Pursuing regional peace
Looking over Sinuiju from Dandong across the Yalu River, I felt overwhelmed. My maternal grandparents had lived in Sinuiju until the liberation. My grandfather left his hometown when the Soviet army occupied the area, and during the 1950-53 Korean War, the family had to flee Seoul and took refuge in Busan. Then they could never go back to their hometown. What would they have felt if they could come here? Thinking about my late grandparents made me emotional.
I regained composure and looked across the river once again. North Korea was closer to China than I had thought. It felt within reach. The plains of Hwanggeumpyong Island, which turn golden in the fall, connect North Korea to China. Having lived in the southern half of the peninsula for so long, it hadn’t occurred to me before that Korea is connected to China and the continent. I now understand why China says “Teeth can’t live without lips” about the Korean Peninsula.
Looking at North Korea from the Chinese side of the river, I was reminded of various events. King Seonjo of Joseon contemplated whether to cross the river while being chased by the Japanese army. Then the Ming forces crossed the river to drive out the Japanese. After liberation, Mao Zedong’s army was pushed back by the Kuomintang army of Chiang Kai-shek and crossed the river to plan a counterstrike. During the Korean War, the People’s Liberation Army was pushed to the river by UN Forces and reorganized on the other side.
Soon, Peng Dehuai led the Chinese People’s Voluntary Army back across the river. The Yalu River has a history of discord, confrontation, peace and reconciliation between Korea and China, Japan and the United States. The river tells us that the fate of the Korean Peninsula has been defined by relationships with neighbors.
Looking over Hwanggeumpyong Island next to China, I thought about how reunification is more than Korea’s business. The political changes in the Korean Peninsula would affect China just as closely as the physical distance between China and North Korea. The same goes for Japan. And despite the desperation to reunite with a separated brother, obsessing over nationalism will not bring reunification. Then An Jung-geun came to mind. The Korean independence fighter was a visionary ahead of his time. After assassinating Ito Hirobumi in Harbin, he explained that the act was not just for the independence of Korea but for peace and prosperity in East Asia. His grand vision is what we need for reunification today. We need to emphasize that reunification is not just about reuniting a divided people, but about a universal opportunity for peace and prosperity in East Asia.
In fact, we can look at the reunification of Germany in the same way. When the time for reunification came, if Germany had considered it a chance for glory, the Allied nations would not have allowed reunification. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was skeptical about Germany’s reunification, and French President Francois Mitterrand famously said, “I love Germany so much that I prefer to see two of them.” But Germany consistently stressed the meaning of reunification within the frame of European integration and peace in Europe.
Until now, the discussion of inter-Korean relations and reunification have focused on nationalism. We mostly talk about how strong a reunified Korea will become economically and militarily. Ungrounded anticipation for the sudden collapse of North Korea or reunification by absorption are also based on a narrow perspective of the Korean Peninsula.
If we really want reunification, we need to deviate from narrow-minded nationalism and persuade our neighbors how important it would be for peace and stability in East Asia. Korea’s unification policy and North Korean policy need to shift direction to pursue more universal values and meaning for the future as well as the special circumstances between North and South Korea.
As darkness fell over the Yalu River, the difference between Chinese and North Korean territory became hard to distinguish, just like the complicated and difficult history and relationship between the Korean Peninsula and its neighboring countries.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 4, Page 29
The author is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.
by Kang Won-taek