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One nation divided by nationalism

A unified Korea is a dream but not a likelihood

One nation divided by nationalism
Joseph Pak, Seoul

March 26, 2013

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Why do the two Koreas continue so tirelessly to exchange severe threats of war and, on occasion, actual bullets and bombs?

About 15 million of South Korea’s 50 million people live within 60 kms of the North’s guns and missiles, as an estimated two million soldiers from both sides prepare for war along a short 155-km truce line.

A recent war of words, sparked by the unanimous passage of a UN Security Council resolution earlier this month over the North’s nuclear and missile activities, has reawakened memories of the past for people in the South.

Northern troops captured Seoul on two occasions during the Korean War, and many in the South still live in the shadow of that trauma – an explanation, perhaps, for why South Koreans seem to have adopted a rather transcendental attitude toward relations with their bellicose brethren in the North.

It’s as though the chest beating has become a normal fact of everyday life.

When North Korea announced on March 11 the rescinding of the truce that ended hostilities in 1953, Seoul’s stock market responded quite casually with a mere 0.13 percent drop.

And yet, transcendental does not imply ambivalence. The South wants and needs peace with the North, even without reunification. But reunification is the goal…and at the same time, also the problem.

The two sides have been divided since the Soviet Union and the United States occupied the peninsula to disarm the remnants of the Japanese army in 1945.

They remain divided today because each has a different vision for the nation, with contrasting political and economic ideologies.

The fact is, each side thinks it’s the one true Korea and that reunification will bring that vision into reality. This idea approaches the level of religious doctrine.

Two songs unite every Korean, North or South: the traditional folk song Arirang and Our Hope Is Reunification.

The former has been a symbol of Korean nationalism since Japanese colonial rule from 1910-1945. The latter originated in the South but is taught to schoolchildren on both sides – despite a general ban by both sides against each others’ cultural artifacts.

Given the common ground shared between North and South, the lingering animosity is sometimes difficult to understand. Even India and Pakistan, nuclear powers that have fought three wars since independence from Britain, share rail lines between the two countries for trade and transit.

And despite tensions over sovereignty, China and Taiwan enjoy some measure of peaceful exchange and commerce.

But as close as North and South are in some respects, the 4 km Demilitarized Zone separates two very different nations with two very different agendas.

The wealth and prosperity of the South could quite easily absorb the impoverishment of the North, which has long been the recipient of international food aid.

But “absorption” for the North means something else entirely: the rescuing of its southern brethren who have for decades endured US occupation.

As well, the spectre of hundreds of thousands of Koreans on both sides that were killed during the war raises fears that any attempt at reunification would stir those memories and spark a desire for revenge.

Until each side can come to terms with the past and set aside their grievances over who started the war and who is to blame for the decades of partition, acrimony and fear, then the respective nationalism of each side will drive them further apart.

And there lies the irony. It is their respective nationalism that hampers all efforts to create a unified nation.

And yet each side still teaches their children the reunification song, hoping against the odds that ‘one Korea’ will some day become a reality.

Joseph Pak is the bureau chief for in Seoul

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