On my recent trip to South Korea last November, I was struck by how much reunification was in the air. I first got this impression as I waited at customs at Incheon International Airport. Looming above me were large flat screen TVs beaming a Samsung cell phone commercial with two of Koreaâ€™s most popular female stars, South Koreaâ€™s pop icon Lee Hyo-Ri and North Korean dancer Jo Myung-Ae. In the commercial, the two superstars sing a song about parted lovers, and the lyrics go something like, â€œSomeday we will meet again, although no one knows where weâ€™re going, someday we will meet again, in this very image of us separated.â€ As they hold hands during the concert, the new blue One Korea peninsula flag rolls down behind them. As they turn to watch the flag, Lee Hyo-Riâ€™s voice says in the background, â€œThat day I was so nervousâ€¦because the story wasnâ€™t just about the two of us.â€
Here was Samsung, one of Koreaâ€™s most powerful corporations, popularizing reunification. But the South Korean government was also sending a clear message to all foreigners landing on Korean soil: reunification is happening, slowly, but surely.
When I told my young South Korean friend how emotional I felt as a Korean-American watching that commercial, he said that even before it was broadcast, Koreans were talking about it all over the internet. He also told me that nearly all blockbuster films in South Korea are about the Korean War, North Korea or reunification, and that North Korean characters are now humanized, compared with a few years ago when they only appeared as villains. One such film, Taegukki, a revisionist historical film about the war, still holds the number one spot in ticket sales. Eleven out of 50 million South Koreans, or 1 in 5, have seen Taeguki. Reunification is happening, my friend said, and no oneâ€”not even the election of a conservative South Korean presidentâ€”will be able to turn the tide.
Another major cultural icon, Cho Yong Pil, considered the most popular singer for the past 25 years has also helped influence popular perceptions about North Korea. Several years ago, I asked him what he thought about reunification, and he told me it could not be achieved until the elders passed due to the deep pain they still harbored from the Korean War. To my surprise, last August, he performed a concert in Pyongyang. Many South Koreans told me this was huge, more than a South Korean president visiting North Korea, because he is so beloved by every Korean irrespective of age, class, religion, or ideology.
Public Opinion Polls
Although these may seem like random examples, they actually correspond with recent public opinion polls taken in South Korea. The Korea Institute for National Unification, or KINU, a national research policy institute, recently conducted a public opinion poll of 1000 South Koreans citizens and 300 leaders from political, media and civil organizations. It found that 84 percent of the public and 96 percent of opinion leaders believed that unification was an urgent task for the nation, and 85 percent of the general public and 95 percent of opinion leaders approved of North-South economic cooperation.
Political, Cultural, Economic Exchanges
Although complete reunification may still be a distant dream, Koreans from the North and South are taking measured steps towards realizing it. On June 17, the South Korean Minister of Unification met North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and urged North Korea to return to the six-way talks. In return, South Korea promised to give North Korea two million kilowatts of electricity, the amount that would have been generated by the two light water reactors promised by the United States under the 1994 Agreed Framework.
For the five-year anniversary of the June 15 declaration, hundreds of Koreans from around the world convened in North Korea to celebrate the achievements made towards reunification. And on August 15th, on the 60th anniversary of liberation from Japan, dozens of Koreans gathered in the north to commemorate this important date.
Tourism has also been booming in North Korea. In 2005, over 275,000 South Korean tourists visited Mt. Kumgang resort in North Korea, bringing the total to over 1.1 million. That year, over 10,000 Koreans, not counting tourists, had social and cultural exchanges in the north, a doubling from 2002 to 2004, when an average of 5,000 Koreans met per year. Together, they reconstructed Buddhist temples and Christian churches, and held meetings to discuss intellectual property rights of literature and a common dictionary. Last year, North Koreans watched a South Korean opera, and this year, South Koreans will watch â€œSa-yuk-shin,â€ a North Korean drama on TV.
Perhaps the most emotional aspect of this historic process is the meeting of families, many who have not seen their relatives in over 50 years. Last year, 660 separated family members were reunited in person, and 800 family members were able to see and speak to each other through webcast, a new technology that has helped the elderly who can no longer travel far distances.
