Associate Professor of Sociology
[This is an article which appeared in the Fall 2000 issue
of the UCLA Magazine under the title
"Northern Exposure," pp 14-15]
My father, a minister, used
to cry at a certain time each year -- on Mother's Day. Whenever he delivered
a sermon on Mother's Day, he could not escape a sense of guilt for not
fulfilling the Confucian responsibility of filial piety toward his mother,
whom he had left behind in the North during the Korean War. Like many other
Korean males of the time, he left home to
avoid being drafted into the North Korean army, assuming that he would return after a few months at most. He never saw his mother and other family members again.
My father was just one among
the millions of Koreans who were cut off from their families and relatives
during the destructive three-year war (1950-'53). Now, 47 years after the
end of the conflict, these men and women are jubilant over
this summer's optimistic summit -- the first ever since the country was divided between North and South in 1945 -- during
which the leaders of the two Koreas agreed to work together to rejoin long-separated families. During a recent visit to Seoul,
I was able to see that hopes engendered by the summit were helping South Koreans to regain pride so badly hurt by the economic crisis that struck the nation three years ago.
the reaction in the South to the summit was one of shock and confusion,
so deep is the suspicion and fear of the communist North. When I was growing
up in South Korea, for instance, I believed that North Koreans were hardly
human. I was also taught that Kim Il-Sung, the North Korean leader for
half a century, was an imposter leading his people
into starvation while pretending to be the legendary General Kim who had fought against the Japanese during the colonial era
of 1910 through 1945. Even while teaching at UCLA, I have received booklets from a dubious South Korean institution, including one that depicted the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il, as a demented playboy.
Thus, it is no surprise that
many South Koreans looked on in disbelief at a confident and charismatic
Chairman Kim Jong-Il greeting their President Kim Dae-Jung in the North
Korean capitol of Pyongyang. In a strange psychological rebound,
a "Kim Jong-Il syndrome" has arisen in the South, with many youngsters mimicking the chairman's manner of talking and
gesturing. There now is a flood of books on North Korea, reflecting South Koreans' interest in their northern neighbors. I
heard some political pundits conjecture that, if a national election were to be held now, Chairman Kim would prevail over
any South Korean politician.
Apart from the personalities involved, the summit is historic because the two Koreas finally have come to recognize the legitimacy of each other's political leadership. Ever since national division, the two countries have engaged in fierce contention for national representation, including a horrific civil war. Even when both Koreas joined the United Nations in 1991, they were reluctant to grant each other political legitimacy, making any serious progress in inter-Korea relations impossible.
Now, after the mutually
respectful summit, there are reasons for optimism. The North's Chairman
Kim showed that he is genuinely interested in improving relations. The
South's President Kim Dae-jung, whose diplomacy of engagement -- his "sunshine
policy" -- had previously been harshly criticized, received a big political
boost; a post-summit poll showed more
than 90 percent approval from the public. More importantly, his main critics -- conservative anti-Communists who were forced to leave their families behind when they fled from the North -- were the first to come into the streets and welcome Kim upon his return from Pyongyang.
There are already signs of improvement in the historically conflict-ridden inter-Korea relations. A South Korean ship that drifted into North Korean waters was treated well and immediately returned, and political propaganda in the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries has vanished. The 50th anniversary of the Korean War, which was expected to be a huge event before the summit, passed quietly in both Koreas. The two countries have begun to use friendlier terms when referring to each other and a certain number of family reunions are expected to occur as was promised during the summit.
To be sure, military and
security issues still remain to be resolved and rising expectations among
people could backfire if things do not go as planned. Also, despite popular
support for the summit, many conservatives in the South remain suspicious
of President Kim's policy of engagement. The main opposition party is still
reluctant to endorse it on the grounds that
they have not been sufficiently consulted and that the economy, still in the process of recovering from the crisis, is not yet strong enough to give massive aid to the North. The summit also showed that unification, which people had assumed would occur as a result of the North's supposedly imminent collapse, is still far away; the country appears to be functioning quite well under Chairman Kim's leadership, despite its many troubles and difficulties over the years.
In addition, inter-Korea issues must consider vexing international dilemmas, since the peninsula is located at the intersection of world powers China, Russia, Japan and the United States, which maintains a powerfully equipped military force of 37,000 soldiers in the South. Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to China and North Korea reflects Russia's continued interest in northeast Asia. In addition, progress in inter-Korea relations might discomfort the United States, which justifies its preparation of a national missile-defense system on the basis of the alleged threat of North Korean attack. Not surprisingly, U. S. reaction to the summit has not been enthusiastic, and in a recent visit to Seoul, U. S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright affirmed that there is no intention to withdraw or even reduce American armed forces. Yet continued misconduct by the U. S. military, such as the recent mistaken bombing of villages during a drill and the release of chemical pollutants into rivers, have provoked a resurgence of anti-American movements by civic organizations in the South.
The U. S. must reevaluate
its current policy toward both Koreas. The recent lifting of its economic
sanctions against the North is a good step forward. But the U. S. must
go further, including normalization of relations with North Korea. The
U. S. also should no longer treat the South like a little brother, but
must consider it an equal partner in Asia. Not until the U. S. fully reorients
its Cold War mentality and shows true respect toward both Koreas, can it
help build genuine partnership in the
Gi-Wook Shin attended Yonsei
University in Korea and obtained his MA and PhD in Sociology from University
of Washington. Shin is the author of Peasant Protest and
Social Change in Colonial Korea and co-editor of
Colonial Modernity in Korea as well as numerous articles on colonialism, nationalism, social movements in Korea. He served as acting director of the UCLA Center for Korean Studies and teaches Korean society and politics as well as
sociology at UCLA. He is also recipient of numerous grants from NSF, NEH, SSRC, US Inst of Peace, and a frequent contributor to Korean newspapers and magazines, currently serving as a columnist for the Korea Central Daily (US edition). He is currently engaged in a book project on national identity and unification in Korea and serving Northeast Asian
Council of the Association of Asian Studies. Shin and his wife live in the city of Calabasas with their three children.