South Korea harbors unification heresy
By Andrei Lankov
One of my former students runs a Korean-language blog. Recently, he wrote an
entry dealing with a touchy issue related to Korean unification. Among other
things, he mentioned the obvious decline in enthusiasm for unification among
younger South Koreans.
In no time, one of his South Korean readers came out with an explanation for
this unfortunate trend. The reader said that this decline was clearly a result
of a propaganda campaign waged by the South Korean right. According to this
comment, it is the right-wing media that has secretly nurtured anti-unification
sentiment among youngsters.
Around the same time, I was attending a conference sponsored by a major
right-leaning think tank in Seoul. One of the
presenters, a professor of well-known conservative persuasion, spoke about the
same trend, with a great deal of emotion and passion. But his explanation was,
understandably, quite different.
The professor argued that it was the left-leaning press that is working hard to
crush the pro-unification tendencies of South Korean students - hence the loss
of interest in unification among students.
This might be seen as a perfect - albeit somewhat comical - example of
political finger pointing. But these two episodes also reflect an important
peculiarity of present-day South Korea. The enthusiasm for unification is
withering away, even though neither of the two rival ideological and political
camps is happy about this seismic change.
The change is clear both from anecdotal evidence and public opinion polls. In a
recent survey conducted by the Peace Research Institute, respondents were asked
whether they see North Korea as the same state and North Koreans as their
In regard to the first question, 44.1% chose the following response: "In the
past North Korea was the same state, but now I am beginning to feel it as a
different state." In regard to ethnic solidarity, a majority (52.9%) said that
they still perceive North Koreans as their ethnic brethren, but the second most
popular (30.2%) response was: "In the past they were our ethnic brethren, but
now I am beginning to feel that they are foreigners." And an additional 9%
said: "North Koreans are as foreign as Chinese."
Just 15 or 20 years ago, such replies would have been virtually unthinkable.
Every good, patriotic Korean, regardless of his/her views on other subjects,
was supposed to be an ardent believer in the glory of unification.
The reasons behind this sea change are easy to see. For the younger generation
of South Koreans, North Korea has long become an almost irrelevant place. When
at least half a million North Koreans starved to death in the 1990s, the
disaster had no impact on the lifestyle of South Koreans whatsoever.
At the same time, their economy took a severe blow from the Asian financial
crisis in the late 1990s. Nations are indeed imagined communities, but this
imagination must be supported and nourished by shared common experience - and
in the case of divided Korea, such experience has been lacking for many
Personal connections are all but gone. Meetings of the "divided families"
(families which were separated as a result of the division of Korea) might make
a good show of cooperation, but only a tiny fraction of the divided families
can take part in these highly publicized exercises. The vast majority of
divided families members have not heard anything from their relatives in the
North since at least 1951.
Virtually nobody in South Korea has any illusions about the sorry state of the
North Korean economy. In the 1980s, the more radical elements of the South
Korea's political left somehow persuaded themselves that North Korea was a
social paradise of nationalist purity, social justice and class equality.
This fantasy collapsed in the late 1990s, when the South Korean public -
including the leftist/nationalist intellectuals - was exposed to the grim
realities of modern North Korea. Nobody can deny nowadays that the North is
very much what the anti-communists once claimed: a destitute country, run by an
authoritarian regime, with a malnourished population and decaying
This realization of North Korea's destitution came at a time when reports from
Germany demonstrated how difficult and expensive a unification with a communist
state might become. In Germany, unification happened under much more favorable
circumstances, but it still dealt a heavy blow to the German economy. So it
began to dawn on many South Koreans that unification would likely bring
This has resulted in a new, skeptical attitude to unification which is clear
not only from public opinion polls but also from private interactions with
younger South Koreans (such a skeptical attitude is especially common among
people in their 20s and early 30s).
Lip-service to unification is still paid by a majority of Koreans, but more
frequently than not, the obligatory statements about a need to achieve
unification are followed by remarks about the preferability of a long-term,
well-prepared unification process, which might and probably should take many
decades. Most of the time these caveats essentially mean: "As a good Korean I
cannot say that I am against unification, but I clearly would prefer for this
wonderful event to not take place in my lifetime."
However, a closer look at the Korean situation reveals one important
peculiarity. Even though this skeptical view of unification seems to be
becoming increasingly prevalent - among the younger generation at least, so far
no political party or public figure has voiced such concerns openly and
explicitly. This means that growing anti-unification sentiments cannot find
open expression in the discourse of both left and right.
