“Why is Korean Reunification the ‘Jackpot?’ ” Joong Ang Daily

“Why is Korean Reunification the ‘Jackpot?’”

Joong Ang Daily

March 6, 2014

Emanuel Pastreich


These days, there has been much talk among Koreans about the “jackpot” of unification. But when you speak with members of the international community who have no stake in Korea about the benefits of such a geopolitical transformation, the answer is less obvious.

Nevertheless, a successful reunification of the Korean Peninsula requires an excitement capable of mobilizing the world and generating a hope that would inspire a generation to build a new nation. Establishing a common cause that goes beyond culture and a nation – a unification that is about the future of our world – will be the key to long-term success of reunification and Korea’s new role on the global stage.

Of course, there are some obvious benefits from reunification, such as access to coal, gold and rare earth minerals available in North Korea, but the social implications of such benefits are ultimately ambiguous, as the use of resources will determine whether they have a positive impact on Korea’s economy.

Access to the highly trained and low-cost labor force of North Korea, whose language and culture makes them easy to integrate into the Korean economic system, is a plus. Nevertheless, although Korea might make more in the short term by paying those workers less, ultimately the whole purpose of unification will be to bring those workers up to the same standard of living found in South Korea. It would be a political mistake to predict a long-term competitive advantage based on cheap labor in North Korea.

But the true appeal of Korean unification for the international community is ultimately none of the above points.

Korean reunification will be a large-scale experiment in nation-building and innovation in government and society at the central and local levels that we have not witnessed in the last century. It will dwarf the reunification of Germany in the profundity of the transformation, and although many assume that the conditions are much worse than was the case for Germany, that is only when seen through a very narrow economic lens.

Although many worry that Seoul will be responsible for helping out millions of impoverished North Koreans, that is simply the wrong way to look at the challenge.

As John Feffer, author on international relations, remarked at a recent Asia Institute seminar in Seoul, “Reunification of the Korean Peninsula will be historic in that it involves bringing together a wealthy nation and a developing nation as one. If Korea can put forth a viable solution through its cultural and social innovations, it will become a model for the whole world.”

To assume that through some historical accident Korea alone is burdened by this radical differentiation in income is simply a misperception. Similar situations are found around the world within countries, and the situation is getting worse. The divide between the developing and the developed world, between the haves and the have-nots, will be the biggest challenge in the future.

Imagine if Koreans put the genius that they pour into designing smartphones and automobiles into creating a society in which we can bring together these two different societies in a manner that generates new energy and excitement, which creates a new civilization for the world. It is not merely that North Korea will undergo massive building that could stimulate the local and global economy, as well as providing Korea with some of the most state-of-the-art infrastructure in the world.

Many have written about how Korean unification is different from German unification in terms of the ideological assumptions and the economic situations, but the most essential difference lies with technological changes.

Technology is rushing ahead at a dizzying pace, with an exponential rate of change in the capacity of processors. Around the world, the modern nation-state is creaking and falling apart under terrible pressures because current systems of governance are so completely outdated that they cannot keep up with current shifts in technology and society.

But imagine if the governing system of the new unified Korea took on each of these challenges at the core of its very system of governance and created a new system that worked in a way few governments do anymore. Would not that historic opportunity to completely rethink the very nature of governance outweigh the short-term economic costs?

Reunification can be an opportunity for great creativity and promoting a liberal spirit dedicated to creating a model of good governance for the world, as Kim Gu once proposed. Just as the legendary agreement in the Magna Carta set forth in 1215 a model for what would become constitutional governance in England, a new unified Korea could introduce central institutional reforms that address climate change, an aging society and the vast impact of technology on democracy and privacy issues through the application of a highly innovative and inspired new system. Some might say that I am speaking in too idealistic a manner. But we need such a historic perspective if we want to be successful.





15 responses to ““Why is Korean Reunification the ‘Jackpot?’ ” Joong Ang Daily

  1. craig March 6, 2014 at 9:37 am

    This piece is far too boosterish, and is blind to a very present reality.

    Either people want to excuse the elephant in the room, or for other reasons gloss over it, or get around it by pretending it’s not there. The elephant sitting in the middle of the floor is the communist monarchy that rules North Korea. Either people want to avoid criticizing it for various reasons, most of them either ideological or, more often these days, hollow, or they want to ignore the problem.
    At worst, then, it’s sympathy for the regime and its founding ideas. At best, it’s an academic utopianist approach to problems in the real world that seeks to solve them by pretending they’re not there.

    The problem is the existence of the government of North Korea. So long as it continues to exist, and continues to justify its existence and claim legitimacy, all debate on this subject is moot.


    Academic exploration of political and economic subjects often seems irrelevant or downright delusional. In order to seem relevant, to appear to be moderate, to seem open-minded, very clear arguments are often reduced to irrelevancy because the connection to reality is stripped from them in order to make them maximally palatable or to make the policies promoted seem reasonable.

    In the case of North Korea, mushy wishful thinking slams right up against the brick wall of hard reality. Perhaps we can deal with the North Korean regime in the short term. But for North Korea to ever be anything but a dangerous and unpredictable international gadfly and permanent welfare recipient, in effect a self-destructive and murderous thug extorting money to support a bad habit, at the very least the removal of the North Korean regime must absolutely be a very clearly stated end-goal.

    All roads must lead to the deposing and elimination of the North Korean regime and its attendant social order.This is the only possible destination if the situation is ever to improve.

    And on the rocks of the North Korean social order is where this analysis of the benefits of unification runs aground.


    The article paints a picture of a sad, poor state being helped by a rich one. This is an academic hyper-gloss.

    The whole reason North Korea is poor is because it is a communist monarchy. The entire problem is the government and the society’s governing ethic. In human terms, the social order of North Korea is an otherwise comical grotesquerie, a social abomination, only amusing from a distance. We don’t like to say these things, but we’d have no problem about saying this of, say, Hitler’s occupied Poland or Stalin’s Ukraine or Vlad Tsepesh’ Wallachia, or even for that matter of the Achamaenid Persian state under a fundamentalist Zoroastrian government in the second century AD, when whole villages of heretics were hunted down in a Zoroastrian inquisition. North Korea is no less repugnant a social order. That some people are happy there says nothing. Many people were happy under truly awful, even cannibalistic, regimes. Social orders are unsustainable unless a significant number of people benefit.
    The very continued existence of the North Korean regime and its guiding philosophy is a crime against humanity.

    Like most endemic internal poverties, including most famines, the problems of North Korea are wholly caused by the government and the social culture which it propagates.

    The poverty of North Korea is not one of “colonialism” or “development” or “access”, or any other byword, but is wholly self-inflicted and reinforced by a self-destructive national political psychology. South Korea and the rest of the world can do nothing to alleviate the situation until this governing philosophy and regime are removed. If this happens, anything is possible. Without it, all talk and effort is meaningless. Nothing ever done to change the situation will help without the removal of the offending government.

    Any analysis which fails to take into account the reality of grappling with this delusional government, one whose guiding philosophy which places zero value on individual human life, and the tenacity and strength which with this government holds on to power, is dealing in meaningless aphorisms and hopeless metaphors and can’t possibly have any bearing on reality.

