Korea is an interesting place to visit, particularly if you are interested in culture, colonial history, and geopolitical chess games

Having just returned from Korea, I’ve had the unusual opportunity to talk to Koreans, some young, some older, about the current tense situation between the two states on the peninsula. I talked to them about their views of a brighter future, without Donald’s bigger button or Jong-Un’s need for a nuclear arsenal.

As someone who’s been privileged to witness the extremely volatile and unexpectedly rapid German (re-)unification in 1989 and 1990 from up close, it was interesting to spend time to compare notes with my Korean counterparts on how they view the situation on the ground, mere fifty kilometers (thirty miles) from the border, or the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, as this heavily militarized (yeah, odd, right) area is called. Alex and I had traveled there during our last visit in 2012. We were able to visit the North Korean tunnels dug to infiltrate (and invade?) the South. We peeked through binoculars at the now-closed village of Kaesong, where North Korean labor produced goods for the Samsungs and LGs in the south. We also saw and shivered at the tall towers on both sides, proudly flying each country’s national flag. Eerie!

The entire border to North Korea is mined territory, literally. Violent incidents always a possibility.

Background

A few weeks ago, a North Korean soldier fled to the south, bullets from his comrades accompanying him on his rabbit-like run across the border where he collapsed. Marked by malnutrition, riddled with worms and bullet holes, the man is expected to make a full recovery in a hospital in Seoul. We know little about life in the North, and even my friends in Seoul could shed little light, other than that there is a powerful elite who lives a very good life, while the rest… well, starve? We don’t really know.

Satellite images show that there is very little electric light at night in North Korea, almost nothing outside the capital of Pyongyang, and from the few accounts we have seen and read, the people north of the border live an existence that very much resembles that of pre-war Korea. But we can’t know for certain.

Korea is an interesting country. While originally Buddhist, Christianity has been playing a major role for over a century as primarily American missionaries have been very active on the peninsula. They still are, and many in the Korean diaspora are deeply religious evangelicals. In the south, that is still the case, and churches of different denominations from Roman Catholic to Mormon stand side-by-side with beautiful Buddhist temples (see photo.)

Colorfully lit prayer bags hanging from a tree in Seoul’s richest and biggest Buddhist temple.

Understanding the North…

As for the North, religion is frowned upon, as in all communist countries, although the Kim family is staging itself more in the tradition of the old Joseon Empire. God-like rulers, rather than simply chairmen of the ruling party. Jong-Un’s grandfather, Il-Sung, is still president, decades after his death. Only a god could really fill those shoes, right? So what if that all crumbled? What if the gods were killed? Or exiled? Japan, in 1945, might hold a clue to how it might affect a people…

When East Germany opened the wall, it was the wealthiest of the Warsaw pact countries. Despite the paper-maché cars with lawn-mower engines they were driving. They were Germans, after all: industrious, hard-working, with little sense of humor or appetite for “living the good life”. They saved their money in bank accounts for a better day, and the unification treaty sweetened (or at least didn’t sour) their dreams. The differences, after having been sundered and apart for forty years (1949-1989) were staggering, but still manageable. Yet only last year did East-Germans achieve full parity in their pensions, and the “Soli”, the extra tax levied to pay for the build-up of the East is still paid. Based on the discussions of the two major parties for a new government for Germany, that is not to change. Keep that in mind as we look at a unified Korea.

Korea was split in two, like Germany, at the end of the war, in an American controlled (taking over from colonial Japan) South and the Sino-Soviet controlled North. We are seventy plus years into that separation. Relations between the two neighbors, of one people, are as bad as ever, despite the current Olympia induced romance. It won’t last, or so my Korean friends tell me. South Korea, like Germany, is one of the wealthiest nations of the planet, having risen from the ashes of 1953 like Phoenix. Meanwhile, North Korea is worse off than ever before or so we are led to believe.

Seoul, the capital of South Korea is a hyper modern city with more tall buildings than I could count...

