Team Korea—the combined north and south ice hockey team—prepare to face Sweden at the Winter Olympics

North and South Korea: best of enemies

As the North and South Korean leaders hold an historic summit, read Jean H Lee on the thawing relations between the two countries—and how young southerners could ensure Pyongyang is kept out in the cold
April 16, 2018

It sounded like a brilliant idea. What better way to send a message of unity at the 2018 Winter Olympics, held in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, than to field a joint women’s hockey team made up of Korean athletes from both sides of the demilitarised zone (DMZ)?

Fielding a joint team at the Olympics has been a goal for both Koreas since their first sporting experiment in 1991, a North-South women’s table tennis duo who won a gold medal at the World Championships with an upset victory over the Chinese. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the two nations competed separately but took part in the opening ceremony together, marching into the stadium under a unified Korea flag to a thunderous standing ovation. So the idea of a common Korean sporting endeavour has quite a pedigree, and yet political tensions had always restricted how far the collaboration could go.

This year, however, when a flurry of sporting diplomacy between North and South gained pace in the weeks before the Games, the government in Seoul made an executive decision: space for North Korean players would be made in the women’s ice hockey team. After all, reunification of the two nations has been official policy in South Korea since the peninsula split in two some seven decades ago. Here at last, they said, was a dream team for peace.

By the time the Winter Olympics were over in late February, South Korea had reached its highest ever medal haul. Yet Seoul is reflecting on what went wrong. Young South Koreans have caused an unanticipated uproar, castigating the government for forcing their athletes to sacrifice their Olympic dreams for a symbol of political unity. For the first time since taking office in May 2017, President Moon Jae-in—a liberal who rode into office on the support of the younger generation—saw his popularity plummet. Taken aback, he has since apologised to his voters.

The episode—and the backlash—is a telling indication that young South Koreans feel very differently about reunification than their parents and grandparents, and aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. The world shouldn’t be so surprised. To the extent that reunification is thought about beyond the peninsula, it is with the template of Germany in mind. But between the founding of the German states in the West and the East in 1949, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, only 40 years elapsed. It is now 65 years, an additional generation, since the bombing stopped during the Korean War. Even before that, Koreans on the two sides of the 38th Parallel had very different experiences under Soviet and American occupation.

Far fewer Koreans today have relatives whom they’ve actually met on the other side of the divide than was true of Germans in 1990. Compounding the fading of memories across the cohort is the wild gulf in economic experience. In 1990, West German incomes were roughly triple those in the East; in contrast, the Bank of Korea in Seoul estimates North Korea’s GDP to be one-fortieth that of the South’s.

The obstacles in the way of reunification, then, are deep. The south’s actions and its mindset have often been contradictory. But it is a dream that retains its grip on the collective imagination of older Koreans in particular. Before reunification, though, there needs to be reconciliation. More than a decade on from the last, failed attempt to revive the relationship—the “Sunshine Policy”—the stage is set for a fresh initiative aimed at bridging the divide between North and South.

In late April, inside the winged Peace House in the DMZ, the leaders of North Korea and South Korea are set to shake hands and sit down for a landmark summit. A month or so later, the wild card of President Donald Trump is set to be played when, if things go to schedule, he is due to meet the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un.

Who knows where this conference of the capricious will get to, but Seoul at least still gives all the signs of hurtling headlong toward détente with Pyongyang. As it does so, are the people of South Korea, particularly the younger generation, ready for a new era of reconciliation, let alone unity, with North Korea after a decade of distrust and recrimination?

From the outside, the recent de-escalation after years of heightened tensions looks overwhelmingly positive. Test after test of banned ballistic missiles and atomic weapons by North Korea, accelerated by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, set the region on edge. That flurry of diplomacy across the DMZ had meant no tests or provocations this spring for the first time in years. It hints of the possibility of peace at last.

But no one’s opening the champagne in Seoul yet. When the summit was announced in March, the breaking news wasn’t even among the top five most-read stories on the popular South Korean web portal Naver. Instead, Naver’s younger readers were consumed by developments in the burgeoning #MeToo movement implicating a rising political star, a famous movie director and a celebrated poet.

