Renowned inter-Korea relations analyst Andrei Lankov recently published an article about South Korean sentiment towards unification, and discussed how ‘talk of delayed unification is still seen as a grave political heresy,’ despite waning enthusiasm over the issue.
To read an outsider’s view on such an important issue was refreshing. His views were accurate, insightful, and enlightening. But at the same time, as a Korean, I felt that the piece had misinterpreted some of the causes and implications of this ‘new wave of scepticism’ toward unification.
The reasons why this change is occurring are, as Lankov points out, pretty straight forward: North Korea is becoming irrelevant to many South Koreans, especially with the lack of shared common experiences and loss of personal connections. In addition, there are also fears over the enormous burdens of unification. Still, as he notes, the average Korean still adheres to ‘ethnic nationalist’ beliefs, and it would be hard for any political party to openly hold an anti-unification position.
But the notion that ‘the growing anti-unification sentiments cannot find open expression in political discourse’ is misleading. This implies that the public would be open to such a position, which isn’t the case in South Korea. Though it’s probably true that more Koreans are sceptical over reunification, the bigger problem is actually growing indifference. South Koreans are now more interested in maintaining their standard of living. And, with socio-economic issues being more pertinent these days, South Koreans are now more vested in what political, economic and welfare policies each party can offer, rather than their position on the country’s troubled neighbour.
Meanwhile, efforts on both sides of the political spectrum to enhance inter-Korean relations over the past decade have had mixed results. The fact is that both doves and hawks have been met with missile threats and other violent provocations, meaning that to many South Koreans, it doesn’t really seem to matter what option they choose.
As a result of all this, the unification issue – or indeed the broader question of how to deal with North Korea – has remained largely in the background of campaigns on both the left and the right. The so-called northern wind (북풍; 北風), which was a decisive factor in most elections from the 1990s to the early 2000s, appears to have eased.
But there are two fundamental reasons for this change that Lankov hasn’t addressed, both related to indifference. The first is that Korean politics is often influenced by the prevailing public mood, which in recent years has meant politicians have focused on other issues. For example, the morality of candidates is an issue that has consistently been debated during recent elections, while in Seoul, all the talk has been about to what extent the city should provide lunch for middle school students.
The second reason why policymakers in Seoul haven’t raised the unification issue is that they simply haven’t been able to come up with good enough reasons why the public should be engaged on this. Ethnic nationalism is important from a state perspective, but individually it doesn’t provide the jobs and social security that many Koreans deem their main considerations. Indeed, unification is often tied in many people’s minds with significant cost and greater social instability.
This circles back to the political structure in Korea. The ideological divide in South Korea isn’t actually as deep as most foreigners believe. Although it could be argued that the Korean public is more ideologically divided than the parties that represent them, the fact remains that there isn’t always a great deal separating the leftist Democratic Party and the rightist Grand National Party. And, while it’s true that they have different approaches to the unification issue, these differences focus on policy rather than ideology. With unification lost in the shuffle of policymaking, both parties seem to be content with believing that unification will happen one day (they’ve just run out of new ideas for achieving it).
Most South Koreans subconsciously assume that unification will happen sometime in the future. But this breeds indifference among the public, and a lack of planning among policymakers. While ‘ethnic nationalism’ is enough reason for some, it isn’t enough to persuade the wider public. Considering the unavoidable, ground-shaking changes expected to come with unification, policymakers should return to basics and first consider why Korea needs to be unified in the first place.
Building on ‘ethnic nationalism,’ a concept that resonates not only in Korea, but in East Asian countries in general, would be a good place to start. Focusing more on human rights in North Korea, emphasizing the hardship and injustice that our ‘brothers and sisters’ are enduring, would also provide the public with a sense of empathy, a sentiment greatly needed in the eventual unification process.
Another option would be to make a more conscious effort to differentiate regular North Koreans from the North Korean Army and the Kim Jong-Il dynasty. In addition, coming up with, and articulating, reasons why unification could be a genuine opportunity is something else politicians could usefully start contemplating.
Backing unification simply because we used to be a single country isn’t enough, and doing so will simply lead to post-unification unrest. Those who truly believe that unification is for the ‘glory of the nation’ must think outside the box and explain why.
Dong-Joon Park is a Resident Kelly Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.