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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
“Our country … In bits and pieces, this phrase was again slowly coming to mean North and South, one and the same.”
Was this quote, referring to “our country” (uri nara in Korean) uttered by some Korean patriot, yearning for the unification of his country? No, this phrase is taken from the compelling American Civil War history book April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik. However, in its longing to heal festering fraternal wounds and harsh political divisions, the wording above does echo the sentiments of those in Korea who would see their peninsula as one nation again.
As next month the United States commemorates the 150th anniversary of the end of its greatest war, which split a previously unified country into a stark North-South division, there are certain potential implications for eventual Korean unification. For the division of America did not truly end in April 1865 at the Appomattox Courthouse. There was not only a geographic division of North and South but also a cultural, ideological and racial division. The reverberations of that division echoed down for more than a century, at least until the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. during another April over a century after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination (no wonder T.S. Eliot referred to April as “the cruelest month”).
The words contained in Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which had promised “with malice toward none, with charity for all … let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds,” were left largely unfulfilled. Without Lincoln’s guiding hand, greedy carpetbaggers exploited a prostrate South while the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and segregation served as continuing bitter legacies from the former national division.
Is the current ideological, political, economic and cultural division of Korea, North and South, also of such a degree that it would require a full century to heal after unification? There are already indications of this as well as of potential danger signs deserving further examination.
Most present indications are that the South Korean government, with its disproportionate advantages in national wealth, industrial power and population numbers, similar to those enjoyed by the American North at the time of the Civil War, would be the chief architect of Korea’s destiny following any potential re-unification. With an excess of capital ready to invest in the natural resources and the inexpensive North Korean labor force, Seoul tycoons would likely be looking for comparative advantage and quick profits in a newly accessible North Korea.
The danger is that, like northern Yankees descending from trains in a devastated South with their carpet bags stuffed with money to bribe, buy up plantations and natural resources and to hire subsistence laborers, the South Korean chaebol will rush north of the 38th parallel with little concern for the welfare of their newly unified northern brethren. Such crass economic exploitation, however, would be a sure formula for prolonging the divisive feelings between North and South. These future carpetbaggers crossing the DMZ from Seoul would do as much damage as the carpetbaggers who swarmed south of the Mason-Dixon Line did in 1865.
In addition, the isan kajok (families divided by the Korean War) are well-represented from the stream of northern refugees who headed south between 1945 and 1953. Concentrated particularly in the southern port city of Busan, famed for the “Pusan Perimeter” which provided safe haven to war refugees, these families continue to maintain the traditional, sentimental Korean attachment to one’s ancestral hometown. Many would head north to see the towns where their elders once resided and the ancestral gravesites if unification provided such an opportunity.
Like pro-Union ʻscalawags’ who followed behind federal troops to return to the southern United States after the Civil War, these unwelcome guests could easily cause hostile feelings among local residents
Like pro-Union “scalawags” who followed behind federal troops to return to the southern United States after the Civil War, these unwelcome guests could easily cause hostile feelings among local residents. Some isan kajok, like my former dentist in Busan, even maintained faded documents giving them perceived legal claims to ancestral land and property in the North. The Seoul government in a unified Korea would have to have a plan in place on how to deal with these long-dormant land claims. Otherwise, affluent Southerners, for sentimental reasons, will likely seek to displace Northerners by putting them off their land using these old claims that pre-date the national division.
LOOKING DOWN ON THE NORTH
Another major impediment to national reconciliation after the American Civil War was lingering prejudice. Resulting cultural and institutional barriers prevented the social and economic integration of the “freemen;” the former slaves emancipated by Lincoln. These barriers continued in place for over a century. South Korean society also has barriers, often preventing full integration of a significant portion of North Korean refugees currently resettled in the South.
The Asan Institute for Policy Studies noted, in a report titled “Resettling in South Korea: Challenges for Young North Korean Refugees” that, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, “there were 26,483 North Korean refugees living in South Korea as of March of 2014, 40 percent of them being children and young adults aged 10 to 29.” This report further noted “bias toward North Korean refugees that are widely prevalent in schools and workplaces.”
The Asan Institute also noted that, “Studies have shown that small physique increases the chance of being bullied, negatively affects one’s popularity among peers, and having low self-esteem … North Korean children and young adults are significantly shorter in height and lower in weight than their South Korean peers of a similar age” (likely caused by the widely documented malnutrition in North Korea.)