    This is why academic wishful thinking from all times so often appears to be appeasement or ethnically suspect sympathizing. Before World War II, the same was said about Hitler. Apologists for Stalin still exist, mostly in the academic world. The need to justify ideas, but more the need to appear to make useful suggestions in the face of intractable and irrational resistance, often turns careful analysis into dangerously simplistic dreaming.


    Any aid, development or rapprochement given to North Korea is useless. The North Korean communist monarchy has proven itself capable of wasting every conceivable resource, destroying all international goodwill, of betraying every promise and seems to be entirely incapable of uttering a single word that isn’t a half truth or direct lie. The government itself is a regime of lies. It spends enormous effort preventing its own people from learning anything about the outside world, enshrouding them in a bubble of ideology and lies. Not a single word emanating from North Korea can be trusted. Despite its claims, the government sees humans as interchangeable and perfectible social units, as envisioned by most socialist thinkers, not as individuals. As such, human life has no great intrinsic value whatsoever in North Korea, and honesty and truth and fairness no place in any political consideration.

    Ultimately, the only way to help North Koreans is to eliminate this government. Absolutely nothing else will help in the long-term. The problems in North Korea are definitional and structural. All aid that props up this regime is, in fact, a massive slap in the face of history and the North Korean people.

    Because we can’t just wish away the government, it’s convenient for us to lie to ourselves and pretend that anything we do could potentially be useful. But the truth of the matter is that even aid is useless, and merely serves to reinforce the North Korean regime’s legitimacy and power.

    Nobody wants to admit this. But it’s been proven again, and again, and again. The North Korean regime refuses to die or step down. It refuses to engage, except to take, in order to feed its own power. It is almost immune to criticism. It micromanages its own citizens’ thoughts and controls as much of each individual life as humanly possible, so it doesn’t need to care about domestic dissent. it has no motivation whatsoever to deal honestly with the outside world or its own people.

    In effect, the North Korean regime has immunized itself against criticism and dissent. It no more cares about the opinions of optimistic academia or interfering politicians than it does about the price of Oreo cookies. All the goodwill in the world serves but one purpose: To reinforce the absolute legitimacy of the North Korean regime.


    “Unification” is a dishonest term. Let’s speak plainly here: what we mean when we say this is not the integration of these two societies, but the dissolution of North Korea and its absorption into South Korea. Tacit in this is the admission that North Korea’s regime and guiding philosophy has been a complete failure – in fact, a murderously deadly failure. This regime and its hallucinogenic economic utopianism are directly responsible for the deaths of millions of people. This cannot ever be understated or underestimated. For all its flaws, capitalism, including the state-directed aristocratic South Korean flavour, has proven at least 2.5-3 -million times better at managing a human society than anything dreamed of in North Korea. 2.5 – 3 million people directly died due to North Korean communism and its wholesale, cannibalistic catastrophe in the 1990’s alone. There’s no outside accounting of the number of deaths in generational concentration camps, how many lives have been shortened or cut off due to starvation and opportunity loss, not to mention the cultural decay and social rot.

    The article glossed over this, but “Unification” in the North and South Korean context is not merely a process of absorbing a poor, undeveloped state. North Korea’s poverty and slavery is not the result of some strange, indeterminate force. It’s the result of human actions and a very inhuman regime. The problems facing a united Korean government are unprecedented in the history of the modern world.

    East Germany and West Germany did not merge. One devoured the other, East Germany literally ceasing to exist – wiped from the pages of history as a bizarre abberation, an embarrassment still felt by Ossies today. Nobody wants to have been from East Germany or to remember it too closely. And East Germany was a paragon of freedom, economic foresight and intellectual brilliance compared to North Korea.

    Glossing over the fault and continuing social catastrophe of communism and communal organization is a problem for many thinkers when it comes to North Korea. All of North Korea’s problems could all be solved in one day, with an accompanying generation or two of development, by the removal of the current regime and then leaving North Koreans to rebuild their society along normal human lines.


    – CIVIL SOCIETY: The poverty of North Korea is not simply economic. It’s also intellectual and social. There are no independent civil or social structures. There is no non-governmental social accountability. The culture has not developed any social capital by which to govern itself. Indeed, independent social capital is hunted down and eliminated. If the government is not legitimate, then the entire social order collapses and the people are lost. If it is legitimate, then its removal was a mistake. Expect both positions to cause savage social repercussions in a post-unified Korea.

    – CRIME: Criminality and rampant corruption: Because the ruling class are more or less feudal pirates, as in post-Soviet Russia expect many to metamorphose into managers of criminal and quasi-legal organizations. Crime in a unified South Korea will shoot through the roof. As there is no ethical foundation to prevent it, a return to a very nasty corrupt past will immediately occur, likely made far worse by the introduction of 20 million new Koreans who have no understanding of law, order, justice or anything but private profit and survival. Korean society today is making solid strides to become a leader in Asia in fighting corruption and influence-peddling, marking serious distance from its pre-1988 past. The hiccups of the IMF intervention and other scandals

    – ORDER: Obedience is a cult in North Korea. The political ethos and social order will not blend well with South Korea’s take on Korea’s traditional culture. Despite cultural roots in common, the two groups now have radically different social mechanisms and psychologies. North Korea is ruled by fear and compulsion, either forceful or social. Like all quasi-fascist states, a cult of obedience has gripped the minds of the people. How deeply this penetrates is never really clear, but the sad thing is that it does appear to be genuine, at least among the privileged. In addition, many people do seem to revere the Dear Leader. Propaganda works, and exposure to the real world will leave millions of people shellshocked.

    – DRUGS: The drug problems in North Korea rival those of Mexico. All kinds of drugs are available. South Korea will likely prove incompetent to manage the problem. Drug use in a united Korea will soar, with attendant crime and severe social problems. This is an issue that hasn’t been explored well, but the problems associated with meth alone will be enough to tear the fabric of Korean society apart. Worse, South Korean policing will invariably make the issue far, far worse. Expect a few prison-camp like structures to remain open. North Korea’s drug-peddling problems are now legendary and crippling.

    – SLAVERY: North Korea is a slave society. it seems extreme to say this, but only because we recoil from using the word. There are few places in the world of which this can be said, though many had and some still have slaves (meaning actual slaves, not the metaphorical kind). However, without even the notion of basic freedoms or the merest suggestion of human rights or dignity not directly commensurate with individual power, North Korea, like Stalin’s Russia, is effectively a slave society in which no rights are recognized that can’t be ignored at the whim of the powerful. People are property in all but name. At best, they are serfs.

    – MONEY: The obvious economic costs are widely discussed, but ironically are not likely the chief dangers. Assume taxes triple and the underground economy expands, including more corruption and more tax avoidance. Watch welfare rates balloon.

    – URBAN DECAY: South Korea’s obsessively ordered civil society will collapse. Expect rampant poverty, massively increased crime and violence, and the reappearance, after two generations, of real slums. In pragmatic terms, all of North Korea is a slum.

