Friday, January 06, 2012

Kim Jong-Il's Death - Bonus Question: Do South Koreans Care About Reunification?

Dear Korean,

I heard B.R. Myers on a radio interview recently. His idea of the biggest threat to the regime is something like this:
"The biggest risk to the regime is that the North Korean public is growing increasingly aware that the South Koreans basically just don't care about the North. The regime has convinced through propaganda that the North needs to sacrifice and lead difficult, poor lives so they can one day kick the Yankees out of the South and reunify. But here's the problem. The South doesn't actually hate America. The South doesn't want to live under the North Korean leader (whoever it is). The South really just has no interest in reunification and is scared of the costs. And the North Korean public is very slowly realizing this."
How convincing does the Korean find this argument? Is North Korea a subject that most Southerners are not particularly interested in? Whats your take on this argument?

Corey N.

This question was in the comment section of an earlier post. Against his questions policy, the Korean will feature this question because it is quite relevant to the current situation. The Korean thinks that, as knowledgeable about North Korea as Prof. Myers is, he is slightly overstating his case.

Let's take this question in stages -- the first level is: do South Koreans care about North Korea?

This is not to say that Prof. Myers is doing this, but it is very easy to misinterpret the way South Koreans feel about reunification. From an outside point of view, one may fairly surmise that South Koreans must think about North Korea constantly, every day, all the time, because North Korea presents such a huge existential threat to South Korea. But when faced with reality, South Koreans rarely think about North Korea because there is not much more one can do other than ignoring the danger to some degree. The situation is not unlike post-9/11 New York, where New Yorkers were able to continue with their lives despite living with the possibility of another horrendous terrorist attack. And often, outside observers over-interpret this type of indifference into something more.

But this is a mistake -- the fact that South Koreans do not constantly talk about North Korea and plan their lives around North Korea does not mean South Koreans do not care about North Korea. In fact, South Koreans care a great deal about North Korea. To give a reference point, South Koreans (as a whole) care more about North Korea than Americans  (as a whole) care about gay rights. North Korea is a huge social issue in South Korea such that a lot of South Korean public policies revolve around North Korea and a lot of bright South Korean minds are focused on how to deal with North Korea.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

If we accept that South Koreans generally care about North Korea, the next question is -- do South Koreans want reunification about North Korea?

On this question, the answer is somewhat subtle. The fairest way of characterizing the sentiment would be that South Koreans are conflicted, but slightly leaning more toward wanting reunification. At the level of the general public, there are sincerely held sentiments going both ways, and both ways are quite reasonable. South Korean public believes in Korean nationalism, and thinks that the tyranny in North Korea must end through reunification. At the same time, South Korean public is genuinely worried about the potential chaos and cost following the reunification.

But the critical next question is -- does this South Korean public ambivalence matter? Finally at this point, the question is not a matter of facts, but of opinions. And here, the Korean believes that it does not matter that much, because of the reason that the Korean pointed out in an earlier post: Korea is a leadership-oriented society.

Again at the level of general public, there is genuine ambivalence about reunification. On any given day, depending on the circumstances, that ambivalence can tilt more in favor of or against reunification. But there is no meaningful group of people who strongly clamor for reunification right away, nor is there a meaningful group of people who vocally oppose reunification. In such a situation, it is very important to focus on the sentiment toward reunification at the leadership level, not at the general public level -- because it will be South Korea's leadership that will determine the direction toward which South Korea will head.

South Korea's leadership (i.e. politicians, journalists, professors and other opinion-makers) by and large reflects the public's ambivalence. But importantly, at the leadership level, there is a group of people who are vocally in favor of reunification. On the other hand, there is no group of people at the leadership level who are sincerely opposed to reunification. At most, there may be some leaders who express deep concern over the cost of the reunification. In this type of situation, South Korean public can be persuaded to favor reunification, despite their reservation.

And that is pretty much exactly what is happening now. Although there may be moments when the South Korean public feels negatively about reunification, such negativity almost never percolates to the leadership level such that there is a sustained movement away from reunification. That may happen in a decade if North Korea shows no sign of change and the generation of young South Koreans who knew North Korea only as a nuisance come of age in the mainstream Korean society. But as of now, such movement is not there. Given this, Prof. Myers' point that South Koreans "just don't care about the north" or that South Korea "just has no interest in reunification" is an overstatement.

But the Korean is willing to give Prof. Myers a benefit of doubt. Perhaps the overstatement was because it was a radio interview, in which one can be a little more hurried with word choices compared to a written work. And at any rate, South Korea's interest in North Korea is not Prof. Myers' main point. His main point is that North Koreans' realizing the true conditions of South Korea presents a threat to the North Korean regime, because it weakens the regime's propaganda that says the people of South Korea are constantly looking toward North Korea to be rescued from the imperialistic wolves from America. And that much is most certainly true.

