Questions People Ask Me (And I was too lazy to answer again so I sent you here)
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Answer 1. Do (South) Koreans Really Want Reunification?

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Photo source: Yonhap News (Feb 22nd, 2014)

Short answer: No.

To be precise, it’s “Don’t really care“, not “Don’t want”. Reunification doesn’t carry the note of passion it used to in my parent’s generation – back then, if you were asked “Do you want tongil?”, and you said no, you were a complete treacherous, unpatriotic, heartless brat. But now, we’re too busy thinking about other things, the memories of having once been a single nation are fading, and most of all, Koreans most definitely do not want to carry the economic burden reunification will entail.

Despite the avid propaganda from the South Korean government – Reunification will allow us to tap into the North’s invaluable mineral resources, we will gain direct access to cheap and disciplined (disciplined, for lack of a better word…) labour force, we are of the same blood and are one people – People’s enthusiasm has grown thin with the crazy outbursts of “We will see Seoul burst in flames if you don’t give us what we want and respect us” tantrum repertoire from the Pyongyang Kims. And not all Koreans are able to draw a line between the North’s regime and its people, who have no choice but to be part of the propaganda game.

This month’s family reunion was covered thoroughly by the media. Over the course of 5 days (20th – 25th), South and North Korean families met long-lost family members and relatives. There were more applications from the South, given that the North’s life expectancy is shorter and the applicants’ age (most are now in their 80s and 90s). In fact, one South applicant met her relatives while on a gurney and on an IV drip, and this meeting is seen as the last opportunity for these relatives to ever meet, given their age as well as the fragile South-North relations of recent years.

The reunion was more strained than previous meetings, with the North stationing officers at each table, and propagating that North leader Kim Jong-Un’s ‘grace allowed this event to happen’. One South journalist’s entry into the venue was delayed, when the North’s computer check-up revealed his laptop contained a North Korea human rights document.
The North has earlier postponed this reunion, and the rescheduled meeting was met with uncertainty, with the South-US military drill overlapping the course of the event. The first planned event was canceled when the South and North were unable to reach an agreement on the venue.

However, it is worth noting that for the younger generation of separated families, communication is possible. Many defectors who have settled in the South find ways to contact their remaining family members, and to even send remittances. Some will even try to buy brokers to smuggle their family into China or to a third country, via which they will make way to the South eventually.
While the older separated families were seen shouting “Let’s meet again in a reunified Korea” at February’s reunion, the younger generation’s answer would probably be “Let’s just, you know, meet in South Korea”.

Although citizens are supportive of the reunions, and would like to make them a regular fixture, this enthusiasm does not extend to reunification itself. When the Korean War ended, the North had it better off than did the South. The South’s industry and infrastructure were destroyed, it was not blessed with natural resources as was the North. Things looked bleak. Then our grandparents and parents rebuilt Korea as it is today, and we’re the generation that is just about to truly benefit from it. With the dictatorships, the coups, and the non-existent democracy, what did grow was the economy. Shipbuilding, Heavy industries, Chemicals, Textiles… These were all industries subsidised in one way or another by the government. And out of these grew the chaebols, undeniable agents of nation-building and post-war reconstruction, despite all their wrongdoings (poor labour conditions, blocking market entry, exploiting small and medium-sized companies…to name a few).

So, now that the economy is finally stable (Korea did not receive much immediate impact from the 2008 crisis), and that a true democracy is in place (with the first democratically elected civilian Kim Young-Sam assuming office in 1993), it’s time for us to benefit from this time of peace and prosperity. We’re not ready for yet another upheaval and economic downturn.

The biggest rationale for reunification – the emotional one – is running dry, and the economic arguments are met with rebuttals. “We can go to Vietnam, or India, or somewhere else for cheaper labour” “We can import better minerals from elsewhere” “The costs of reunification will outweigh the little benefits they offer”.
Oh, and the constant comparison to the German model – that’s no longer taken as a valid parallel now. Too different circumstances, and too long a separation.

There are many speculations as to what will happen if reunification did happen. For instance, one possibility is that the North’s population will be integrated into an underclass, given their naiveté towards the outside world, as is observed in newly defected North Koreans, and as was the case for East Germans.

As the remaining separated families keep ageing, the emotional glue to reunification will keep running thinner. And as the dictatorship is handed down from father to son, the North becomes more isolated than ever, despite the obvious proof it cannot sustain an autarkic regime. Maybe we’re all just too used to this moratorium of events.

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2 Comments

  1. This post resonates so strongly with everything I’ve read and heard (both from Koreans and non-Koreans) regarding unification. Thank you for elaborating and sharing your insights.
    In contrast to the modern South Korean attitude, the reunification sentiment is crazy strong in the North.

    • Emily Singh says

      Hi Sarah! There’s a passage I’ve just read in Hyeonseo Lee’s “The Girl With Seven Names” which summarises NK’s pov on reunification: “Many of the songs we sang were about unifying Korea. […] we were told, South Korean children were dressed in rags. They scavenged for food on garbage heaps and suffered the sadistic cruelty of American soldiers […]. I desperately felt sorry for them. I really wished I could rescue them” (Chapter 4, The Lady in Black).

      A similar sentiment existed during my parents’ generation, that the North Korean people must be rescued and so on, so it really was both sides thinking the other must be emancipated.

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