TOPICS > Politics

Dreams of Unity between the Koreas

April 16, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY KAYE: The impulse to unify Korea has become a centerpiece of South Korean policy. In 2000, the North’s Kim Jong Il and South Korean’s then President Kim Dae Jung held the first ever meeting between leaders of the two South Korea’s current president, Roh Moo-Hyun, has continued his predecessor’s policy of engagement with the North, the so-called sunshine policy.

YOO JAY-KUN, Korean Legislator: We should get together – North and South — same language, same people, same question.

JEFFREY KAYE: Yoo Jay-Kun is a member of South Korea’s national assembly. His support for reconciliation with the North might be surprising, given his history. Soon after the start of the Korean War his father was kidnapped by the North.

YOO JAY-KUN: Early part of July 1950, he was arrested, sent to prison, and that’s it.

JEFFREY KAYE: That’s the last you heard?

YOO JAY-KUN: Yes. I was aged 13 at the time, for past 50 years, no news.

JEFFREY KAYE: Nevertheless, Assemblyman Yoo, a close adviser to the South Korean president, wants to build bridges to the north.

YOO JAY-KUN: It’s a tragedy, but this not only my family, but more than ten million Korean family were separated. That’s really terrible things.

JEFFREY KAYE: While much of the world thinks of two nations separated by the demilitarized zone, the DMZ, laced with razor wire and vigilant guards, most Koreans prefer to think of themselves as one people with a common 4,000-year history. This sense of common nationhood plays out not only in politics; it extends to the nightly weather report. The map used by television weather forecasters shows one nation with no boundary dividing North and South at the 38th parallel. That mindset extends beyond weather. Reporter Cho Hyun-Jin says news coverage of the two Koreas is couched as one people confronting a challenge.

CHO HYUN-JIN: We approach it as a reunification issue. That’s where all the stories start, under that umbrella. Obviously, technically there is North Korea and South Korea, but the people tend to and like to think of Korea as one whole nation instead of two separate nations.

JEFFREY KAYE: South Korea even has a ministry of unification, which builds ties to North Korea. Some 350 ministry employees promote cultural exchanges, trade, and tourist excursions. One example of their work is a joint building project. North Korean laborers are constructing the last stretch in a railroad planned to link the two nations. For its part, South Korea has not only built tracks into the DMZ, it has also constructed a railway station just south of the DMZ, the northernmost station in South Korea, used mostly by tourists. But Kim Sicheoul, the station’s manager, hopes to one day take the first train to the North.

KIM SICHEOUL, Train Station Manager (Translated): The person I want to meet the most is the stationmaster who’s in charge of the station closest to South Korea. If he’s older than me, I want to have him as an older brother; if he’s younger, then as a younger brother; and spend some good time with him.

JEFFREY KAYE: There’s no train service yet, but there is shipping, or at least one ship. About once a week, the cargo vessel “Trade Fortune” runs between South and North Korea, a journey that would have been taboo not so long ago. It brings to the South raw materials and products assembled in North Korean factories– textiles and electronics goods. And it exports foodstuffs for North Korea’s destitute and hungry population. This evening, cattle were headed North. The trade is negligible now, but there are big plans for the future. A subsidiary of the Hyundai Group, a conglomerate which makes everything from cars to ships to stereo equipment, wants to turn totalitarian North Korea into a tourist attraction.

JEFFREY KAYE: Now this is in the southern part of North Korea, but you also have plans to develop projects in the North –

SPOKESMAN: Yes. Tourism.

JEFFREY KAYE: And here’s the happy family driving into North Korea from the South to enjoy the tourist spots. Jang Whan-Bing says even though Hyundai’s North Korea ventures lose money, his company hopes to turn a profit by investing in the railroad, a mammoth industrial park, even a mountain tourist resort and a road connecting it to South Korea.

JANG WHAN-BING, Hyundai-Asan Corp.: We expect one million South Korean tourists can visit Mountain Kungang, then no problem for making profit.

JEFFREY KAYE: Assemblyman Yoo acknowledges financial assistance might be used to prop up the North Korean regime, but he says engagement has other goals.

YOO JAY-KUN: We would like to support and help those ordinary 22 million North Koreans. They are our brothers and sisters. That helps them develop their economic, their situation, condition, and that… we just like to help them to spreading their communities from some of the, you know, the democratic principles and free market system type thing.

JEFFREY KAYE: Many Koreans have been startled by the pace of change. Reporter Cho says he is amazed that journalists from the two Koreas have visited each others’ countries.

CHO HYUN-JIN: I never thought of that happening when I joined this company. That’s less than ten years ago. See how dramatic things are changing? See how positively the evidence is moving toward reunification? Of course, there’s tension and, of course, there’s positive and negative sides of it, but you have to also look at the positive side as well.

JEFFREY KAYE: The benign view of North Korea is most prevalent among young activists, many of whom have turned out in large numbers to oppose the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Many anti-war demonstrators have also demanded that the U.S. scale back or remove its 37,000 troops in South Korea.

JEFFREY KAYE: Are you afraid of North Korea?


JEFFREY KAYE: You’re not afraid of North Korea?

LEE CHUNSU: I’m not at all, because we are just – I think we are all families and relatives, and someday we will all reunite.

JEFFREY KAYE: But these people say protesters are naive. They are among the trickle of North Korean refugees who have managed to escape to the South. “God gives us freedom,” they sang. Most asked us not to show their faces for fear that families back home might be targeted. Church groups provide them with food, social, and religious services. Three refugees agreed to interviews.

KIM DONGCHAN ( Translated ): In North Korea, whatever we learned was all combined with political ideas, whether it was mathematics, Korean literature, or science. For example, in math, you hear there are ten American tanks and five North Korean tanks and the North Korean tanks defeat the American tanks. How many are left? Things like that – so starting in childhood you are brainwashed.

JEFFREY KAYE: All veterans of the North Korean military, they were surprised to find South Koreans who didn’t fear the North.

SEO CHANGSU (Translated): All the North Korean soldiers are ready for war, mentally and physically. We called South Korea “the imperialist U.S. ally,” and we learn that there should be war in the Korean Peninsula. North Korea insists U.S. troops should pull out of South Korea, but if there were no U.S. troops, North Korea might start a war on the Korean Peninsula.

JEFFREY KAYE: To Han Park, a peaceful unification of the two Koreas is a romantic dream, not a practical reality. Park, director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues in Georgia, is a frequent visitor to both north and South Korea.

HAN PARK: I think it is not a very popular thing to say this in Korea here, but unification is more ideal as opposed to realistic objectives.

JEFFREY KAYE: Park says South Koreans would be much less interested in reunification if they seriously considered the costs.

HAN PARK: It’s not going to be acceptable, even to South Koreans, because it’s too burdensome economically, socially, politically, so, yes, if you are going to provide them with reunification free of charge, they will consider very seriously, but once it involves all these social, political, economic costs, I don’t think their desire is very real and sincere.

JEFFREY KAYE: Even the most ardent boosters of unification admit it will be a long and torturous process to dismantle 50 years of tensions as jagged as the razor wire at the DMZ.