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  1. Having broached this issue explicitly both with my wife's family and with our friends, and also to a lesser extent with smaller classes over years, I've noticed something akin to what you narrate. I've had this conversation repeatedly as friends introduced boyfriends, because all my friends know I'm a soldier, so they prepared the answer out of respect for me. But, I've always considered "I support unification, because we are Korean." a bit of a throwaway response that I had to follow up with harder questions. It always leads to frustration, because the opinions begin to vary. At the end, everyone tends to agree that they don't want it to happen because it would cost all of us money. As for the strongly anti-unification, my parents-in-law have taken me to some creepy conservative groups explicitly opposing unification.

    But, as to a lack of popular direction in a leadership society, I guess I have more faith that South Koreans would mobilize against any government call for sacrifice. I can't point to any anecdotal evidence, except that in recent years I've heard most students complain that North Korea is a problem for the older generation that they don't care about, much like taking English and an alliance with America..

  2. Aw, gee, this sounds really plausible. However.

    It is the official position of the South Korean government that reunification is the goal. This has always been true. Okay, it may be just words on paper. But, still. There it is. Yeah, the disagreement is over how it will happen. The question of how is possibly more important to most than the question of when.

    There are elements of the extreme left that simply hate America and are happy that NK has nukes and fret every day over the dire effects of American beef on Korean children. There are some among the extreme right who think that flying balloons that will drop leaflets or passing meaningless legislation about human rights abuses will have some positive effect.

    Most Koreans I meet, if you ask them about the people living above the 38th Parallel, will probably say. “They are our brothers and sisters.” When I point out that they will kill you if they get the chance, they often say that many families have disagreements.

    They don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it when they sit down to dinner, though. Koreans I know are realistic that history has generally placed them at the fringes, their fates decided by others. It’s been like this for centuries. I hear the word “han” spoken sometimes. They are not always talking about the river that goes through Seoul. (I feel sad sometimes, too.)

    You left out some stuff. That’s okay. People write long books and still don’t get everything in that belongs.

  3. "Germans Give Pep Talks on Korean Unification",1518,807123,00.html

  4. I agree Koreans ARE interested about the topics about North Korea. I had even had a question about it in an oral exam at the language school. I guess they're even curious on how foreigners think about the North and South story.

    Also, when Kim Jeong-il died, it used to be the only topic at the news for maybe 2 or 3 days, not just one day, and not even today it went off-topic. Still I can see a lot of news and discussions and arguments on TV about these things.
    And there were attacks on the South Korean ships, killing soldiers and later the famous attack on the island killing a few civillians. It was not so long ago.

    Anyway it is somehow constantly on the media and the people usually are well under its influence. The media is the most powerful tool for spreading information and mind control, so of course people are aware of it and think about it much. And care.

    And another proof of how they care, is their very long military training, which is either shortened or not an obbligation anymore in many other developed countries in the world.


    Come on, people, it has been more than half a century since the war fire "stopped" and both countries went their own way. Of course North Korea is not the only thing the Koreans have to think about. First of all, an individual is more preoccupied on how to enter and finish university, find a job, raise their children, what to eat today and these little big things that make your personal life.
    Besides that, reunification and North Korea, as I have just mentioned, is not the only problem the Korean people deal with. For example, there was a huge protest about scholarships last summer. There is the unemployment problem that is present in every developed country as wel as all the other things envolving economy. And also the problems about education, illegal foreign workers, illegal fishing, free trade with foreign countries, the new war USA vs. Iran (because the gass is transported from Iran and USA plans to give sanctions for trading with their enemy) and there is a whole lot of other problems that they have to deal with.

    And also, as mentioned, the young generations might not care, for it being a far away history that doesn't leave direct consequences to them personally, it is something they can only see on TV and the newspapers, and the history books. So, as it's not an experience, they've got no such a feeling as the elder generations do.

  5. A lot of things may be pointing towards reunification. The easiest way to go after a fall of the North Korean leadership would be either reunification, or a difficult rebuilding of the North Korean government.

    If you look at what is currently going on pretty much every government of concern right now North Korea is in a state of equilibrium. I don’t think most are happy with the North Korean leadership, but to try to do anything about it opens up major problems.

    The leadership could fall either internally within the leadership or externally with the people. If there is weakness during transition, will the people just let new leaders take over? I don’t know what the general will of the public will desire; it is a real wild card.

    China could try to take it over, but does it really want to that? That would be a major blow on the international stage. It really does have to care about how it is perceived. I doubt it would make matters dealing with issues in South East Asia any easier. It would not make matters with the US easier. If other countries cut off trade or sour diplomatic relations it could cause major domestic concerns. China may look like a success story, but with 1 billion poor internal chaos could spread it up.

    It may make a better deal for the US to allow for reunification, while doing a major deescalating of its military presence there. The PRC could claim success to its people by saying that by easing up the threat posed to it by having a major army positioned right next to it. The US may have a blow to its military strategy, but it does so by averting a major potential disaster. Also the US is happy, because it can claim peace and freedom spread. It can point to Germany and say it happened again. Both China and US may help support it, because it is a new major trading partner.

    As far as South Korea, it may be a little hard to discern from what they are doing day to day from what they will do in the moment of crisis. I’m sure no one here talked around the dinner table during the holidays what would happen if someone had their house burn down, or if both parents died what would happen to the kids, or if someone lost a kidney would someone donate it. No one may exactly want to help, but may feel the need have to help. I don’t think I’m really fit to understand the cultural context of how South Korean government and people will exactly act when the crisis is at hand. A sense of nationalism and history may compel towards the sacrifice, and who would the North Koreans want to have help from?

