ resembling something like the militarized border between Mexico and the United States, a sad failure to achieve cultural unification between two nations linked economically and politically at the highest levels.
The time has come for us to accept the inevitability of reunification and focus our attention on the concrete steps that will be required to make that process successful. If we do not focus on coming together right here and now in the neighborhoods of Seoul or Daejeon, economic reunification will continue to progress, whether we want it or not. But that unplanned, thoughtless reunification will be accompanied by a radical fragmentation of our entire society.
*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.
by Emanuel Pastreich