    – MIGRATION: People say North Koreans will stay there and “be developed” by South Korea. This will happen, but with one proviso: Millions of people will pour into South Korea. The first time hundreds of people approach the border, a few South Korean soldiers infused with nationalistic spirit will flatly refuse to shoot them. The moment they refuse to shoot them, hundreds will turn into thousands and those thousands into tens of thousands, and the border will vanish.
    As the border vanishes, South Korean cities will be absolutely flooded with new migrants. It will be social chaos. All social services will be stressed and will then snap, and they’re fragile enough as it is. Even public transit – now impressive, but stressed, and technically very bankrupt – will suffer. The situation will be unmanageable. There aren’t enough police in the whole country to deal with this. Despite all the efforts of international and South Korean organizations, slums will emerge, along with intense crime and serious social problems. It’s going to be very, very ugly.
    Any dreams that this can be controlled, or that a “dual citizenship” can be maintained, if Korea is to remain a democracy, are pie-in-the-sky.

    – SOCIAL REPERCUSSIONS: A dual society will emerge, one with power and money and security-guarded apartments, and one without. Sex trafficking, prostitution and low-wage exploitation will be the norm. There will be agencies created to protect the poor Northern nannies who labour like domestic slaves in houses for the working families of the South.

    – DEMOCRACY? The risk of fragmentation and political chaos in South Korea: The admission of 20 million new voters into South Korean politics has the potential to devastate the political scene. What’s to say that the new voters will not just vote themselves money, power, or ravage an already factionalized political order? What’s to say that rampant nationalistic parties might not easily find traction? Maintaining a democracy and avoiding reactionary movements will be a herculean task. It’s unpredictable.
    Moreover, a functioning democracy may not be the most efficient way for the upper and ruling classes of Korea to manege the process. This is the biggest threat, especially when they effectively bribe the threatened middle classes in South Korea – which will absolutely happen.

    – RACE: Ethnicity; South Korea is increasingly racially mixed. I’d never say this in a foreign context, but racial mixing is the word to use here, not ethnic mixing. East Germans turned out to be radically less tolerant of outsiders, and there was time when they threatened all of the progressive values West Germany had carefully nurtured. North Koreans are likely to be extremely intolerant of foreigners living in their new society. Add in something new for Koreans generally but increasingly normal in South Korea: Racially mixed babies.

    – ETHNIC RESENTMENT: North Koreans are going to deeply resent foreigners in South Korea, especially migrant workers, who will have to instantly disappear – back to Sri Lanka and Mongolia. This will break out into hatred and open violence. it’s unavoidable. It happens even today in what was once East Germany, where ethnic tensions are boiling over, and East Germany was a model case. North Korea has little experience with anything but crushing ethnic homogeneity.
    Expect racist and nationalist movements to be powerful and sentiments to be strong.

    – WORKERSCheap labourers are going to instantly resent being exploited as cheap labour. If their wages don’t very quickly start to ratchet up, their resentment at being a perceived inferior underclass is going to get socially violent. Protests, demonstrations, unionization (likely violent), and eventually riots will ensue unless Korea effectively loses its cheap-labour advantage. Having a dual-class society will not work in a democratic social order.

    – POLITICAL FALLOUT: This can’t be underestimated. The social stresses that will be placed on South Korea will dwarf anything South Korea has experienced since 1953. Korean democracy is vibrant but also brittle. Expect a lot of reactionaries, a lot of jingoism, and a lot of very extreme political divisions. As usual, the only uniting force in a society of people who can’t see eye to eye will be nationalism or some greater cause. This is a universal human pattern and is very, very difficult to resist. Only the most calm, politically rational people with a long tradition of measured responses and a solid democratic tradition, with deep social capital rooted in powerful civil and social institutions, can withstand these forces.
    South Korea has a little of this, but it’s barely enough to contain its own centrifugal pressures. North Korea’s social regime will be discredited, its social order discarded, and its people left directionless. Worse, there will be deep and abiding embarrassment and shame: A South-Korean led unified Korea will necessarily show how North Korea was a humiliating and absolute failure, and North Koreans little more than sad victims. To put it mildly, this does not bode well for domestic Korean politics.

    – DIASPORA KOREANSs: At the moment, returning diaspora Koreans and foreign-educated Koreans are often at the top of the economic heap. They speak English well, are cultured, and have foreign connections. They will end up ruling Korea in short order. The process is well under way and this class represents a real challenge to the old Korean social order. How North Koreans will see this is anybody’s guess.

    – SOCIAL APARTHEID: In Korea’s hothouse of extreme competition, obsession with social rank and status, and lineage, which is also true in North Korea though using different measures, North Koreans will become the equivalent of Coloureds and Blacks in apartheid South Africa. They will be the new Niggers. It’s already true today for North Korean refugees. It’s almost better for refugees to go abroad rather than stay in South Korea. Ina situation where all the money and power is in the hands of the former South Koreans, and their international friends, North Koreans are at best going to be indentured labourers making wealth for others.
    I can’t stress this enough.
    THERE WILL BE VERY LITTLE INTERMARRIAGE, at least at first. The marriage market in Korea is rigidly stratified, and is cut into segments which almost never interact. This is very likely to persist for several generations, and will radically increase resentment and the social apartheid that will result. It’s not unique to Korea, but it’s wildly exacerbated here.
    South Korean men may take on North Korean brides, thus stealing them from North Korean men and making them very, very hard up (and thus radically increasing prostitution levels from their already sky-high levels). However, South Korean women will sooner kill themselves or marry foreigners rather than marry North Korean men.
    Watch for it. it’s almost unavoidable.


    North Korea has lacked these things. For unification to proceed without being a social catastrophe beyond current calculation, it needs to prepare for some time by filling these needs. But the regime has no incentive to do this, because to do so would speed its inevitable collapse .So like a dictator deliberately engineering his society to function only when he’s there, the Communist Party will ensure that it can’t be removed without causing massive pain.

    – Rule of law: North Korea is ruled by fiat. There’s a semblance of law, but reality is that the governing structure of the country more closely resembles a kind of feudal serfdom, with administrators acting as Joseon-style governors or feudal chiefs. Justice as it’s understood in every other society today is nonexistent, and has been for generations.

    – Corruption is the nature of the government and the social order. It’s not a downside or a feature of it; it’s built into the very nature of the system. it’s not a corrupt system. It’s a system of corruption. Corruption is its very essence.

    – Education: Despite claims and comparisons, the North Korean education system can’t possibly prepare people for a future under unification. Refugees regularly explain how the education system is more or less useless.

    – Civic consciousness: Nonexistent. The population won’t be nearly ready to function in a democracy.

    – Ethics: As in most communist societies, raw survivalism will be the only guiding metric. This is not going to be the genteel but intense competitive instinct fostered in South Korea today. It’s going to be ugly, like 1995 Russia or a busy “lineup” at a Shanghai subway entrance.


    After unification, all of North Korea’s problems are likely to infect South Koreans, as well, and to cause very obvious social decay.

