Every week or so, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Got a question? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Today’s question: How do North Koreans imagine reunification?
When I was 9, a relative who lived in Pyongyang, visiting us in the countryside, brought along a box of mandarins. It was the first time tasting the fruit. My relative told me it was from Jeju island, a gift from its governor to citizens of North Korea’s capital.
At that time, the relationship between the two Koreas was good: it was the years of the Sunshine policy, and interactions between North and South had progressed actively on the government and private level.
I will never forget the flavor of mandarin, which was ripe and fresh and melted in my mouth. After that, whenever I think of reunification, I think of those sweet mandarins.
As you know, there are hundreds of separated families on the Korean peninsula. Almost all of them are old aged now. For them, the definition of reunification is quite simple, not linked to politics or profit: they just want to see their families again and want to be buried in their hometowns.
I knew a person like that in the North. When he was 19, he was captured by North Korean forces during the war. He lived in the North the rest of his life, full of homesickness for the South. Before he died, he said: “either way, I just hope for reunification.”
There is a famous joke in North Korea. A crowd gathers in a town square and someone yells “there are American warships on the Wonsan coast!” An old woman shouts “I hope a war breaks out!” – very dangerous in public. A police officer overhears her and the crowd grows tense, before the woman shouts: “but we will win anyway!” The crowd laughs.
You can see the mentality of common people in North Korea through these stories – something that is really dangerous to say: many think if a war breaks out, even though they might die, it is better than living from hand to mouth. There are common grounds in these stories – yearning for a better life.
Whether it is a childhood memory of sweet mandarins, an earnest desire for families to reunite, or the hope for a better standard of living, most North Koreans are optimistic about reunification.
But not everyone is optimistic: privileged groups, including Kim Jong Un’s family, do not hope for it. In its propaganda the regime calls for a different kind of reunification: “tanks supporting South Korean factories.”
For them, if North Korea’s military power and South Korea’s economic power are combined, that is reunification, a united “Strong Great Country.” This is just propaganda to maintain their power. Those who are privileged are well aware that the division of the peninsula and isolationism are better than unification if they want to stay on the throne.
They see how enlightened South Koreans are by their democracy: even if North Korea unifies the peninsula by force, the privileged elites in Pyongyang will be intimidated by the democratic South Koreans. They will be a pain in the neck and know how to challenge their power.
The North Korean elite know that reunification would not be good for them: the concept only exists to be used as propaganda, as a strategy to rule.
But this is changing. Gradually, some shifts in social class are taking place. The more that marketization takes place, the more the power of the middle class grows. This group is slowly eroding the privileges of the ruling class: someday soon, they will change North Korean society.
And they have a desperate desire for reunification, so this growing power is a positive sign. In addition, they want peaceful and gradual reunification rather than a war. If this group continues to grow powerful, they will be an irresistible force.
As a former resident of North Korea, what about my dreams for our reunification? Although I know it’s a long way away, my vision is not that gloomy.
When I was in North, I used to imagine “if I could touch the southern sea, it may be on the day of reunification.” Despite this dream having come true, reunification seems to be very hard.
It’s okay: haste makes waste, after all. Sudden reunification without any preparation might be more harmful for our country. But step by step, this optimistic dream will come true.
Translation by Eun-ah Seol
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Ministry of Unification