And if there is any indication of how the South Korean business community feels about reunification, letâ€™s just say that South Koreans are putting money where their mouths are. Economic exchange between North and South Korea grew almost 60 percent in one year, exceeding $875 million in 2005. And just from the Kaesong joint-industrial zone, over $11 million of manufactured goods were exported to South Korea in 2005, including steel pots and pans, which sold out in 19 minutes once they hit Seoulâ€™s department stores. This trade will only increase once the Trans-Korean railway project is complete. But it wonâ€™t be only transporting goods. Koreans from Seoul will be able to travel through Pyongyang to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, where Koreans will play as a unified team. Personally, I wouldnâ€™t want to coach that team, but I can tell you that I will for sure be on that train!
Others engaging North Korea
In addition to normalizing relations with South Korea in 2000, North Korea also signed a treaty with Russia, and in 2004 established diplomatic relations with the EU. A New York Times article, â€œNorth Korea is Reaching Out to the World, and the World is Reaching Back,â€ documents how North Korea now has embassies in 41 countries and diplomatic ties with 155 nations.
And itâ€™s not just governments that are engaging North Korea. Last fall, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis announced plans to build a plant in North Korea to manufacture 50 medical products and train North Korean medical staff overseas.
Foreigners investing in North Korea may seem like news to most of the world, but this was the sense I got when I visited North Korea in the summer of 2004. Our peace and humanitarian aid delegation stayed at the Koryo Hotel, Pyongyangâ€™s finest, and in the lobby and dining room, and on the elevator, I was surprised to see so many foreigners from Europe, China, Japan, and South Korea. Clearly, the 2002 economic reforms North Korea implemented are finally attracting the foreign investment they need.
In the summer of 2004, Korean soldiers on both sides of the DMZ began to dismantle loudspeakers used for decades to broadcast government propaganda against the other side. South Koreans flashed â€œpeace and reunificationâ€ before they went off for good.
Despite meaningful progress between the two Koreas, the Korean peninsula as understood by the international order is caught between the past and present. Sour relations between Pyongyang and Washington are in a stalemate, and are causing a rift between South-U.S. relations. Koreans, seeing the significant gains in peace and reunification, are no longer willing to accept Americaâ€™s Cold War mentality. On January 18th, the Journalist Association of Korea, the largest journalist group with 6,000 members, asked U.S. ambassador Alexander Vershbow to â€œstop making anti-North Korean remarks that do more harm than good,â€ and to apologize for his remarks, which they viewed as â€œan intrusion in domestic affairs.â€ South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun also recently made clear that he did not endorse U.S. sanctions against North Korea. If the Bush administration continues hostile regime change policies, Roh said, â€œthere will be friction and disagreements between Seoul and Washington.â€
If the United States genuinely wants peace and human rights for the Korean people, then U.S.-Korea policy should reflect this aspiration. Concretely, the United States should sign a non-aggression pact with North Korea, lift economic sanctions, minimize hostile rhetoric towards the north, and support the Korean peopleâ€™s efforts towards reunification.
It was just my parentsâ€™ generation when the Korean War happened. Although it might be called the â€œForgotten Warâ€ in the U.S., Koreans are still divided as a legacy of that war. As a Korean American, I feel especially responsible because I live in the United States, and as an American citizen, I want America to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Nobody could have imagined Koreaâ€™s phenomenal progress just a few years ago. Just like Germany in the 1980s, nobody dreamed that East and West Germany would reunite, but it happened overnight. Strong popular desire for reunification was key, as were cultural ties that helped build trust between the two societies. Those who doubt Korean reunification should now be reminded that there were doubters back then too. Letâ€™s bring America along with the rest of the world and chart a new Korea policy that finally ends the Korean War and secures permanent peace for Koreans.
This is an abridged version of Christine Ahn’s Congressional testimony on January 25, 2005. Ahn is a member of Korean-Americans United for Peace and an Oakland Institute Fellow.