    After unification, morale will be initially high. It will then drop like a stone in the ensuing months, and after about 6 months the true nature of the crisis will begin to sink in, as the long-term social effects start to become unavoidable. After 2-3 years, the vicious feedback cycle will be in full combat with any positive trends and the feelings of the people.

    Ironically, socialism generally produces only sloth and dependence. Communism never produces a “new Man” with the values communists themselves claim to value. No more self-motivated, greedy and socially unconcerned individuals were ever produced than those produced by communist countries. In all of these places, social trust is lowest, faith in others is least and nepotism greatest.

    This is the problem with North Korea. All the fancy dreams in the world will not change these realities.

    How to deal with it is another issue. But we won’t find a constructive way of dealing with these realities by pretending they’re not there.

    If I were South Korean, I would pray that unification doesn’t occur until long after I and my children and their grandchildren have stopped needing to care.

    The happy, productive, ordered South Korea we have all come to know and love and deeply respect will be utterly obliterated by unification.

    Any talk about how this is going to be painless or without catastrophic consequences for South Korea is mere dreaming.

  2. Emanuel Pastreich March 6, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Thank you for the very thoughtful response. I do not have time to reply in depth now, but I will. Let me just say that the article is not written to be a simple pro-Korea pro-unification puff piece. I honestly believe that the problems of reunification are the problems of the entire world. We had better face them directly, and with optimism. Optimism does not make one naive. Optimism can be, at times, tragic optimism.

  3. cpcolinchau March 10, 2014 at 3:15 am

    Craig speaks rather decidedly and in a deterministic fashion. While plausible, I doubt we can be certain that those things will play out in exactly those ways, and I think that the read on the how culture and existing state-society and technological relationships could use some more care. I think where Criag and I would probably agree on is that if enforceable, a one state two-systems approach similar to HK-China would be the scenario that administrators would try to work into succeeding on a however long temporary basis.

  4. Emanuel Pastreich March 10, 2014 at 5:39 am

    Nations are fragmenting at all levels around the world as a result of globalization/technology. These challenges are not uniquely Korean.

    The effort to create a mythical North Korea that is some how an alien, Stalinist inhuman living hell (as opposed to the healthy, balanced and democratic “West”) is simply a disservice to all parties.

  5. craig March 10, 2014 at 6:03 am

    I try to thoroughly consider actual human history, and behaviour, and I’m deeply suspicious about pandering to my own or anyone else’s closely held dreams and assumptions.
    We can’t be certain how anything will play out. However, the default position is that
    1) North Koreans will finally be free, and
    2) Koreans are One Blood, and belong together.

    Both of these things are viewed as unalloyed “goods”.

    What bothers me is that while 1 above makes perfect sense, given the wretched conditions communism has created in North Korea, the physical and mental stunting of an entire nation, it’s not apparent to me that 2 is necessarily true. It could be true, but I find the idea that this is something to be desired above all else to be somewhat stretched.

    I think Koreans pay a lot of lip service to this idea. If it’s true, then I have a solution:

    South Korea should end the civil war by surrendering to North Korea, in a rapprochement that leaves the North Korean regime in control of the peninsula but gives it aspects of South Korean Society.

    Obviously, only about 5-8% of the population in S Korea will agree with this, or less. This says a few things to me:

    Unification doesn’t really matter all that much to South Koreans. Their personal wealth, freedom and ambition take much greater precedence. Unification is notional and no longer plays any significant role in factoring in the future of South Korea. If it was of such defining importance, unilateral surrender to North Korea or a significant compromise in social and government conditions would be acceptable. Perhaps a unicameral government that was dominated by the COmmunist party but supervised by international observers? A unified govenrment with the communist party having special rights in North Korea?
    As an outsider, the solution to the problem is painfully obvious. That no one suggests it or would seriously entertain it tells me bluntly that South Korea has defined itself in such a way as to not include North Korea. Modern South Korea is, in an almost literal sense, an island.

    South Korea is happy within its own self-definition. It could go on indefinitely like this, with only pro-forma lip service about unification. This would suit it perfectly.

    As far as South-Korean demanded compromises are concerned, the two-state solution has the potential to massively backfire on Korea.

    – It will only work *so long as* South Korea polices its borders.
    – The moment soldiers refuse to shoot other Koreans, the game is over. In “Velvet” or “pink” or “blue” but most especially “german” revolutionary style, the “wall” will come down in an instant rush over several days.
    In South Korea, there will be active and massive “national feeling”, which will utterly override common sense and logic and caution. There will be no stopping it. And even if this isn’t the case, it will divide South Korean society. In truth, I expect SK society to be riven in half by this event – and anyone on the pro-unification side will enable the entire process. People will throw themselves at the border from the South, open it up, Ajummas will be there with their children to Welcome the New Age. The border will be gone – in the span of a few days, after the first spark of teardown occurs.
    Once this happens, it’s done. No further sensible, hands-off policies will be enforceable. The future will be, in short, chaotic. Anything will be possible, but the consequences for South Korea, its politics and its economy will be so extreme nobody can now predict them,

    In any case, the day after the barriers come down, South Korea as we know it will cease to exist. And the problems I originally mentioned will become the major issues. You can deny this all you want, but that’s wishful thinking in the extreme. It’s easily predictable.

    But as you and I agree, a two-state solution with foreign management for North Korea is the ideal situation. How long this can be feasibly maintained is a serious question. There are several key issues that have to be dealt with:

    – China. The US is a minor player in SK now; a unified Korea will present the US with opportunities, but what the US does is of little relevance, I suspect China and the US will both step back. On the other hand, should the US push, it will back whatever SK wants.The US has lost its imperialist aims in Asia, by and large, and is quickly creeping back into its pre-1941 isolationist stance. Nobody in the US cares a jot about Korea; fighting China for Korea will win no votes at all.

    However, CHINA: China is, on the other hand, acquiring quite the Imperial ambition. it’s flexing its muscles. It wants enemies to beat. It needs them, for domestic consumption, far more than the US does – and it has its targets. A collapse in North Korea, or even rapprochement, will be good for business, but bad news for politics. It’ll also make China nervous about a US ally on the border, though this can be addressed. The point: The chance is that China will, no matter what, make it difficult for South Korea to set policy on its own terms. it’s going to be the fly in the ointment, or the observer with a big stick. Either way, its going to be a largely negative player from South Korean terms.

    Ideally, for SK, China would step back and disappear. However, this is unlikely. Having to deal with China will be a huge thorny issue. Left-wingers worry about the US, but in truth, with NK gone, the US will lose any remaining incentive to antagonize anyone and will be more or less a paper tiger. If anything at all, it will merely back whatever SK wants – and interfere for SK with China.
    A victory for SK is a victory for US policy.

    So the real wild card is China. A victory for SK is a massive loss of face for China. It will bite hard.

    The final issue is the justice of a two-state solution and the incredible gap between NK and SK: How can Skeans honestly return NKeans to North Korea? It would be like Canadians sending their brothers back to the 15th century, without anything in their hands or any clothing on their backs.


