Advancing the national myth of unity

Korea 2007

By Michael Mosettig

August 18, 2009

Kim Dae Jung

Kim Dae Jung

Nearing 84, his gait has slowed and he walks with a cane. But former South Korean president and Nobel laureate Kim Dae Jung still delivers with quiet intensity his message that the two Koreas are on the path to peace and unification. It is outside the confines of his presidential library in Seoul (the first of its kind here) that the unification issue has diminished as a priority for South Koreans, especially those several generations younger than the man who symbolizes Korea's struggle to establish democracy.


Just what that struggle entailed for Kim was summed up by the American historian and Korea analyst Bruce Cumings. Here's his description of what the military government tried to do with Kim after he ran strongly as the opposition candidate in the 1971 elections:

"He was run over by a truck in 1971, kidnapped in 1973, put under house arrest until 1979, indicted on trumped up charges ... and nearly executed until the Carter and Reagan administrations (one leaving, one incoming) jointly intervened in 1980, exiled to the United States in 1982, returned to house arrest again in 1985 and finally able to run in the 1987 direct presidential elections, only to lose when the opposition again split..."

It was hardly a surprise that Kim became the Asian counterpart to such leaders of democratic resistance as Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, a symbol of a different nation. By 1998, he finally took office as president and promptly embarked on his "Sunshine Policy" of opening up to the communist dictatorship in the North and at the same time initiating more social welfare programs at home. He held a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2000, the first between the two Koreas who had been split apart at the end of World War II, and in the same year was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But as Kim pointed out to our group of editors and producers, in tones as quiet as they were caustic, the new Bush administration had different ideas and insisted there would be no rewards for North Korea as long as it pursued a nuclear weapons program. The result, Kim said, was that North Korea withdrew from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, threw out international weapons inspectors and then tested a nuclear device.

Now, Kim expresses satisfaction that the U.S. administration has reversed course, that the six-party talks on nuclear issues are making progress and that the second inter-Korean summit between President Rho Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has produced real results. North Korea, he insists, has no choice but to give up its nuclear program if it is to become part of the world and to start alleviating the suffering of its people.

University student reflects on the future

He insists that his vision of a three-stage process to unification is on track: confederation between the two nations, followed by some form of federation resembling the U.S. system and ultimately unification.

His soft voice gains vigor as he insists with passion that Korea has been a unified country for 1,300 years, that the current division is an accident of history, and that the two Koreas have a destiny to become one.

But that message is much different from the one we have been receiving in four days of meetings and briefings. The current consensus is that any moves to unification will be gradual, that the economic and social gaps (i.e., a 25,000 to barely one difference in per capita GDP) are too large to be bridged quickly, that there will be no German model takeover of the North by the South and the hope that this gradualist scenario will not be upended by the unexpected collapse of the northern regime, as occurred in Germany in the fall of 1989.

The Next Generation

What is most surprising is that this coolly calculating approach finds voice among South Korea's college youth, at least that elite segment we had lunch with at Seoul National University. These students, at the top of the heap North Korea follows the economic and political model of China or Vietnam. Another said the older generations werepassionate about unification because they experienced family division as well as the Korean War. A third asserted that unification was only important in terms of Korea's power between China and Japan. Bringing the Koreas together, he added, would mean easier access to oil and energy in eastern Russia.

As the luncheon ended, I talked with one of their professors, comparing these declarations of pragmatism with the national myth of Korean unity, advanced with equal fervor by President Kim and like-minded Koreans of his generation as well as the American analyst Bruce Cumings. We talked of how Germans developed their national myth of unity even though Germany was a single nation only from 1870 to 1945, in contrast to the thousands of years of Korean of an incredibly competitive school and university system, talk in excellent English of unification in the tones of economists and political scientists. Indeed, President Kim repeated what every political and social analyst says of this current college cohort, that they are interested in their careers and futures and do not share the political passions of the previous generation that fought in the streets for democracy.

Korean student replies to Will Englund

Student after student stood up at our lunch to say, yes, they were glad there is no talk of war between the Koreas, but that did not mean they had to unify. One asserted they are two countries, a comment that cuts across the narrative of at least two generations. Another said it was fine if unity. The Germans, the professor said, have a romantic streak that impelled them to assume the massive economic burdens (probably close to a trillion dollars since 1990 in government spending alone) of unification. That quality is not shared by many Koreans, certainly not the young ones in that university dining room.

As our group boarded the bus to our next event, I said to several colleagues, " I think we have a story line: Koreans are not Germans."