Seoul, the capital of South Korea is a hyper-modern city with more tall buildings than I could count…

Sentiments in the South…

Official doctrine in Seoul is still the dream of unification. That is portrayed in many museums, from the Korean War Memorial to the National Museum or the City Museum. It’s enshrined in the national curriculum and it is the current minister of unification who is handling negotiations with his North Korean counterpart about their Olympic tête-à-tête. However, word on the street is a different one. Seventy years is a long time. Few people from the era are still alive. Even fewer have living relatives on the other side (despite the South’s insistence on always putting family reunions on the table.) The younger generations of Koreans enjoy the fruit of their parents’ and grandparents’ hard labor. South Korea is a wealthy country with good social services, a new smartphone every season, great K-pop music and in terms of fashion. Seoul is definitely the Milan of the East. Rarely have I seen a people so tastefully dressed! Who would give that up? Risk having to sacrifice the latest Samsung gadget to help complete strangers hundreds of miles away?

Also, and I think this is even more important: the younger generations in Korea suffer from similar problems our young do in the West: difficulties finding jobs, a real-estate market out of control. I’ve been told horror stories of thousands of people applying for ten internships where eventually only eight would be hired permanently, of hiring processes lasting months with up to four different aptitude tests. Employers scorning applicants with mere bachelor degrees. Korea has an excellent educational system, but given the stress of staying on top of the pyramid, it is also driving many students to the brink of exhaustion. Kids studying from six am to eleven pm, and some even commit suicide because of it. Tell me, why would they wish to risk competition from millions of people asking even lower wages?

Seoul, after the Korean War. Large parts destroyed after the initial attacks by North Korea in 1950. Replaced by a modern metropolis. The process was not without pain.

Seoul, after the Korean War. Large parts destroyed after the initial attacks by North Korea in 1950. Replaced by a modern metropolis. The process was not without pain.

What the future might hold

Having finally rid itself of the Shanti towns of the post-war era, why would Seoul risk the prospect of hundreds of thousands, millions even, migrant workers coming to town to find their fortune in the brightly lit capital of the South? The prospect of it all frightens the younger generations. Few of them will pay more than lip-service to reunification in public, and will flat out rule that prospect out, for the time being, instead referring to “potentially”, in a “distant future”. They are a smart people, and I agree with that assessment, given what little I (and everyone else) knows about the state of things in the North. Besides, I highly doubt that China is as gullible and naïve as Russia was with regards to the GDR. I doubt that China will allow American troops on its borders. They’re quite thankful for that buffer zone that North Korea puts in between American ground troops and mainland China. I think Beijing is humiliated enough by the mere existence of Taiwan and the Japanese alliance with the U.S.

Oddly, as we’ve recently marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of German reunification, we’ve also seen just how Russia still feels about the de-facto abandonment of promises made as part of the unification process, primarily not making Eastern European countries NATO members or stationing U.S. troops there. Today, there are NATO troops stationed both in the Baltics and Poland, right under Putin’s nose. Mind you, I understand the need for those, given Putin’s saber-rattling of late and his war on Ukraine, but all of this would not have happened (or would it?) if the GDR had remained a separate country. We’ll never know, but the Russians feel betrayed. I doubt that China will make the same mistake.

Olympic thaw

This is what the Korean emperor would see, should he ever leave his palace. The ancient rule that no building shall be taller than his palace, long gone.

This is what the Korean emperor would see, should he ever leave his palace. The ancient rule that no building shall be taller than his palace, long gone. And as the city has moved on, so have the younger generations of South Korea, no longer desperately clinging to the concept of a unified peninsula, one Korea.

In less than four weeks, the Olympic torch will arrive in Pyeongchang and the Olympic games will begin with the Koreans entering the stadium together, once again marching under a unified Korean flag (a picture of the peninsula on white background, as most recently in 2010.) I doubt Jong-Un will be there, and I doubt the unified ladies’ hockey team will play for very long. Many fear that the current romance is a veil to allow the North Koreans to further/finish their armed nuclear missiles. They’ve played the South and their need for political gains before. They need to be re-elected, Jong-Un doesn’t. I don’t think they’ll be successful this time, not like they were in the nineties, during the last era of “sunshine policy” of President Kim.

Young South Korea is worldly, suave, ironic, and not as gullible as their elders were. I find that hopeful, even if it will make progress on the peninsula slow. Sometimes though, slow is better. It beats a Seoul once again ravaged by artillery batteries from the North. Do you have questions? Comments? My trip to Seoul was primarily to learn about locations and settings from my coming novel, but I couldn’t help but discuss the current political and geopolitical climate with the people I met. To them, my thanks and utmost gratitude for honest and meaningful debates.

Finally…

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Hans

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