    The final issue is paying for it. To avoid the most serious and crippling social problems will cost vast, probably incalculable outlays in expenses, most of which won’t be recovered for decades if at all. Taxes must shoot through the roof, chomping away at economic effectiveness. Brutal social realities will require Marshall-Plan levels of economic investment – which is already at a premium around the world. There’s no way this is going to sell well in the West; most likely, South Korea will get a “Congratulations, and good luck!” from everyone else.

    Aid agencies will set up in North Korea, but I guarantee you this: For every $1 invested in NK by foreigners in aid, $100 will be expected of South Korea. The true levels of money required have the potential to bankrupt South Korea and its companies. I don’t know how much South Koreans have really, honestly thought about this, because it’s such a terrifying and daunting problem.

    A few lumps of coal and some cheap labour won’t be any real compensation.

    If this money is NOT spent – which will be the huge, almost irresistible impulse; look at South Korea’s public culture – then all of the social ills I pointed out will be almost inevitable.

    Who will pay for all of this – the world community? The problem:
    – South Korea seeks to benefit economically from extreme exploitation of cheap labour. Why should the UN or the rest of the world seek to pander to Korean industrialists? Why shoudl the rest of the world pay to make Korea even richer than it is? Isn’t that the job of South Koreans? It’s not other people’s jobs to make SKeans richer.

    SK is pretty rich. Why should other countries pay for South Korea’s ambitions, so they can maintain their wealth and not lose it? Nobody will accept this argument. South Korea is going to have to expend most of its wealth in the form of debt, taxes and more and more and more debt. There is no other option.

    – South Korea is not in any economic position to pay for this itself. But as a wealthy nation, it can’t possibly claim poverty without thereby also noting how greedy it is: It wants unification, but it doesn’t want its own wealth affected. So other countries should pay for it.

    This is all going to be incredibly ugly, no matter how you put it together. The very, very, very narrow land bridge to sanity here is so thin, the slightest misstep will send the whole process careening off into la-la land.

    Koreans don’t want to acknowledge this. Boosters who love Korea don’t want to acknowledge this, because they’re afraid of breaking ranks and not being Uri.

    I live here, I love the place. I can guess what it’ll be like 2, 5, and 10 years after unification. it terrifies me. It should absolutely terrify South Koreans.

    >> And what about not unifying?

    If South korea tells post-Communist NK to reform on its own, … even if SK companies and the government take the lead, it will send this message to North Koreans, China and the world: That we don’t value our national unity more than our pocketbooks. And later calls for unification will be bitterly received. The hypocrisy in South Korea will be revealed.

    There is no truly good way for this to resolve itself unless there’s a two-state solution leading to a confederation, a federation and then eventual union.

    One misstep and that whole process will fall apart. And I ask you one question:

    >> is a democracy the best governing system to make sure the process stays on the straight and very, very narrow?

    Which is why I fear for democracy and civil rights in a unified Korea. Democracy has many virtues, but it’s also energetic and contains many elements that have to be dealt with and can’t be suppressed.

    A unified Korea may not be a democracy. it may not be possible – not in a real sense.

    To keep the process straightforward and limited to one simple, effective path:

    – The police are going to need the ability to arrest people and deny them civil rights, often “disappearing” some.
    – The army is going to have to have the right to shoot protesters. And there will be endless, endless lines of protesters. They’re going to need to kill people, both North and South Koreans, and that is a guarantee. They will need to have places to put dissenters, too – so a few political prison camps may be necessary. There’s going to be a lot of heavy dissent for every single policy. South Korea is barely able to deal with that now; in a crisis situation, where no variance from a firm plan can be tolerated, it will not be able to remain reasonably democratic.
    – Courts will have to avoid or suppress dissent. Dissent is the killer for a simple, effective process.
    Economically, more power will have to be handed over to the Chaebols. They can develop NK quickly, but the cost will be giving the uncrowned Royal Families of Korea far, far more power. Effectively, they will be able to treat North Korea as their own farm to be done with as they please, people and all.
    One debate which I’m certain we’ll hear is that the Chaebols will radically support a two-state solution: They will want to ensure that North Koreans can’t leave North Korea. They will need cheap, serf-like labour without options – a “flexible” workforce. The Sk government, for its own reasons, is likely to agree. North Korea will become a work farm, a kind-of feudal labour state for rich South Koreans.
    The social repercussions will explode back on South Koreans within 4-8 years, by 10 at the latest, with protests, massive reform movements, and a host of other political issues that if left unresolved will devolve into political movements and dissent. This is unavoidable is “economic development” is given a free reign.

    – Option: it will be very, very tempting for South Koreans to vote for a new president Park. Somebody will offer to “fix” this situation if he’s just given a free hand.

    A lot of boosters say this isn’t a problem – that we can take another 20-40 years of oppressive dictatorship to unify the nation, pay the price with 2 generations of effective enslavery to a new nobility with even greater power. A lot of people will consider this “the Korean way”.

    But it will be a much more dangerous, much less friendly, much less progressive, and much less enticing place for Koreans to live in. Competition for jobs will be far worse. Discrimination will be rampant – taking generations to wear off, if it ever does. Intermarriage will be limited. Serious political protests and resistance will be everywhere, eventually.

    You can wish away these sentiments. it’s possible to avoid these likely results, by following a really, really restrictive path – two states, eventual unification, massive aid, a Marshall Plan of sorts, with restricted citizenship and *rigidly* enforced policies, especially the border.

    The best way to ensure this path is not to have a democracy.

    If the country is a democracy, it will sacrifice its soul to save itself. And it may save itself, at the cost of stepping back in time to about 1963, politically.

    If it remains a democracy, the chances of being able to see through a firm, logical, two-state solution with slow, gradual integration are nearly nil.

    We always seek justice and hope. And this is the chief danger. If we can admit that this is going to be ugly, brutal and transformative, then we could proceed with reasonable expectations. But too many policymakers and nationalistic dreamers see the future through best-case scenarios and pessimists through worst-case scenarios.

    What we need is to look at it neutrally – as outsiders. Without the ability to step back and see it from a distance, unencumbered with ideology or wishes or desires, there’s no way to see how this could most reasonably play out.

    And too many academic and policy wonks never really think this whole process and situation through from a neutral perspective.

    In any case, the Korea I know and love will definitely cease to exist. What it becomes may be great – but who knows? It’s a crapshoot.

  6. craig March 10, 2014 at 6:24 am

    This is the polyanna-like wishful thinking that I fear from policy and academia.

    “Nations are fragmenting at all levels around the world as a result of globalization/technology. These challenges are not uniquely Korean.

    The effort to create a mythical North Korea that is some how an alien, Stalinist inhuman living hell (as opposed to the healthy, balanced and democratic “West”) is simply a disservice to all parties.”

    The situation in Korea, divided the way it is, is most definitely unique. And it’s absolutely, most definitely the result of communism: There’s no possible way to avoid this and be honest at the same time.

    It’s not to demonize North Korea, but there’s comparison between this and, say, the problems facing Mexico or the Industrial West or even China.

    It’s not myth-making.