    That said it could happen differently, but it seems the easiest path.

  6. I've talked to my Korean friends about this and these are men and women in their 40's - 70's. They are pretty much feel the same way and they are not for reunification. They feel if it would happen, there would be a mass exodus of North Koreans to South potentionally taking away their jobs.

  7. If there is an implosion of the North Korean government, the lapse of fifty years may not matter. The issue of North Korea is not for the most part hidden behind some iron fortress. It will be something of an urgent concern. An implosion of the government will mean an implosion in a number of services. It is not like it is just some matter of leadership changing hands.

    Families will probably be reunited. So your grandfather and grandmother are reunited with long lost family, and the younger generation will not care that they are starving? Your elders who remember what it was like just trying to survive post war and is not going mind that the younger generation does not care when the same is happening in the north? So you’re going to hear a rehash of the history of imperial Japan, and say, “ahh I’ll give my brother and sister some scraps”? The comfort women you can’t do much about other than remember, but those that need your help in current history you won’t sacrifice for?

    In the end you have a lot of things underneath the surface, because there was nothing that could be done about them. Once you can, the younger generation will have a crisis of trying to understand what it means to be Korean. In that context the older generation will hold a lot of influence. If there is a stalemate with China and the US that opens up the possibility of reunification, I think it is very likely to happen. Nationalism will probably see that it is initiated, but it won’t be easy. Once initiated though, it is not likely to fall apart.

    In some ways you may liken it to weddings/honeymoons and marriage. Weddings usually tend to inspire great feelings, and hopes for this in that. Marriages pose lots and lots of struggles. One just hopes the highs of the wedding period, help sustain periods of crises in the marriage. Things like traditions are there to hold you up during the hard times. The thoughts that today, you can unite Korea into its greatest golden age, after the darkest period of a century prior may hold fast the problems. (Sorry that last paragraph wondered a bit off the point.)

  8. Given the anti-Americanism of the South, and the fact that Kim Jong Il's portrait was displayed on TV for 3 days while many expressed genuine sadness, how true is it that 'The South doesn't actually hate America. The South doesn't want to live under the North Korean leader (whoever it is)'?

    I posit that South Korea will not feel its destiny is complete until it is reunified with the North, both North and South achieve the same, high, levels of economic development - and the U.S. military is expelled from the peninsula.

  9. Sorry I'm a bit late to this. Thank you very much for featuring my question! I'm truly honored.

    I think what the professor was trying to explain was not the reality of what Southern opinion actually is but rather what the North's interpretation of the South's opinion is. I know that's pretty convoluted so let me explain.

    What the South thinks about the North and what the North thinks the South thinks about the North are two very different things. Does that make sense?

    Try to put yourself in the shoes of an average North Korean. You are issued propaganda on a regular basis that tells you that the South lives well because the Americans run their government for them. The South lives in the shame of being an American colony and are desperate to live under the care of Kim Jong Il.

    But in secret you are consuming Southern media like soap operas, movies, music, etc. What kind of generalizations about the South are you likely to make? I'm not sure it's that the average Southerner is desperate to free themselves from the shackles of the Yankee imperialists; more likely the image that they're likely to take away is that the South is perfectly happy and proud to live in South Korea.

    I think the point Mr. Myers was trying to make is that It's these two interpretations that are conflicting in the minds of the average North Korean.

    (I might be wrong regarding the contents of the South Korean media. I'm a bit ashamed to share that I don't consume any Korean popular culture.)

  10. Matt -- You gotta broaden the range of people you talk to. What you presented is a straight leftist talk, and that kind of talk is confined to a certain population within Korea.

    Corey -- I think you have it right, and that was the point that I was trying to get at with my last paragraph in the OP.

  11. I guess I have met a few leftists.

    And anti-Americanism is pretty common the world over.

  12. As a Korean American from South Korea, It is my deepest desire to see North and South reunificaion within my life time. Yes, I do worry about the cost involve and how it will affect South Korea's economy but I do feel that this is the one last huddle holding us back from realizing our full potentional as a nation. That little wound, constantly remind us that something is not right and we are missing somthing. I have full faith in us to overcome any problems we will face after the reunification.

    The Korean, enjoy reading your blogs. Thank you!

  13. I would feel happy for Koreans to see them unify as one country again. Though realistically, I think eventual unification will not be decided by the Koreans themselves, but mainly by Chinese and U.S. geopolitics. China uses North Korea as a buffer zone against the U.S. military in the South, and the U.S. uses South Korea as an outpost to contain China. China will never tolerate U.S. troops at its northern borders, and neither will the U.S. be willing to give up its strategic military bases close to China. Thus it seems that for both the U.S. and China, the status quo is favorable. Germany reunified because Gorbachev gave his "permission" when the collapse of the Soviet Union was nearing. It is tragic for the Korean people, but I fear that the fate of Korea is caught in the struggle between an old and emerging superpower.


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