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Living with Two Nations Under One Roof

07 January 2013

I am presenting this small piece on the following assumptions: I do not believe that the unification of Korea will be possible in the near future. Nor do I believe that it would be desirable if its cost were high in terms of human sacrifice. The two societies have already evolved so apart from one another that it will not be possible for them to come under one roof for a very long time. The structures of power have also become so deeply entrenched on both sides that one cannot imagine they could be fused together peacefully. The best we can hope for is that the two sides will be able to create a regime under which they can coexist in peace like ordinary neighboring countries.

This, however, will not be possible either given the present predicament governing relations between the two Koreas. This relationship is dominated by what I call the “dynamics of adversarial duo,” a vicious and fatal rivalry to claim a common patrimony, the Korean peninsula. They are bound to each other, “neither separate nor united.” Each is a threat, either potential or actual, to the other in war or in peace, in exchange of fire and of good will. The very existence of the South is a threat to the North and vice versa. At present, the threat of the North is mainly a physical or military one while the South’s way of life is threat to the North with its relative superiority in wealth and its freedoms.

Foreigners often suggest that Koreans lack a culture of compromise, a sentiment that is often met with enthusiastic agreement from Koreans themselves. I remember reading a similar opinion in a memorandum drafted by the Research Department of the British Foreign Office toward the end of the World War II. Prepared jointly with the US State Department, the paper recommended trusteeship in Korea after its liberation based on evidence that Koreans tended to be divisive among themselves and that they had no experience running a modern state. Looking at things prima facie, at present, this seems to be true even today and the country remains divided long after all the other divided countries of the world have been reunited in one way or the other over the last half of the 20th century.

Above and beyond this, divisions in South Korea alone remain a deep-seated problem: Whatever the appellations may be, they run not only along socio-political but also regional lines, between the left and right, progressives and conservatives, east and west. Are Koreans really condemned to chronic internecine bickering whatever the cause and cost may be?

Is this state of affairs peculiar to Korea alone? Is a so-called national consensus possible or even desirable in a liberal, democratic country? Is it possible to achieve a unity of opinions for any purpose? Is there a practical formula around which a nation can organize a consensus? We need also to dwell on what are the concrete plans to overcome this division. Mere awareness of the problem or constant breast beating will not lead us to any practical results.

Division within a nation is not, of course, a phenomenon unique to Korea. There are many nations divided along manifold lines, interests, ideologies, ethnicities, histories or emotions. There are cases in which these divisions have led to armed conflict. Politics structured on a regional basis is also a phenomenon known in many other countries. In fact, division is so ubiquitous in human society that it is almost the norm in any modern society. National unity as a rule is an exception. Differences, however, do exist among nations in how they deal with the problem and come up with a workable response. Actually, the record of creating a basis of national consensus in Korea has not been all that bad, particularly during the past ten years.

The regional conflict between east and west, rampant during the authoritarian period, has been eased, if not completely resolved, thanks largely to the election of a politician from the west as President. In the last government, in particular, the Republic of Korea noticeably expanded its basis of legitimacy thanks to the political ascendency of those who had been largely excluded and even persecuted in the process of its foundation and subsequent development.

Relations between North and South did take a qualitative turn through a process of reconciliation initiated by the so-called Sunshine Policy. In the area of low politics, a national consensus seemed to have been forged, easing the hostility and rancor accumulated over half a century. What is required now seems to be further consolidation and development of that opening made through good leadership and a set of sensible policies.

It has also been proven through experience that differences within a nation and ensuing conflicts do not necessarily lead to a negative result but can be eufunctional to whatever system the country may have or even conducive to positive results. I have shown on a different occasion how the inveterate conflicts between North and South Korea did lead to positive developments in the latter.

Liberal democracies have devised a certain practice, a combination of legal, cultural and customary arrangements, to reach a workable consensus out of a multiplicity of arguments without resorting to repression or distortion. I believe that a national consensus is something any nation should actively seek, particularly in times of problems with grave importance to everybody. This consensus, of course, does not mean that it is based on a numerical totality—which is neither possible nor desirable. We could call it a national consensus if a nation can, for instance, pursue a certain line of policies with a concurrence of the majority, particularly among those who hold significant influence in society and without serious resistance from within. There are historical instances in which attempts at national consensus have been successful: national governments in pre-War Britain and the so-called Butskellism in the post-War period, bipartisan foreign policies in the US lasting through the Cold War until the Vietnam conflict.

The irony of the problem, however, is that the greater the underlying general consensus, the bigger the chasm of division and the more intense the conflict becomes. Customarily, everybody would agree on the desirability of world peace, but the difference and even conflicts among people run deep on how to achieve this. The same would be the case with the unification issue of Korea.

On another note, even if there is not a “national consensus,” serious divisions within a society can be addressed, for example through an active spirit of dialogue. Often we find people with sincere intentions are not capable of approaching any problem in the spirit of dialogue. The more they are convinced of their own righteousness, the harder it is for them to listen to others. They deal with anybody with a different perspective in an eristic way. However, as Andre Gide once remarked, the “mind would be deflected, if it heeded, or if it were allowed to hear, only one of the two voices of the dialogue.” Most of the problems in this world, particularly the weighty ones, have many faces that do not allow a single simplistic solution. There is not only room, but also a dire necessity for people in opposing camps to heed each other.

How should we achieve a national consensus on the problem of reuniting the nation under one roof? We need first to admit that, despite a fervent aspiration, we have so far failed to properly address this issue. Whenever I hear or join in singing of the song every Korean knows, “Our wish is unification, even in our dream….” I do so with a mixed feeling of sympathy and chagrin. If it is our national wish to be united why can we not do it? The main difficulty is, I think, that we have approached the problem mainly in political terms. Politics involves conflicts, power struggles and even hegemonic pursuits between contending parties. In politics there is “us” and “them.”