    North Korea is not just another country: in the 1990’s, the leadership gladly allowed an estimated 10% of the population to die of starvation, without lifting much to prevent it; using methods to keep its people in the dark, preventing outside contact that even the worst dictatorships in Africa and the Middle East have never used.

    operates dozens of Nazi-like multi-generational concentration camps.

    It has a citizen-rights system based on blood and inheritance: Guilt by birth.

    Until recently, it barred marriage to foreigners in a transparently racist model, no matter how many apologies are made for it.

    Its poverty is wholly self-imposed and self-created. No aspect of North Korea’s poverty is not the direct result of the incompetence of its government and its adherence to hard-core socialist ideals in the face of overwhelming reality. Even China has relented, and even today is seeking greater and greater reforms of government control (which can only accelerate, or that country will tear itself apart from within). But every single one of North Korea’s problems is self-inflicted and wholly due to its government policies.

    North Korea uses executions, often public, to control the population. Many of them are summary executions, and in all honesty, the individuals executed are no more guilty than those watching the executions – which is the point.

    How is it possible to view North Korea as “just another state”?

    I’m sorry, but the closest comparisons are pirate states, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and the worst dictatorships of the 20th century. In a very real sense, North Korea is a strong correlate for Stalin’s Russia.

    And there’s no way on Earth you can do anything but call a spade a spade. Anything else is amoral and the excusing of North Korea.

    We shouldn’t demonize North Korea, but to pretend that North Korea isn’t what it most definitely is is contemptible, and frankly an intellectual insult to actual living North Koreans.

  7. cpcolinchau March 10, 2014 at 6:27 am

    In reply to both:

    I’m less of a person to wish to see an outcome based on any particular type of dogma or ideology. But most certainly as we have seen with how the disaffected can so quickly steer in their political leanings when things aren’t going well, the common layperson, with the circumstances before him, is not brilliantly objective, but turns to nationalism, community, religion etc.

    There is no one direction that I perceive humanity “should” turn to, but rather I’m just interested in observing the outcomes and how people try to reach them.

    So, I think calling it a crapshoot may be a good way to sum it up in one word, but I have difficulty yet placing any “moral valuation” on what the “good” or “bad” of that crapshoot may be.

    • craig March 10, 2014 at 8:26 am


      We can agree that a moral valuation is not exactly indifferent. i agree with you.

      The thing is: I can be indifferent when I’m trying to discern the likely result of an action. However, I live in Korea and I’m married to a Korean and I have a strong stake in what happens to Korea, and incidentally to Koreans themselves, who I adore and think are fantastic.

      While I don’t know if the result of a disastrous reunification would be good or bad from a neutral perspective, that’s not the yardstick I use to measure the potential outcome.

      it’s one thing to say that we can’t know what will happen. But from a personal standpoint, or from the position of individual Koreans and South Korean society, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that some things are better than others. By your logic, you could argue that yo ucan’t say whether a volcano destroying Jejudo is good or bad for Korea, given the changes that would occur, … but how about this: it would be amazingly bad for the actual people of Jejudo.

      Reunification has ominous consequences for the actual people of South Korea. Most people, indeed even most policy makers and thinkers, rarely think through the entire scope of potential consequences and their likelihood, because they’re constrained by assumptions and cultural biases, often biases we would never suspect. it’s why most academic analysis of politics and economics is so distorted and disconnected from reality: we always have an axe to grind, even if we don’t see it.

      Too many people in Asia are “boosters”. The intellectual vapidity of much of what’s written about China is a case in point. In order to be able to function in China or even to get published, the vacuous emptiness of much China-boosterism is a crippling flaw in the China-centred academic world. There are a few brave souls who dare to state the obvious or refrain from being hopelessly pro-China, but the bravest ones tend to be actual Chinese intellectual dissidents (who crop up in surprising places all the time, even within China, even within the communist party there). But by and large, foreign China experts are usually hopelessly biased, and as a result their predictions about what’s going on in China are in almost every case very, very wrong.

      In Japan, the same thing is a problem. In Korea, Koreans are more open and “democratic” in intellectual life, but intellectual life is wholly corrupt – who gets what position, what opinion is most favoured, etc. is based as much on connections and frankly open corruption than anything else. Academic policy opinions in Korea tend to be worthless, as a result – though there are very, very brave Koreans who resist the intellectual corruption and naked boosterism in Korea.

      Foreigners working in Korea’s intellectual climate often have a very difficult time. If you’re not a booster, you’re sidelined. If you work in the field, it’s because you like the subject – so the tendency is to get boosterish, anyway. I studied archaeology; I tend to view the field areas I studied with some affection, and hence in my own mind likely have a more elevated and not entirely accurate internal image of these societies I’ve studied and their importance.

      The same is true here. There’s a lot of motivation to excuse North Korea, and to be hopelessly hopeful for South korea / China / Japan, etc. We excuse the faults of those people/things we like, and exaggerate their praiseworthy characteristics.

      When it comes to Korea, to say anything negative at all is to risk everything. This is 100x more true for foreigners. Koreans are, in my experience, hyper-sensitive about foreign opinion. The very worst thing you can do is reflect naked reality back on Korea. If you exaggerate negative images, then you can be easily dismissed and present no real threat. But if you dare to reflect what Korea actually is back on Korea, you can’t be easily dismissed and therefore risk shattering very long-held beliefs.

      The problem in Korea is no specific issue or thing. Korea shares them with most countries. it’s an industrial consumer society and few social patters here are unique.

      Being “unique” – in a unique way – is one of the persistent and largely irrelevant myths about Korea. There’s an idea that in major ways, Korea is the “exception” to the rule, whatever rule is being discussed. But the truth is more prosaic. Korea is as unique as anywhere – which is not to say it’s not unique. It’s just that Mexico, Malaysia, and for that matter British Columbia are also unique. The uniqueness here is not of a different order or variety or kind. This is still a wholly human society or collection of societies, with many of the same problems and psychologies. China and Japan also operate largely under the same conceit, that somehow their own societies are “exceptionally unique, Uniquely unique” and therefore are outliers in the world.

      They’re not, at all. And neither is Korea.

      What Korea does have is a host of images about itself which only vaguely connected to actual reality. It’s this gap between perceived reality and actual reality that’s biggest in Korea. By contrast, while similar, China and Japan’s self-perception gaps are much smaller. Chinese people generally have no illusions about China, and are its very worst critics; indeed, it’s often hard to get Chinese people to say anything good about their societies, and honestly there’s lots good to say about them. They have delusions, as do others, but they’re less disconnected from reality than Korea’s own self-impressions. The Japanese people – well, who can know what they think? It’s hard even for other Japanese to discern that (sorry, some Korean stereotyping here – I’ve been here a while).

