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The International Writers Magazine
: North and South Korea

Reunited Korea
John Duerden

'Unification 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, 'Unification!'

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 program.

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 tells them.

The 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 us?'

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

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