I have argued for a long time that the unification of Korea should be a human rather than political agenda. Instead of the focused quest on uniting two state systems, we should aim at improvements in the concrete conditions of human beings, that is, improvements in the quality of life in areas such as food, education, medical services or availability of wider range of alternatives on anything. We should also seek to enhance the standard of morality among people to the best of our ability.

We should be able to work out a set of goals based on this principle in pursuit of unification. It is undeniable that even a human agenda calls for a political avenue to implement its measures. However, if there is a consensus on the objectives identified to help reunite the nation, the politics will ultimately have to follow the same track. I am not one of those who are persuaded by the maxim that political power comes out of the muzzle of gun. I believe that political power comes from the will of people, from how tens, hundreds or even millions think and feel.

Glancing through some historical precedents, we find that political unification of a nation did not necessarily lead to happy outcomes when it was done for the sake of fukoku kyohei, putting either national glory or power and prestige of the state ahead of human welfare. In such cases, creating a unified country turned out to be pyrrhic in the long run in terms of concrete welfare or the moral standard of a nation. Achievements in politics proved to be a human disaster.

The Sunshine Policy, in this sense, was a sensible approach to dealing with the age old and dangerous division on the peninsula. However, there may be a couple of issues that would need to be addressed if such a policy were to be repeated: One is its strategic implication. The name of the policy is said to have been derived from an Aesopian fable. There may be a suspicion on the part of people in the North Korean regime that the policy is actually a device to bring about changes in their system, undermining its foundation, following precedents in the former Eastern European countries. There may have been some people in both Koreas who took the Sunshine Policy as a strategic concept to bring about unification through a so-called spillover effect from low to high politics. By the same token, I would not be surprised to learn that there are people in the North Korean regime who have thought of countering it to their own advantage, ultimately to realize unification on their own terms. This is tantamount to a continuation of the high politics of conflict under the guise of reconciliation.

In this vein I have argued from the very beginning that the word “sunshine” should be divested of its Aesopian implication and, instead, find its origin and inspiration from a phrase in the Bible according to which it is argued that sunshine benefits everybody regardless of whether one is “right” or “wrong.” Also according to an interpretation of li-zeh in I Ching, the sun is described as “shining in the sky cherishes, enriches and nurtures every creature on earth.”

Second, and more importantly, the Sunshine Policy was predicated on an assumption that if North Korea could achieve a certain level of economic development through exchanges with the South, then the time might be right for both sides to enter into a political arrangement to have a loose kind of unity on the peninsula. Unification is ultimately to come through upgrading the extent of this political unity step by step. I, for one, cannot but harbor a nagging doubt that those in the North Korean regime would really like this approach since in each phase of development in North-South relations the North is necessarily in an inferior position.

Kim Dae-jung made the strategic nature of the Sunshine Policy clear in a public speech delivered at a meeting arranged by UN ESCAP. He explained that communist regimes change through opening and persist when isolated. When communist countries were open, the people became aware of what was happening in the outside world and realized that they were “brainwashed” by their governments. This would ultimately lead to the collapse of the regime. I wonder how those in North Korean regime took this message.

Going back to a point made above, I believe that there were perceived threats to the North in each step of significant progress made by the South in the past, namely the land reform at the early stage of the Republic, the decision to go into heavy chemical industries in the 1970s and the democratization of politics starting from the end of the 1980s. Thanks to the progress made in economics and politics, the South could launch its Sunshine Policy through which the whole nation might ultimately benefit.

Can we glean any insight at this juncture into the future of national unity from historical experiences? Can we stake the future of our nation on a scenario of development in North Korea—a scenario of pursuing a path different from that which the South has followed? If only for our own cerebral exercise, I put forward a small proposal.

We all know that one of the greatest aporia facing mankind is sustainable development—how we can pursue development without damaging our environment. Failure could threaten our very existence. Green development is now the talk of the world, particularly of the first world. However, I am skeptical that there can be any noticeable progress in the near future among countries that practice market economics together with liberal democracy. Any achievement in one area will be offset by a necessity in the other. It seems to be extremely difficult for a government, which has to mind its popularity and worry about employment and productivity, to push a policy likely to damage the popular concerns hic et nunc.

The North Korean system, however, seems to be well suited to meet the challenge, but only if the regime is prepared to turn its handicaps into advantages. The lack of enough fertilizer may offer a good chance to try organic or natural farming. The lack of energy may be a condition favorable to developing green energy for which North Korea is well endowed. Also the regime has strong leadership that can pull the country through despite hardships on the part of the population. The whole country will have to be prepared to go through difficulties. However there is a good chance that it will emerge in a decade or two at the top level of the world in terms of green development and also as a model of sustainability. On a national dimension North Korea will guarantee the future of Korea as South Korea has done for decades.

Despite vicissitudes in relations between the two Koreas, whether sunshine or cold wind, the basic predicament has remained the same since its division more than half a century ago. Both sides want to unify Korea on their own terms. The background or the setting of the stage may have changed over time. The South has recently been trying an economic, cultural and ultimately political approach while the North has been left with only one card still in its hands, the military. Any approach to peace and stability will be vain and barren if it does not address this basic dilemma. The ideas I have expressed are hopefully an opening toward a dialogue for resolving the tragic conflict in which the nation is locked.

I need to state a caveat. A sine qua non will be genuine cooperation between the two parts of Korea. The North will require support, both hard and soft, from the outside world in which South Korea will have to play a major role.

Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.