One should keep in mind that South Korea is a country where ideological divide
is remarkably strong. The left and right has a number of ardent supporters and
cannot agree on pretty much anything. Their unceasing and quite emotional
debates have determined the political life of the country for decades.
Nonetheless, the idea of unification as the overriding national goal is shared
by both left and right, even though they passionately disagree on how this goal
can be best achieved.
To a very large extent this unity is the by-product of ethnic nationalism which
plays such an important role in the ideology of virtually all politically
significant South Korean parties and groups. Ethnic nationalism implies that
all Koreans not merely share one language and one culture. According to the
nationalist mythology, they also share one blood and ideally should live in one
The Korean right largely consists of the ideological disciples of the
right-wing nationalists who in the 1940s founded the South Korean state. They
are strident anti-communists of the Cold War mold. In the past, they saw North
Korea as an area which came to be dominated by a nefarious clique of communist,
anti-nationalist traitors on the Soviet and/or Chinese payroll. According to
their mythology, South Korea is the only legitimate Korean state, whilst the
suffering North Korean brethren wait to be liberated from the brutal communist
In the course of time, the ideological virulence of the right has diminished
considerably - and perception of the North Korean rulers as foreign puppets has
disappeared almost completely. Nonetheless, the South Korean rightists cannot
bring themselves to accept that the North Korean regime has any legitimacy, and
they would like to see it overthrown or replaced. The desirable outcome is, of
course, absorption of the liberated North into the triumphant South.
The South Korean left was reborn in the 1980s, having been brutally suppressed
from the late 1940s onwards. Many - but by no means all - the South Korean
leftist leaders are former student activists who played a major role in the
popular resistance to the military dictatorship in the 1980s. At the time these
people acquired a serious allergy to the then official ideology of the ruling
military junta, which was anti-communist and pro-market. Back in the 1980s,
many of them were briefly enraptured by all things North Korean, and for a
while even were open admirers of Kim Il-sung's official ideology (this ideology
can best be described as a peculiar mixture of Stalinism and nationalism).
In the prime of their youth, many of would-be leaders of the so-called
"progressive forces" (this is how the South Korean left loves to describe
itself) briefly believed that South Korea should undergo a popular revolution
and then unify with the North, in order to essentially emulate the North Korean
system (back then they still had an almost comically rosy picture of the
North). These illusions proved to be short-lived - at least among the majority
of the mainstream left. Nonetheless, residual sympathy towards North Korea and
a reflexive rejection anti-communism have remained coda for the entire left.
The left dreams about unification through the gradual improvement of ties with
the North, which would allegedly eventually lead to "mutual understanding" and
"disappearance of all barriers and hostility". They see North Korea's
government not as a bunch of tyrants and traitors, but rather as legitimate
major partners in the future unification process.
Nonetheless, unification is probably even more central to their ideology than
to the ideology of the right. For the left, unification would mean the recovery
of Korea's lost dignity, which was allegedly defiled by the competing
superpowers in the 1940s and military dictators in the 1960-1980s (they are
silent about far more brutal and ruinous dictatorships of the North).
This unusual unanimity on matters related to unification silences dissenting
voices of younger South Koreans. It might be just a mild exaggeration to say
that over the last few decades, South Korea has been quietly developing its own
distinct national identity, which is clearly different from that of North Korea
and probably does not include North Koreans as part of the same imagined
But the precepts of ethnic nationalism remain deeply ingrained in the competing
ideologies of the South, and this makes it almost impossible for an
anti-unification discourse to emerge at the present time. Talk of the
desirability of delayed unification is clearly an indirect way of challenging
the dominant discourse. But it is still seen as a grave political heresy to
express such ideas in a direct and explicit way.
Yet times are changing. Taking into consideration South Korea's circumstances,
such changes in opinion seem to be unavoidable. It seems likely that sooner or
later a public figure - probably some maverick personality on the political
margins - will dare to say openly what has been thought secretly by many young
South Koreans and openly express doubts about the need for unification.
But I would not expect this to happen for a while. The ingrained and continued
power of ethnic nationalism, combined with well-established traditions of left
and right and ideological conviction of the elder generations are too
formidable a force to be challenged at present.
Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul,
and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacific and Asian
Studies, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State
University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea.
He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.
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