      Some persistent myths that Koreans believe that are utterly unconnected to reality as it’s actually experienced:

      – Korean family life: Myth is that Korea is the most family-friendly society on Earth. Actually, by comparison, Korea is one of the least family-friendly countries I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to many. It’s a nation of family obligations; not of family life. Obligations are an entirely different proposition. Among these arguments are notions like “Korean mothers are the best in the world”, which has all kinds of social implications and shaming value but bears no connection to reality and is patently untrue – Korean mothers are more or less the same as any mothers, anywhere. Yet this myth persists, largely as a social shaming and enforcement tool.
      A co-worker just got married. Both went to work on the Sunday the day after their marriage, both in offices. I’ve heard this from three different couples previously, as well. One waited 6 months to take their honeymoon, which was … 10 days, but split in two (they were not allowed to take 2 weekends, and were obliged to come in on a Thursday; to deliberately break up their honeymoon; this was CEO policy and was not objected to by any employees). Virtually no male coworkers I know spend any meal, ever, with their families, except for holiday and family-event occasions. The majority see their children at best on weekends. Few men I know have any substantial relationship with their children. Mothers work with the children because they have to, but many Koreans I know say they’ve rarely, if ever, been given any affection by their mothers – who occupy more of a job role in the family than a parenting one.
      If anything, industrialization has sucked the lifeblood from Korean families, leaving nothing but a ragged skeleton of mutual obligations enforced through silencing mechanisms of social shame. A family-friendly society, this is not.
      And yet the myth perseveres .I’ve been asked no end of times by people if foreign mothers are as good (implication; Not possible); My own wife expresses shock when I indicate that other people in other countries do, indeed, feel the love and affection of family bonds. This is not an illusion. You see this written in Korean all the time, that Koreans have special family love that can’t be found anywhere else, implying that other cultures are shallow and weak when it comes to family.
      By contrast, what I see are harsh, harried, exhausted women shamed into desperation and often bitter and resentful. Men work to support a family but know nothing of the family itself and are ghost-like figures in family life, choosing to spend as much time away from the family as possible. Divorce is now as common as mud and rain, but the society is in sharp denial, with shame still deeply associated with what is becoming a national ritual. Marriage and wedding ceremonies take place in “wedding factories” devoid of any real class or ritual significance. Affection and love are mere notions, and don’t seem to be major factors in many mate pairings that do occur. Possibly the majority. Dating is dodgy; in a world of raw pragmatism, emotion seems to be negotiable.

      it may be many things, and the ills are not unique, so in no way am I blaming Korean society for these ills – they’re common in many societies – but that’s the point. There’s less than no case here for believing that the Korean family is exceptionally strong or good bonding agency. A the very best, it’s a mediocre institution in international social terms. And yet the myth persists. If you listen, a dozen people will try to convince you of its truth tomorrow.

      – Peace and Tranquility: Order is maintained through rigid, fierce collective shame. The entire society is riven with the psychology of shame. it motivates everyone, almost all the time. Koreans who leave Korea often describe feeling free – of Korean stares and words. Peace and tranquility come at a very, very steep price.

      – Social Justice: While this is seen as a place for Uri, for national wholeness, in fact Korean society is rigidly hierarchical and justice is notional, not actual. This is both legal and social in concept: the justice system does not seek justice, but “harmony”, which means guilt and innocent are often irrelevant, and harmony may or may not be the result. Power is still a determining factor, as failed prosecutions of powerful economic leaders shows,who are released “in the interest of the nation” – harmony and collective good override reality and justice. If you’re Korean, justice may not be what you get, of the social or legal kind. Interestingly, this brand of “social harmony” often explicitly exclude the real idea of social justice – so that poverty, for example, is the fault of the poor. “Uri” can be a particularly harsh mistress.

      – Homogeneity: In fact, there is no “one Korea”. Korea is increasingly fragmented and segmented. Whole subsections of Korean society have limited to no contact with each other, from religious sects that represent huge chunks of the population and whose members virtually never interact with outsiders (Christian sects, Moonies, etc.). Because of the unusual way Korean social circles are constructed, meaning introductions and interactions require high degrees of insider social context, whole subsets and subcultures can persist in claiming that X or Y is a Korean thing, and yet only some small in-group actually values something or behaves in such a manner. So not only are the myths about some things untrue, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear great conviction about what it is to be Korean from some people and it’ll be contradicted by others a minute later – and yet both myths are celebrated, even while they’re mutually contradictory. I’m not sure Koreans actually believe any of these things. That’s not really clear. Publicly, they may do so; privately, once a bottle of soju starts making the rounds, this is less true.

      Pointing out contradictions inevitably gets you socially exiled. Again, Koreans dislike being shown reality, or even publicly thinking about it. This infects academia in Korea far more than it infects normal life, in fact.

      – Korean Propriety: On every level, this is superficial and irrelevant to reality. In fact, Korea is not prudish; Kpop stars openly sell sex, youth and beauty, prostitution is a national institution (which is why denying prostitutes’ rights is a priority). Violence in the family and in personal relationships is both common and unusually severe in comparison to many countries. Sexual assault is epidemic, though this is sometimes admitted because victims speak out (see Propriety);
      and yet few of these issues can be spoken about in polite company, especially with foreigners.

      Officially, none of this is true. Unofficially, reality has no connection to projected image. At least other countries can debate what is and is not reality (especially true of Western countries, but also of places like China); in Korea, “things are just untrue” that are obviously true. They must remain “publicly untrue”. It’s as if the ten thousand love motels clustering around every major subway station in Seoul don’t exist, or for that matter in every tiny town in the most remote of provinces, and that the customers are all poor university students and not 45-year-old office workers with other 45 year-old office workers they’re not married to. The social reality is ubiquitous and hard to deny, and yet no matter what issue we’re talking about, it’s virtually forbidden to discuss it.
      Because, as so many Koreans have explained to me – some of them in positions of power, in fact – that there are no Gay people in Korea except for a few foreigners. That, despite the gay bars, the not openly but very obviously gay media stars, and the presence of large numbers of flamboyantly gay people in many aspects of Korean life. Again with the excuses, but somehow we’re socially obliged to close our eyes and believe that Korea, alone in the world, is different.

      – Unification: Rhetoric is one thing, but actual South Koreans seem to have subliminally written off North Korea. They live in an island bubble. North Korea is now an irrelevant bogeyman. Unification seems unlikely, so it occupies almost no space in the Korean public consciousness, even less so for young people than older people. So actual unification will be wholly shocking. Koreans are utterly unprepared for the cold, stark reality that reunification will involve.

      If Korea is unique, it’s uniqueness is nowhere more felt than in the tendency to play Monkeys:
      See no evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil.

      This problem besets all discussions about Korea, no matter the subject, and nowhere is this more true than with North Korea and unification.

      It infects foreigners who try to debate it, for their own reasons and for Korean reasons; it afflicts Koreans who have opinions that are just a little bit to honest, and it confines the Korean soul so effectively that a really clear, honest debate about what to do with North Korea is never really had. In the interim, reality is this:

      In every meaningful sense, modern South Korea as it has defined itself and grown and developed since 1988 has no use for North Korea. In a real way, it would be better for North Korea to simply vanish.

      Ironically, when we talk about North Korea, for many reasons the motivation is to pretend it’s just like any other place – it’s not unique, because Korea is unique and we don’t need to worry about North Korea representing a very, very serious future problem.