Refugees have also reported discriminatory treatment due to their northern accents, their rougher complexions, and due to the way they dress. Such discrimination reportedly extends beyond employment and housing to include even marriage prospects. The extreme competitiveness of South Korean society has also been found to be overwhelming for a number of refugees.
If South Korean society has demonstrated difficulty in absorbing a population of less than 30,000 ethnically and linguistically similar people, how will it cope with sudden re-unification with more than 24 million North Koreans
A relevant question is: If South Korean society has demonstrated difficulty in absorbing a population of less than 30,000 ethnically and linguistically similar people, how will it cope with sudden re-unification with more than 24 million North Koreans, a large portion of whom may migrate south seeking a better life and employment opportunities? The American experience with African-Americans in the South-to-North migration taking place during the Depression and World War II is not encouraging as an example. Southern, largely uneducated African-American sharecroppers were herded into large ghettoes in northern cities which practiced a de facto segregation as severe as that which was legally instituted under Jim Crow laws in the American South. Will Seoul, Incheon, Daegu and Busan develop their own ghettoes for North Korean migrant workers after unification?
The Asan report noted the high level of high school dropout rates and unemployment rates for currently resettled North Korean refugees. This also mirrors the experience of African-American communities that migrated to the North in the post-Civil War era of segregation. The report recommended a “longer, holistic approach to assisting young North Korean refugees.”
THE YOUNG AND THE PREJUDICED
The social prejudice and stereotypes directed against North Korean refugees that the Asan report documented were, disturbingly, found to be most prevalent among the young. “South Koreans in their 20s as a whole had the most negative attitude toward North Korean refugees, in contrast to the 60 or older group. The generational difference is likely due to the fact that the younger generation of South Koreans no longer consider North Koreans part of the same nation as the two Koreas have been separated for more than a half-century.”
The ostracism felt by North Korean refugees in South Korean society became the subject of discussion during a memorable cab ride in Washington, D.C. in 2002. The cab driver was an elderly African-American who was a Korean War veteran. The passengers were North Korean refugees on their way to Capitol Hill to testify at a House hearing.
The cab driver, noticing his Korean passengers, spoke of his experiences in Korea during the war. He then told of a disappointing episode where he experienced discrimination from the Korean-American proprietor of a local dry cleaning shop. The driver said he reacted to the prejudice by informing the dry cleaner of his war service, adding that, “I and my fellow veterans saved your country from communism.” He said the proprietor then bowed low to him while expressing apologies. The North Koreans then spoke in a chorus, stating that they were not surprised by the attitude of a “snobby South Korean” as South Koreans tended to “look down on” most other people. They then told the cab driver of the discrimination that they had faced after resettling in South Korea.
LEARN FROM THE PAST
The political leadership in the various states of the defeated South … proceeded to largely define its own legacy
A final issue for re-unification, both in Korea and in America, is historic legacy, as reflected in education and textbooks. The controversy currently raging in the Pacific over the treatment of World War II in history textbooks underscores the importance of this. Reconstruction in the South after the American Civil War was abruptly brought to an end with the withdrawal of federal troops due to a political deal reached in the 1876 presidential election. The political leadership in the various states of the defeated South then proceeded to largely define its own legacy. The myth of the noble “lost cause” of the Confederacy grew up, justifying both the southern insurrection and continued racial inequality.
An organization known as the United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to vindicate the Confederate cause and uphold white supremacy by monitoring the textbooks used in the all-white schools in Southern states, as educational policy was a state rather than federal responsibility. Pro-Confederacy Hollywood films like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind contributed to this legacy. This political indoctrination of future generations of white Southerners at least partially explains the hatefulness and hostility of the crowds that gathered at the Selma Bridge and other civil rights sites in the 1960s and 1970s.
How textbooks and educational policies address such contentious Korean legacy issues as the era of military rule and the Gwangju Massacre in the South and the Juche philosophy, the Kim family dynasty, the kwaliso political prisoner camps and the nuclear issue in the North will help to determine the cultural and ideological basis of a new, unified Korea. Hopefully these issues will be addressed in such a way as to avoid the lingering discrimination and resentment that cast a shadow over American society for a full century after re-unification followed in the wake of the Civil War.
Main picture: The Battle of Antietam, Wikimedia Commons