New America Media
Support among South Koreans for unification of the two Koreas is at a new low, according to recent reports.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who reversed a decade of liberal policies aimed at fostering closer relations with the North, promised recently to show greater “flexibility” in dealing with leaders in Pyongyang, where hatred of Lee — who is set to arrive in Washington this week for talks with Pres. Obama on a free trade agreement — runs high.
New America Media’s Peter Schurmann spoke with Bruce Cumings, professor of modern Korean history at the University of Chicago, about the growing rift. Cumings is the author of numerous books on Korea, including most recently The Korean War, which the New York Times described as a “squirm-inducing assault on America’s moral behavior during the Korean War.”
The conflict between North and South Korea is one of the major flashpoints in the Pacific. Are things in your view getting better or worse?
Between North and South Korea things are as bad as they have been since Clinton nearly went to war [with North Korea] in June 1994, to take out the Yongbyon plutonium site, and [South Korean] President Kim Young Sam purposely insulted the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, after his death in July 1994. Pyongyang went ballistic after that, and refused to deal with President Kim.
Once his successor, Kim Dae Jung, was elected in Seoul and his handpicked protege, Roh Moo Hyun, followed on, you had ten years of constantly improving North-South relations under the “Sunshine Policy.” Pres. Lee Myung Bak [inaugurated in 2008] determined to reverse that, and the North responded predictably, including the sinking of the Cheonan warship. Pyongyang hates Lee with a passion, and I don’t expect much to change until the next election in December 2012.
Tensions are not as high now as they were at the end of last year, but Lee is a lame duck and North Korea knows it. In the end, I don’t see that Lee has gotten anything but heightened tensions out of his policies. Several of his advisors wanted to press NK hard to get it to collapse, which is absurd, and only makes the North Koreans get their back up. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has paid little attention to Korea.
What about at the popular or public level? Do South Koreans still harbor hope for unification?
Koreans all hope for unification, but do not appear to want to give up anything important to them in order to achieve it. The reconciliation that Kim Dae Jung began in 1998 held out the best hope of eventual reunification, because it envisioned good relations with North Korea over another generation or so, until reunification could be achieved, or at least a single country with perhaps provincial autonomy for the North.
Under his and Roh’s leadership, there was lots of support for this approach, and it energized the younger generation. But now, polls show that the majority of South Koreans don’t expect unification any time soon, or think about it much. They seem to think they will live with two Koreas for a long time.
Where do Korea’s neighbors stand on the issue of unification?
None of them like the idea: China is afraid a unified Korea will tilt to the U.S., Japan likes a divided Korea because even when divided, South Korea has become a formidable economic competitor — and Russia isn’t much of a player in Korea now.
Clinton’s policies in 1998-2000 were in synch with Kim Dae Jung’s, and Kim had gotten the North to agree that even after reunification, US troops would stay in the South. At the time it was possible to envision a deep reconciliation that would also include normalization of US-NK relations. When Bush came in all this disappeared, which is a shame.
Are there any indications that ordinary people in North Korea are thinking of unification?
From 1945 onward, North Korea has seen itself as the champion of unification, constantly accusing the South of preferring division. What ordinary North Koreans think about anything, though, is impossible to tell under a dictatorship that makes them parrot official policies.
There is a South Korean drama about a romance between a North Korean agent and a South Korean actor. Can you comment on the prevalence of such themes in relation to inter-Korean relations?
Probably unification has existed as an ideal and a theme or motif most of all in the films both sides produce. The North produces many melodramas about split families coming together, how awful the national division is, etc., while the South often uses the North-South split to develop themes for one film after another. There is tremendous popular interest in such films, because they allow the audience to fantasize about a different or alternative reality — but again, few want to sacrifice their interests for a highly unpredictable merger between North and South.