      On the other hand, is we admit that North Korea presents a very unique and challenging issue, especially unification, then we have to de-uniqueify our view of South Korea and approach it from a neutral perspective.

      This is ultimately the most bizarre contradiction in a land that, if nothing else, is defined and examined through its contradictions.

  8. 김시현 March 10, 2014 at 9:38 pm

    Dear Craig,
    참 유익한 글 감사합니다. 답글이 참으로 흥미로와 좀 길지만 모두 읽어보았습니다.

    한국, 한국인, 한국 문화를 한국인으로 자란 저보다도 더 잘 표현해내시고 질타를 가해주시니 읽어가는 동안 부끄러움을 느끼지 않을 수 없었습니다.

    한국인으로서 지금까지 그렇다하게 제대로 한 일이 없으니 언급하신 다양한 이슈에 드릴 말씀이 없습니다.

    “입이 열개라도 할 말이 없다”라는 한국 속담이 있습니다. 저의 심정이 그러합니다.

    앞으로도 한국에 대한 관심을 지속적으로 가져주시며 질타의 말씀을 들려주시길 바랍니다.


  9. cpcolinchau March 26, 2014 at 3:43 am


    You’re speaking many objective truths that are being presented fairly as possibilities rather than finality for sure. The observations and the dynamics also could happen in any other place if they had the same geopolitical realities. But I can’t help but find that despite you saying that we need to look at the situation with a set of eyes “unencumbered with ideology or wishes or desires”,
    your statement that you “live in Korea and I’m married to a Korean and I have a strong stake in what happens to Korea, and incidentally to Koreans themselves, who I adore and think are fantastic.” itself is then a little bit problematic, because it speaks to the fact that your thoughts are at least somewhat dictated by your emotions/passions. You don’t kid yourself or anyone about the potentialities, “good” or “bad”, but you also don’t want to accept them even if you know that what you don’t desire may happen.

    There are other people who live and work in korea who have spouses, that would be a little less emotionally attached to the situation, despite incumbent interests. This might be simply a surrender to the ebb and flow of human nature, helplessness, or simply a strict adherence to pure objectivity.

    When things start to get real, there’s always the option of moving life and family away from harm’s way.

  10. cpcolinchau March 26, 2014 at 3:51 am

    While others may seek to create chaos, disorder, and hardship, thus disrupting the normalcy that gives a person comfort, people will do what they have to do to protect their own interests and the ones that they love. It’s simply the world turning its gears and the pieces falling into place the way people wish them to.

    I should also add I reside in Korea too, and spend many a weekend at a temple a stone’s throw away from North Korea across the river. Should artillery shells be bursting over my head and make me a victim, then I guess there would be nothing I could do to stop it. It was meant to be, but at least I was where I wanted to be and doing what I wanted to be doing at that particular time on my volition.

  11. Emanuel Pastreich March 26, 2014 at 3:53 am

    We have the most trouble with the very nature of humans. On the one hand, we are disgusted at the inability of people to even take the first steps to respond to climate change. There seems to be a tremendous weakness in our very nature.

    At the same time, however, if we look at history we can see over and over remarkable moments of transformation and change. To assume that because youth in Seoul do not care much about North Korea they never will is just wrong. Events can galvanize, transform, a whole generation. And Korea particularly changes fast. To assume that because North Koreans grew up in a rigid society they cannot contribute to a global Korea and that they will hold Korea back is simply a false assumption. The question is not how do we solve all these little overwhelming problems: money, habits, education levels, etc. If we add all that up it looks like it will take a million years. But that is a delusion.

    The problem is to give a vision that will transform. As the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “problems are never resolved; they just disappear.” Or as the management guru Peter Drecker wrote, “don’t solve problems; find new opportunities.” Focus on problems and all you see is problems. Offer a new vision of a better future and suddenly things that seemed impossible are possible.

  12. cpcolinchau March 26, 2014 at 4:01 am

    I find that point really well worded. There is always the potential for things to change. Sometimes we could be reinforcing the status quo that we so despise when we can mobilize for certain transformations, however imperfect.

    so here’s the one that i think sums up Emanuel’s statement.

    VACLAV HAVEL: “Society is a very mysterious animal with many faces and hidden potentialities, and… it’s extremely short-sighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at a given moment is its only true face. None of us know all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population, or all the ways in which that population can surprise us when there is the right interplay of events, both visible and invisible… One must be very careful about coming to any conclusions about the way we are, or what can be expected of us.”

  13. craig March 26, 2014 at 5:04 am

    I hate to be the gadfly – it’s not a role I particularly cherish – but there’s the boosterism again. yes, it’s nice to dream that we’ll arise and surprise ourselves with our powerful reaction to the challenge and overcome any obstacle – but the actual history of these kinds of events shows that the almost inevitable result is more of a muddle-duddle than anything else.

    My fear is not that it will all go south like a flock of birds. My fear is that the South Korea I, and everyone, knows and loves – with things like free and fair elections (ahem) and open political debates and a relatively free press and crime-free streets and a genteel, almost naively pleasant social order will simply cease.

    It’s easy to see South Korea just being projected onto North Korea.

    I would like to be the gadfly here and point out: It’s far, far more likely – probably unavoidable – that the projection will go both ways. We’re going to be a lot more like North Korea than we like, with absolutely brutal social divisions and problems. Already, it takes near-herculean efforts to confront the social divisions in SK as it is.

    Many South Koreans react with disgust and contempt to North Koreans – *now* – when their livelihoods and social order isn’t threatened. Jesus – I can’t imagine the situation when their social order is under intense, crushing pressure.

    I’m somewhat baffled as to how anyone thinks that this can work out well, in the short term. Agreed, in 100-120 years after unification, there’d be nothing likely hanging over the issue.

    In the short term, the point is that the “Korea” we know would be utterly, absolutely obliterated.

    We would get a new Korea. But I’m not at all certain that it would resemble anything we’d want.if we’d been asked before unification was forced on South Korea.

    I keep saying this: South Koreans give nothign but lip service to unification. There could be obvious solutions, among them seriously undermining South Korean political goals and just accepting North Korea back in toto – as in, not demanding it reform, but rather that the two merge and meet a common middle ground. Virtually nobody in South Korea wants this, because they won;t surrender a centimetre of the ground they’ve gained socially and politically. In fact, the simplest compromise would likely cause a civil war in South Korea – Korea is a very vibrant democracy, a fractious one at times, as well. This is the country where activists have sometimes publicly killed themselves to make a point.

    It’s all lip service. Obvious solutions exist, which interest no-one. This means that clearly reunification isn’t something valuable in and of itself.it’s only valuable if it happens without serious cost.

    Everything in South Korea is ambition, personal advancement and social rank and achievement: This is a capitalist society on steroids, where your social rank is the complete measure of your self-worth and nothing else matters, nothing else at all. An oversimplifcation, perhaps. But how will this society make the savage compromises required to create a nation?

    The one thing people can’t seem to do is see Korea for what it actually is, instead of what they think it should be, and then accept it for what it is. Everyone wants to use it as a canvas on which to paint their own dreams, few of which have any connection to reality.

    This saddens me.

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