Unification Support in Rural Provinces

Barley fields by the sea in Dalchon village in Jeollanam-do, South Korea. Photo credit Korea.net, http://www.korea.net/NewsFocus/Travel/view?articleId=97027.

Jeollanam-do province covers the southwest tip of the Korean peninsula, a fragmented fringe of islands and irregular coastline. Like every other province in South Korea, it is largely covered with mountains, but the fertile lowlands around the coast make it the agricultural breadbasket of Korea: farmers comprise 25% of its households (compared to the 7% national average). Checkered fields of rice, barley, and wheat are everywhere, dotted with small villages at the intersections of roads.

The provinces in present-day Korea date from the Joseon dynasty, when all of Korea—North and South—was divided into eight provinces, each one named after two of its principal cities. This southwestern province had Jeonju and Naju; take the first syllable of each and it becomes Jeon-na, or Jeolla if you follow Korean pronunciation rules (Chinese characters are involved, which complicates things). By this system California might be called Los-San. The rule applies similarly to most of the other provinces in Korea.

But if the naming conventions are the same, everything else about it is different. It’s the most typically “backward” province in the small country, due mostly to its rural constituency and a historic repression begun under the longest dynasty and continued, though slightly abated, in modern politics. The region is notable for dissent and major uprisings against the national government, and has long lacked significant support for its development.

With its rural population, isolated location on the southernmost reaches of the peninsula, and strong suspicion of national government, it’s no great surprise that North Korea and unification are far from important issues in the province. It is hard for them to care quite as much about such far-away concerns, just as Texans might not care that much if Vermont and Quebec were squabbling. There are fewer separated families that far south, weaker memories of the old connection with North Korea, and fewer North Korean defectors as well, the vast majority of whom are found in and around Seoul. Most of the action concerning North Korea is focused on the northern part co-latitudinous with Seoul; even when inter-Korean tension heightened after the Cheonan sinking and the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do, Jeolla folks—while deeply saddened for the loss of their fellow citizens—had trouble imagining any direct attacks on their small hamlets and fishing villages, isolated peninsulas sticking out into the Korean Strait.

This regional disparity and indifference is one of the problems facing South Korean officials preparing for unification. All of Korea will share in the cultural and economic expansion after the peninsula unifies, but it’s tough to convince some residents of this when their lives seem so far removed from those of their cousins in Seoul, let alone those of their northern neighbors.

The Ministry of Unification’s efforts to raise awareness and support through the Internet—South Korea has the steepest rate of Internet penetration in the world—are extremely cost-effective ways to reach folks in the provinces. Unification Facebook pages, blogs, radio, TV, etc. are available to even the most distant regions of the country, and are key in familiarizing folks with unification, current challenges, and ways to move forward.

And it is encouraging to remember that people will rise to the challenge, even in this backward province. In one of the least developed areas of the country—you could visit every single place described in my 440-page Lonely Planet guide and you would never end up here—an 82-year-old man has started his own unification fund.

In 2008, Kim Gab-Soo opened a bank account at the local post office in Goheung village, and has added about $80 every month since then. He has no family members or relatives left in North Korea, but that’s not why he started it. “We recovered our nation [after Japan’s colonial rule ended in 1945],” he said, “but our citizens still can’t get along with each other.”

Citizens supporting unification fund in Goheung village, Jeollanam-do province, South Korea. Photo credit Korea JoongAng Daily.

Four years later, more than 350 citizens are making regular donations. The amounts are small—pocket money from elementary school children, profits made from selling vegetables—but every little bit will add up. About $20,000 has been raised so far, and there are no plans to stop—proving that support for unification comes from even the unlikeliest places.

Original article on citizen’s unification fund from Korea JoongAng Daily

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