The International Writers Magazine: North and South Korea
is inevitable and desirable.' This is the official line in South
Korea. The vast majority of the citizens in the democratic South
will tell you that it is only a matter of time before it merges
with the authoritarian Peoples' Democratic Republic in the North.
The vast majority believe and agree with the statement too, however,
there are a growing number of (usually young) people who are have
growing doubts about the costs of the promised land of one Korea.
On the surface,
you would be hard-pressed to notice this change of attitude. The World's
student games came to the South in August 2003 and Kim Jong-il, the
diminutive dictator in Pyongyang, sent a bevy of beautiful cheerleaders
along with his athletes. In the stadium, the ladies would shout, 'we
are' and the rest of the stadium would scream excitedly,' One!' The
next chant was 'Our nation wants,' and the locals at Daegu replied,
The American volleyball team, supposedly in the land of a close ally
were shocked to be roundly booed when they faced the North Koreans.
This attitude did not come as a surprise to many of the now 34,000 American
troops based here (reduced from 37,000 in the summer of 2004 and set
to be reduced by a further 9,000 by 2008) who have seen a rising tide
in Anti-Americanism especially among the young.
The seemingly frivolous uproar in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, when
an American speed skater, Anthony Ono, in Korean eyes, cheated their
Korean hero, Kim Dong-song out of a gold medal was only a sign of things
to come. In June 2002, an American military vehicle crushed two Korean
schoolgirls to death. The perceived arrogance of the American military,
the acquittal of the men involved and the apparent lack of remorse for
the victims dominated the Korean Presidential Election of December of
the same year. The candidates were not slow to use this feeling for
political gain, even in the midst of the emergence of the North's nuclear
Pyongyang's admission caused concern in the South but not in all sections
of society, as the US has become more unpopular, North Korea's popularity
is rising. Some young people have a (sometimes not so) grudging admiration
for the North. There is a sense of familial pride in the fact that the
Communists are willing to stand up to the Americans, in contrast to
the puppets in the South who merely follow and accept whatever Bush
fact that there are a million North Korean troops lined along the
border and thousands of missiles standing by to turn Seoul into,
'a sea of fire' as graphically and famously illustrated by a high-ranking
official in Pyongyang, has not dampened the enthusiasm for all things
north of the De-Militarized Zone (the DMZ, a misnomer of ever there
was one) the most militarized zone in the world.'
It is obvious from
talking to young people in Korea that they, on the whole, are fairly
well-disposed toward North Korea. The feeling of pride coupled with
disappointment at their government's constant compliance with America
means that Korea's oldest and closest ally is less popular than its
oldest and most dangerous enemy. There is a sense of sullen teenagers
rebelling against their parents but the stakes are extremely high.
In contrast with the more radical youth, the older generation are much
more favourably disposed towards the United States. These are the people,
or the children of those who fought alongside the G.I.'s against their
northern brethren during the Korean War. Still, they believe that unification
is a 'good thing' and has to happen These are the people who worked
all the hours God sent to create a prosperous country in the then military
dictatorship of the South, Ironically, it was this effort and ensuing
economic success that could prove to be the barrier to unification.
The twentysomethings in Seoul and elsewhere may sometimes admire and
respect their cousins in the North but that doesn't mean they want to
live with them. The huge economic gap between the two countries is the
problem but even with the south's prosperity, not all is bright on the
economic horizon. Korea's economy continues to be sluggish, with the
forecasts for growth in 2004 now predicted to be a disappointing 4.6%
by the IMF in September, due to weak domestic demand. The same body
revised its 2005 forecast for Korea downwards; from 4.8% to 4%.
Jobs, especially for Korea's legions of graduates, are becoming more
and more difficult to come by. The obvious question that is being asked
in the universities, offices and bars in Seoul and was rhetorically
put to me by Kun Hye Park, a 26 year-old office worker was 'it is difficult
enough to get a job, why invite 22 million poor Koreans to compete with
It is not only the job market that is the concern. Simply put, the feeling
amongst younger South Koreans is that the country could not afford to
pay for the costs of unification with its destitute neighbor. This concern
is shared by everyone, but is seen as a sacrifice worth paying for many
older people, not so for the young. Basically, there is a growing feeling
that the South has too much to lose. It has worked and worked its way
up to be the 11th largest economy in the world, now is not the time
to jeopardize that position. Comparisons with German unification are
frequently made and Koreans are familiar with the problems Germany has
had and is still having.
The comparison is a slightly erroneous one. There are important differences
between the German and Korean situations. Firstly, the economic gap
between the two Koreas is much wider than it ever was between East and
West Germany. Secondly, Korea is simply not as wealthy as West Germany
was. Thirdly, unlike the DDR and the GDR, there is a total lack of contact
between the North and South. Nobody really knows what goes on in the
Stalinist state and the reverse applies even more.
Adding to the mutual ignorance is the erosion of emotional ties between
the two countries on the divided peninsula. Within the next 20 years,
all those who remember a united Korea will disappear. The language the
two nations speak is also different. Apart from the now inevitable differences
in accent and dialect, thousands of English words have crept and are
still creeping into everyday use in the South. Not so in the North,
the use of English words is forbidden. There is a government ministry
to change English words into pure Korean ones. There while 'coffee'
is 'coffee' well, 'kopi ' in the South, in the streets of Pyongyang
you would ask for a 'ssun mul ' literally 'bitter water.'
The citizens of the two Koreas are becoming more and more different,
this divergence will only widen in the future. What is the answer? 'We
don't want the North to suddenly collapse,' said Kim Chong-min, a 28
year-old engineer from Seoul. 'That is the worst-case scenario, millions
of people would head to Seoul, looking for work.' Not the ideal situation
for one of the world's most crowded cities to deal with. Kim went on
to describe the ideal path to unification, one I had heard many times
before. A gradual opening up of the secretive North, massive investment
in the infrastructure and businesses so the gap narrows. Then a version
of China's 'one country, two systems' strategy for Hong Kong, followed
by eventual unification. It certainly sounds good but won't it be expensive?
'Of course,' replies Kim, as his friends earnestly nod in agreement
over their beers, 'but America will help.'
© John Duerden
Nov 24th 2004
johnduerden at hotmail.com
Cool in South Korea
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