Reframing Reunification

By Stephanie Park

I don’t remember exactly when I learned about Korea’s division into North and South; but I do remember the immediate conviction I felt that the two should be reunified. I didn’t know much about the South, and even less about the North, but my childhood self was convinced it needed to happen. Perhaps, I perceived a desire, unspoken but felt, of my grandparents to return to the provinces where they were born. Perhaps I was simply parroting the idea that Koreans were one people, and should therefore be one nation as well[1]. Or perhaps I just liked the idea of a happy ending. Regardless, before I became serious about critically examining Korean politics, reunification was the one topic I had any opinion on.

It was thus disorienting when after the ISC’s June program on reunification, I found myself more confused about the issue of reunification than I had ever felt before. Addressing reunification is impossible without addressing the matter of “the world’s most isolated country[2].” While I’m no expert on North Korea, like countless others I had always assumed that there were certain things I could simply take for granted: for example, that the North was responsible for the Korean War, that it brainwashed its citizens into worshipping Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and that the country was hell-bent on building up its nuclear weapons program to threaten the US and South Korea. Volunteering with North Korean defectors gave me an additional perspective, one that focused on the scarcity of food and resources and painted the situation in North Korea as a human rights issue. I was therefore taken aback by the attitudes of the South Korean activists that we met and their attitude towards the North, which was more nuanced and challenged me to critically examine everything I’d ever thought about the country. As I investigated the issue further, I began to realize how little I knew of the forces that shaped the North Korea that we (think we) know, how deeply and completely my and others’ understanding of North Korea has been shaped by American neoliberalist motives, and above all, that a paradigm shift is necessary to achieving a reunification that truly achieves peace and justice on the peninsula.

As I delved into Korean history to seek answers, I found that to discuss reunification necessitates discussion not only of North Korea, or even the Korean War, but of Japanese colonialism. In a way, the conflict between North and South reflects the still-unresolved conflict between Koreans themselves during the occupation between those who resisted and those who collaborated. The current power hierarchies of both countries reflect that, with the Kim family and other guerilla fighters at the helm in the North, and collaborators who stayed in power through US intervention in charge the South. The unresolved trauma of Japanese colonialism was so central to Korean politics at the time that, in the opinion of historian Bruce Cumings, “a civil conflict purely among Koreans [emphasis added] might have resolved the extraordinary tensions generated by colonialism, national division and foreign intervention. [3]” Yet, such a resolution was never to be, as Korea was divided arbitrarily by the American military and summarily offered to the USSR as a preemptive compromise in the Cold War conflict. Korea’s division was something I had simply accepted as a child, but revisiting it now, I am struck by the arrogance of dividing another people’s country without any thought to those that inhabit. Yet, this act shows that, from the very beginning, America’s treatment of Korea’s was never that of equals, but as a pawn to be sacrificed to further US interests. Similarly, I had always thought of the Korean War as the fault of a blood-thirsty North; yet if we contextualize the war as a civil conflict in the wake of division by more powerful countries compounded by the lack of resolution of the injustices from Japanese colonialism, it becomes clear that civil wars do not start, they come. [4] If we examine history, it is clear that both Kim Il Sung and Synghman Rhee desired war to reunify the country. Yet, despite its civil origins, once the war began there were just as many atrocities committed by the US against Koreans than between Koreans themselves, including the massive use of chemical weapons, systematic burning of villages, and destruction of dams affecting 75% of North Korea’s food supply[5]. Perhaps most tragically, the bloodshed proved to be for nothing, as the war ended in an armistice, leaving both Koreas in a state of war to this day. As a kid, I’d grown up with the narrative of MacArthur sailing into Incheon to “save” the Korean peninsula, but given his support (and even advocation) of bombing the North in the name of procuring military victory, it’s clear that the US’ presence brought more death and destruction than it ever brought peace.

