Thu, 17 Jul 2003

Fear and desire: The Koreas ponder reunion

Yoichi Funabashi, The Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo

Three years ago, when the leaders of the two Koreas met, they agreed to restore and link the Kyongui and Tonghae (East Sea) lines.

Col. Lee Kyong-soo, a South Korean military officer who accompanied me, said: "Some South Koreans worry that by linking the South and the North with railroads, South Korea is practically helping the North encroach on the South. But our defenses are much stronger than before the construction work started. The connection project is possible because it is supported by military strength.

"The general public think that the North's military threat has changed but from the viewpoint of military personnel, nothing has changed," he added.

In its white paper on defense, the administration of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun deliberated long and hard before deciding to refer to North Korea as its "main enemy."

"The previous administration leaned too far toward tolerance without giving adequate thought to security," said a high-ranking official of the Blue House, as the South Korean presidential office is known. "We're thinking about revising and amending the sunshine policy."

He said the administration intends to achieve balanced reciprocity with the North, increase the transparency of its North Korea policy and verify that the North keeps its promises. Actually, however, it is more inclined toward tolerance than security, and dialogue rather than pressure.

Both conservatives and progressives share a strong fear that the South could go down with the North in the event of war or if the North collapses.

Former South Korean Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil was strongly opposed to military confrontation, believing the only way for the two Koreas to survive was through peaceful coexistence. "I'm afraid that otherwise South Korea would be destroyed," he said. This sentiment is shared by the postwar generation.

As much as the people wish to see a united Korea, North Korea's nuclear program, the threat of war and the fear that the regime might collapse are factors making it difficult for them to truly envision such a thing.

Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun, said this doesn't mean this should be accomplished by any means whatsoever. Only when accomplished peacefully is the reunification of the two Koreas meaningful, he stressed, adding that South Korea is not aiming for a forced reunification like that between East and West Germany.

"Twenty or 30 years from now, I think unification may be a very different concept," he said. "The people may live separately, yet share a common economy and communicate with each other..."

Everybody I spoke to said reunification should be a gradual process. Some said that even after the two Koreas are reunited, they should continue to exist separately for a long time. The economy is not the only source of South Korea's worries. Both underwent tragic war experiences. Their grudges and distrust of each other are deep-seated.

And they have ideological, political, economic and cultural differences that are difficult to overcome. North Korean society must also have within it pent-up grudges and vengeful feelings that have been bottled up for half a century. South Korea sincerely wants reunification, yet at the same time is afraid of it.

Former South Korean Ambassador to Japan Choi Sang-yong said the North-South Korean problem, including the nuclear issue, is not only a national problem but an international one that can only be settled internationally. South Korea has no choice but to recognize this point.

An influential member of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party commented that in the event North Korea comes into possession of nuclear weapons, China could keep them on its behalf. "It may sound like a dream but we should also be prepared for the worst-case scenario," he said.

South Koreans seem to understand the self-interestedness of major powers and the intensity of their power diplomacy. However, when it comes to China, they seem to forget about such harsh realities and express one-sided love.

The way South Korea sees North Korea is a reflection of the way it sees the United States. The opposite is also true. Hard- line policy toward North Korea encourages hard-line policy toward the U.S., and realism toward the U.S. spurs realism toward North Korea.

On the other hand, a policy of reconciliation with North Korea contributes to hard-line measures in dealing with the U.S. The opposition Hannara Party and the ruling MDP are also at odds with each other mostly over their policies toward North Korea and the U.S.

In June 2002, two junior high school girls were killed by a U.S. armored vehicle in a traffic accident. The tragedy ignited pent-up anti-American sentiment among South Koreans and became a factor that led to Roh Moo-hyun's victory in the presidential election at the end of the year.

The driving force of the movement are members of the so-called 386 generation, now in their prime. These 30- and 40-somethings fought the military regime and pride themselves on advancing South Korean democratization.

Han Kihong, the 42-year-old head of NKNET, a nongovernmental organization devoted to disseminating accurate information about the North to the South Korean public, belongs to the 386 generation.

"South Korea's military government used the North Korean threat to sustain itself," Han said. "That's why we lost faith in everything the government said about North Korea and developed sympathetic feelings for the North. Moreover, we have always felt indebted to North Korea, which squarely fought Japan in the struggle for liberation, while South Korea bowed to pro-Japanese elements and became corrupt. But the food crisis and threat of starvation during the 1990s awakened us to the reality of North Korea. We were shown what we did not want to see."

In a way, such warped thinking fed into anti-American sentiment, Han pointed out. Key officials of the Roh Moo-hyun administration are unanimous in stressing that anti-American sentiment is easing.

However, a veteran U.S. diplomat in Seoul commented that even though the U.S. fought together with South Korea, the belief that it is the main culprit behind the splitting of Korea has taken root. Anti-American sentiment is also an expression of pride in South Korea's economic development and democratization, and anger at being restrained from expressing it. The candlelight demonstration against the U.S. at the end of last year was an example of this, said Rhyu Simin, a national assembly member from the People's Party for Reform.

Lawmakers and party members took to the streets, gathering in front of the Seoul municipal office. Among the demonstrators were many young families and couples. The demonstration was nonviolent and there were no clashes with police. Starting at 7 p.m., demonstrators sadly watched their candles burn.

Rhyu said: "People felt as if their newly acquired pride was trampled on. They were too embarrassed not to show their feelings. At long last, we are experiencing the process of discovering ourselves as a sovereign people of an independent nation."