After Kim Jong-Il: America and the Two Koreas

Recently while listening to the National Public Radio (NPR) in the car I came across this program, made by “America Abroad,” about predictions on the future of North Korea and its relations with America. I found the nearly hour-long program at the “America Abroad” website and thought it would be helpful to show others this fairly comprehensive study of the past of Korean relations and to highlight its main points for those who don’t have a free hour to listen to the entire program. The program ended with a quote on the current state of relations; “The 65 million dollar question is… are we going to be ready if this succession doesn’t work.” This question colored the discussion on predictions for the future and unification through the hour.

The program first looked at current public opinion in South Korea about the possibility of unification, the difference seen there in between generations, and about the likelihood of unification happening in the near future. While the older generation in their 50s and 60s tend to have more hostile emotions towards the North Korean government, almost all wish for unification in the future (with only 5.5 against it.) This is largely because of their memory of the Korean War and because many have close family members in the North. Meanwhile, one major obstacle for the South Korean government to prepare itself for the possibility of reunification is the growing apathy of younger generations; 25% of young people are against unification. Rather than seeing unification as a way to bring together separated families, they see unification in terms of economic cost to themselves and to the country. Young Koreans tend to be very successful, and they don’t feel willing to give up South Korea’s successful economy to saddle the responsibility of reeducating and caring for millions of people who previously lived in isolation. This poses the crucial question of how much this generation, or future generations, will be willing to sacrifice to achieve unification.

Many South Koreans don’t feel that they personally or the country politically is prepared to take on the challenge of unification, but believe that if taken in phases, the country could take on the responsibility gradually through peace making and helping to bolster the North’s economy. Many hope that gradually over time and through changes in administration, the North might start to open up to the outside world. However, as other professionals expressed in the program, change on the Korean peninsula rarely comes gradually, and if the succession in the North were to fail, the responsibility could abruptly be thrown into the South’s lap. Though no government is directly attempting to collapse the North, certain conditions could cause it to implode on its own in time. Failures in dictatorships often take months or even a year to unravel, so with the change of leadership being so recent we cannot yet tell if it will be stable in the long run.

The program also spoke to a number of North Korean defectors involved in South Korean civil society to hear their thoughts on unification. The defectors interviewed, as reflective of the general trend, had been in families involved in the North Korean military or were close to the ruling party, giving them the connections and means for escape. However, just because they had connections did not keep them from experiencing starvation and disease in the North and many hardships after leaving. One 28 year-old defector interviewee was 14 when he left the country. At age 12 he had left school to work in factories to provide for his siblings; his parents died due to famine and disease. His father had been a military officer, so their family friend helped them cross the border. During their 3-year stay in China they also received help from ethnic Koreans and humanitarian activists residing there. He wrote memoirs about his journey, and used the royalties from them to finally fly to South Korea. He currently works at the North Korean Intellectuals Solidarity, a defector NGO operating in Seoul. He felt that defectors were treated as outsiders in South Korea, but that it was their duty to help the government understand North Korean culture and interpret media from the North, especially during a time when South Korea is trying to get information on North Korea on a large scale.

With the help of many defectors, we can make a vague picture of the political life in North Korea. After Kim Jung Il’s death, China seems to be cooperating to maintain order in the North by locking down on the border more heavily—but more are attempting to leave the country than ever before. Many commoners have become disenchanted with the Kim family and the new leadership. Many North Koreans don’t agree with the idea of a third generation succession, but due to their inability to organize, must appear to accept it on face level for now. However, defectors worry that the upcoming 100th birthday celebration for Kim Il Sung could make citizens more nationalistic once again.

Indeed one of the main problems in predicting the North is our lack of cultural and knowledge of the higher-up decision making processes and interpersonal relations. How much can we judge these things from a video clip or two? Regardless of a shortage of information and the uncertainty of interactions between North Korea, South Korea, and America, we can still look to a few places for clues to the future. More six-part talks in the future don’t look likely. Though more were previously being organized, they are put on hold due to the switch in leadership. Regardless, few think these talks will lead to denuclearization. Despite previous six-party talks, nuclear tests were conducted in 2006, and American officials think it will be hard to rewind the clock on nuclear proliferation. As many past presidents have asserted America as a “Pacific nation” and have pledged our continued assistance and interaction with the region, Obama has put new emphasis on Asia. Elections are also coming up in South Korea, and though a history of negative relations is hard to overcome, many find the idea of having new leaders on both sides inviting. The fact remains that unification could fall into the hands of the next South Korean and American president, so the most important step currently seems to be to prepare for the best and worst possibilities.

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