Of course, when we think about North Korea today, it is usually with regards to its nuclearization. The imagery of North Korea as a crazed weapons-stockpiling nation that could go berserk at any moment is one that dominates both mainstream media and my family; yet, a critical examination reveals that North Korea’s developments have largely aligned with the desire to either a) exercise self-sovereignty, or b) react defensively to US actions. For example, much was made in 1993 of North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – but how many people knew that it was due to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s demands to carry out “‘special inspections’” in North Korea, ones which could be utilized to gather intelligence for the United States (a violation of the IAEA’s own mandates)? Similarly, while I had always agreed with the US’ mandate that North Korea de-nuclearize, upon further investigation, I realized how the US has utilized a denuclearized North Korea as a tool to push for unrestricted access to North Korean information, essentially holding peace in the peninsula hostage[6]. Aside from being hypocritical,[7] it’s also a clear violation of any country’s basic right to sovereignty and attempt to subordinate North Korea.

Of course, the fact that such information rarely comes to light is indicative of just how successful American media has been at naturalizing its own stance, and delegitimizing the North Korean perspective, to the point that even those interested in international solidarity continue to see North Korea as simply “that crazy country.” Yet, for all the focus on North Korean propaganda, we fail to see how deeply ensnared we are in our own. We call North Korea “ ‘crazy’ ” – but is it any crazier than a nation that claims to value justice and equality for all, while actively punishing a country whose actions are in the name of self-determination?  Is it any crazier than a country that decries the human rights violations in North Korea, yet implements sanctions and refuses to provide aide and is thus directly responsible for these problems in the first place?

I am still struggling to develop my own understanding of reunification and North Korea while holding the contradictions that have developed and that sometimes seem to pull me in opposing directions. How do I honor my grandparents’ history (and thus, my own) while also challenging it? How can I have admiration for the North Korean defectors I have met for their courage, and respect the hardships they have endured, while also not falling into the trap of praising them simply because they defected and contributing to their use as political tools of the US and South Korea? And how can I have an understanding of North Korea and reunification that is critical yet hopeful? I confess that I don’t have an answer to these questions yet. However, one thing I do know is that, as an American, I recognize the burden we bear as citizens of a country who has wronged the Korean people, North and South, and promise to do what I can to contribute towards restoring peace and unity on the peninsula in a way that has the Korean people at heart.

[1] See: Minjok ideology. According to Luc Walhain in “Transcending Minjok: How Redefining Nation Paved the Way to Korean Democratization,” “while the original meaning of “jok” in minjok was “tribe” sharing a common ancestor, “jok” is now more generally used to designate a race, or ethnic group, e.g. “mong-jok,” meaning Mongolian race. When “jok” is combined with “min.” (people), as in “minjok,” the word becomes loaded with a heavily racial character. It refers to the Korean “nation,” but puts a strong emphasis on the Korean people’s sharing of common blood and a common ancestor, Tan’gun. It is an emotionally loaded term which has been used with great effect to call for the Korean people’s absolute and unconditional love and loyalty for the nation.” (http://studiesonasia.illinoisstate.edu/seriesIII/Vol%204%20No%202/s3v4n2_Walheim.pdf)

[2] http://www.worldpolicy.org/sites/default/files/uploaded/image/Spring13_22-23_Anatomy(1)_1.pdf

[3] Bruce Cumings, “The Korean War.” (http://books.google.co.kr/books?id=lY5-7ZirsmgC&pg=PA35&lpg=PA35&dq=a+civil+conflict+purely+among+Koreans++might+have+resolved+the+extraordinary+tensions+generated+by+colonialism,+national+division+and+foreign+intervention&source=bl&ots=7GcXcT3n2n&sig=HGA7wUHvb_ogbldGv3taXJGFvLs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=v_ASVIn_AcK58gWy3ICQDw&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=a%20civil%20conflict%20purely%20among%20Koreans%20%20might%20have%20resolved%20the%20extraordinary%20tensions%20generated%20by%20colonialism%2C%20national%20division%20and%20foreign%20intervention&f=false)

[4] Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun.

[5] Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun.

[6] See: Korea Policy Institute’s “The Case for a Peace Treaty to End the Korean War” (https://solidaritystorieskr.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/caseforapeacetreaty.pdf).

[7] The last time the US divulged that kind of information was due to Edward Snowden, and there’s a reason he’s still in Russia.

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