When I talk to South Koreans about the possibility of unification, I cannot help but notice that what they are essentially talking about is not “unification” at all.
What they are talking is, in effect, conquest. The logic South Koreans apply when they talk about unification and its expected benefits is remarkably similar to that once used to justify the forgotten art of imperial conquest.
Of course, the vast majority of South Korea’s unification enthusiasts fail to notice this disturbing similarity and will likely be scandalized by this argument.
I’m talking, of course, about those who have more realistic expectations about how unification will happen: that is, people from South Korea’s so-called “conservative camp.”
One can dislike the South Korean right for any of a number of reasons, but one has to admit that on issues of security and unification, their worldview, if rather cynical sometimes, is far closer to reality than the one many South Korean leftists have chosen to inhabit.
This is especially true when it comes to unification. The South Korean left still pays lip service to the dream of gradual, negotiated and consensual unification while secretly, perhaps, longing for unification to be avoided or, better, postponed into the very distant future.
However, with unification, it becomes very clear that many South Koreans are actually talking about conquest. It is always accepted that the new unified state will be run in accordance with the South Korean economic and political model. No serious concessions to the North Korean model, widely seen as inferior, are going to be allowed or considered.
Nobody, for example, would seriously think about giving the Kim family and the “top hundred families” a guarantee of survival or power in the post-unification Korea – or, at least, about introducing the free medical care to which all North Koreans are in theory (albeit not in actual practice) are eligible according to current North Korean law.
It is always accepted that the new unified state will be run in accordance with the South Korean economic and political model
There are, of course, claims that the South Korean model will be enthusiastically embraced by the majority of North Koreans, and only a small and despicable minority, the hereditary elite, will be opposed to it.
This might end up being true, but this approach still reminds me of the old imperialist ideas about the need to get rid of “unenlightened despots” allegedly running “Oriental fiefdoms” and bring the light of civilization, science, and perhaps, true religion (or true ideology) to the long-suffering common people there.
It is especially remarkable to see how, in recent years, the pro-unification optimists have justified the need for unification. When former President Park Geun-hye described unification, which she said she expected to happen soon, as a “bonanza,” a large number of conservative commentators felt obliged to explain to their South Korean audience why unification was going to be a god-sent gift.
Given widespread understanding of the huge costs involved, as well as the general indifference to the “northern brethren,” this was not an easy task. So what did conservative journalists say to persuade the skeptical public that unification was, indeed, necessary and good?
Their arguments were remarkable: they talked about the huge largely untapped natural resources of the North, especially mineral deposits, which were clearly waiting to be developed by South Korean mining companies.
They also emphasized the great advantages that access to North Korean “cheap labor” would bring to the South Korean economy. Finally, even less frequently, they emphasized that unification will improve the strategic position of the peninsula.
Does this not sound like arguments classical imperialists used to rely on in the 19th century? Even more, aren’t such remarks eerily similar to what Japanese proponents of the conquest of Korea used to say?
There are, of course, claims that the South Korean model will be enthusiastically embraced by the majority of North Koreans
Of course, South Korean unification enthusiasts will be outraged by such an analogy. Most likely, they will say that unlike the British in India or the Japanese in Korea, they are going to be welcomed by the local population who, after all, belong to the same nation.
They are also likely to say that once in power they will care a great deal about the welfare of North Koreans who will, surely, greet them with great enthusiasm.
In other words, they will be “greeted as liberators” – or so they think.
This is exactly what many imperialists used to say one and a half centuries ago. Back then, it was also assumed that the conquest of the backward and underdeveloped but resource-rich and labor-rich countries would eventually be welcomed by the majority of the populace of these lands, who would enjoy the benefits of liberation from oppressive feudalism (or even slavery) as well as the introduction of modern education and modern medicine.
One has to remember for example what Rudyard Kipling once wrote, with the now-infamous “white man’s burden” encouraging the Americans to take over the Philippines. A century and a half ago, some proponents of imperialism did believe that their conquests were “to fill full the mouth of famine” and “bid the sickness cease,” while mineral resources and naval bases came as a nice additional benefit.
Conquest has been an integral part of the world history for millennia, and even the most zealous critique of conquest and nationalism tends to become ultra-imperialist and ultra-chauvinist once in power.
They will be “greeted as liberators” – or so they think
I am also aware that the imperial conquest of the last two hundred years was by no means always an unmitigated disaster for the conquered. Indeed, in many cases, the common people in the colonies saw their lot improved – as indicated by reliable statistics on public health or food consumption.
However, in most cases, even the most benevolent conquest met fierce and prolonged resistance, and the successful conquerors are now still much vilified in the memory of those whom they once ruled.
The fact is that people don’t like being conquered. You should not expect that everybody will be jumping with joy, greeting your troops, your officials, your missionaries with flowers. They are probably more likely to greeted with bullets or, at least, thinly-veiled and enduring hostility.
I humbly hope that South Koreans understand that unification will, essentially, be a conquest. Even if it is, objectively speaking, beneficial, it is still going to be problematic, painful, and ripe with controversy. It might happen anyway, whether we want it to or not, but it should be imagined as realistically as possible.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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