During a recent trip to Russia, I visited two Soviet “lifestyle” museums, which are essentially collections of everyday items from Soviet times. Soviet-era telephones, mailboxes, clothes, and posters line the walls of these museums. At the Soviet nostalgia museum in Kazan, a jacket made entirely from Communist Party books was on display and a drum set was available for guests to play. At the museum in Moscow, guests would have to answer a series of questions on Soviet history in order to leave. The irony of being trapped in a Soviet museum was not lost on me. In post-communist Russia, Soviet nostalgia is alive and well. While the Soviet Union was far more liberal (which isn’t saying much) than North Korea has ever been, a similar nostalgia for the days of the DPRK may impede the progress of a unified Korea one day.
As B.R Myers has argued, the Kim family personality cult in a unified Korea will not collapse. Statues of the Kims will not topple like the statues of Saddam Hussein did. While most North Koreans will not be keeping portraits of the Dear Leader in their living rooms like they do today, statues of the Kims will still be seen in public spaces after unification.
North Koreans will quickly realize that a unified Korea is not the paradise that propaganda once portrayed it as
Part of the reason for the continuation of the personality cult will be the subordinate role North Koreans will play in a unified Korean economy. As North Koreans transition from a socialist system to a hyper-competitive, free market economy, many North Koreans, at least initially, will occupy service sector jobs in a unified Korean economy. As a result, North Koreans will quickly realize that a unified Korea is not the paradise that propaganda once portrayed it as. Due to this lower-level position in the South Korean chaebol (family-owned conglomerate)-dominated system, North Koreans may become nostalgic for the days of the DPRK and socialist lifestyle museums, like those I saw in Russia, may even open in a unified Korea.
Today, many North Korean defectors struggle to adapt to life in South Korea. Government assistance has not alleviated the underlying issues affecting North Korean defectors. Many defectors struggle to adjust to a highly competitive educational system that places enormous importance on after-school programs that prepare students for entrance exams. Many defectors were also not exposed to English in the North and the South Korean dialect, which includes many English words, makes it difficult for defectors to assimilate into South Korean society. Due to their accent, South Korean employers often discriminate against North Korean applicants. In addition, defectors were not previously exposed to the technology, such as smartphones, that South Koreans use on an everyday basis.
These issues will not disappear in a unified Korea. Instead, they will become more apparent and these differences will further alienate the North Korean community. This alienation will lead to a historical amnesia that paints the Kim family regime in a positive light.
The National Security Act has curtailed the dissemination of North Korean propaganda in South Korea. However in a unified Korea, a law such as this would only heighten tensions between the North and South Korean communities. North Koreans will see the law as an anti-democratic act that specifically targets their community. With this pressure, the unified Korean government will be forced to allow the continuation of the Kim personality cult in a reduced but still visible form.
North Koreans will learn that the Kims were not the great leaders their propaganda portrayed them as. However, with the discrimination they will face in a unified Korea, the historical memory of the Kims will gradually transition to the view that they were brutal but strong leaders who repelled the Japanese and American imperialists. Similar to the way Stalin is “revered and reviled” in post-communist Russia, the historical memory of the Kims will also be double-sided: While the Kims were brutal dictators, they did what was necessary to protect our small nation from Japan and the United States.
The memory of Russia as a once great superpower that rivaled the U.S is now a cornerstone of an ultra-nationalist ideology that dominates Russian politics today. Will an ultra-nationalist ideology also affect a post-communist, unified Korea?
While North and South Korea remain divided on many issues, their mutual animosity towards Japan may unite the two Koreas ideologically after unification. In order to rally Koreans from the North and the South around a common cause, the unified Korean state will portray Japan as an external enemy that seeks to re-colonize and oppress the Korean people. Thus, Koreans will revitalize the image of historical figures who opposed Japanese colonialism. Kim Il Sung and his band of anti-Japanese guerillas will occupy a central place in this narrative.
Just as South Korea today struggles to come to terms with its authoritarian past, a unified Korean state will also struggle with its identity. As a result, nostalgia for the DPRK may develop and ignite social tensions that leave the peninsula divided along regional lines. For example, those living in Pyongyang, who occupied the upper echelon of North Korean society, may resent unification. However, as recent developments on the DMZ suggest, Korean unification is still a long way off.
All images: Benjamin R. Young
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