“A South Korean once asked me if North Koreans had horns. that was what he was told at school”
We’re all suffering from whiplash from the sudden turn of events in Korea, especially the southerners, who are suddenly being asked to embrace the North with open arms after being told for a decade, by two consecutive conservative administrations, to treat the regime as global pariahs. But for young South Koreans, the sentiment isn’t hatred; it’s indifference.

My parents and their peers were born in a unified Korea and survived the Korean War as children. (They went on to emigrate to the United States, where I grew up.) But my South Korean cousins and their generation were born in a divided Korea. They grew up hearing the threats and rhetoric from North Korea with such regularity that they have become inured to them. The provocations have come seasonally, like clockwork, throughout their lives. And like the snow in the winter and the cherry blossoms in the spring, they eventually pass.

As a journalist, I have reported extensively from both Koreas, and I also teach at universities in Seoul. Last autumn, I was in South Korea at a time when North Korea regularly kept making nuclear provocations. Asked to appear on CNN to talk about fears of another Korean War, I went to get my hair styled.

“Should I worry about my safety while travelling in London?” my hairdresser asked me.

I laughed at the irony of the question. “Shouldn’t you be more worried about the nuclear test in North Korea?” I asked.

“What test?” he asked, oblivious to the latest development.

Another South Korean, after hearing I had worked in Pyongyang, once asked me if North Koreans had horns. He was half-joking, but explained it was what he was told as a primary school student during an era of virulent anti-North Korean, anti-communist propaganda in the South. (South Korea has long since abandoned such imagery.)

“Well, do you have horns?” I said, laughing. “After all, they’re the same people as you.”

But for many younger South Koreans, North Korea is a separate country, distant from theirs economically, politically and culturally. They see North Koreans as poor relations living in a land foreign to them.

Seventy years of division has bred distinct differences between the Koreans. Running news operations in both Pyongyang and Seoul, I learned to adopt two separate dialects and vocabularies: the communist, revolutionary language of the North, and the American-influenced “Konglish” of the South. (It’s like learning to speak Scouse while in England, and switching to American English when back in America.) I find that the older the North Korean, the more similar they sound to my late grandparents from Seoul. Younger North Koreans, like their southern counterparts, speak quickly and with a slick slang that I have to strain to understand.

North Koreans and South Koreans even look different after 70 years of separation. North Korea suffers a shortfall of food, and that has meant chronic malnutrition across a wide swath of the population. South Koreans, on the other hand, feast on everything from shortbread imported from Scotland to pizza baked in a brick oven straight from Naples. Over the years, they’ve grown exponentially in height, and now average a good 10 centimetres taller than their northern peers. Their faces tend to be softer, longer and narrower while many North Koreans retain high, sharp cheekbones.

And yet, traits and similarities between the Koreans remain: they share the same brand of humour and love of slapstick, a quick warmth and affection, a strong sense of pride and stubbornness. When I mention this to South Koreans, they immediately rebuff the comparison: oh, no, we’re not the same people, they say, offended at the suggestion. But any foreigner like me who deals with both northerners and southerners will tell you that strip away the politics, and they are still fundamentally the same people.

Among my students at some of South Korea’s most prestigious universities, the preoccupation is with getting the results needed to land a spot at graduate school or a good job—not the on-and-off threat from North Korea. As for the prospect of reunification, it only raises troubling questions.

It’s hard enough in hyper-competitive South Korea to get into university and then to find employment afterwards. As they demonstrated in response to the hockey team, young people are less emotionally committed than their parents and grandparents to unity. And they are keenly aware of the estimates that put reunification at more than a trillion US dollars, not to mention the additional competition that might arise should North Koreans flood south seeking employment.

If the next generation of South Korean voters, lawmakers, activists and government officials sees northerners as foreigners, disconnected from their future, they may be unlikely or unwilling to pay for the cost of reconciliation and reunification, whether it happens peacefully or through force. Tyrannies don’t last forever, and Pyongyang’s grip may one day fail. What happens after will be profoundly affected by whether or not the South stands ready to pick up the pieces.
“South Koreans are among the least-knowledgable people when it comes to their neighbour”
Concerned about the question of how to pay for reunification, one former Minister for Unification (yes, there’s a department for it) had a 50cm-tall hand-painted ceramic jar installed inside the ministry as a symbol of the money they would have to collect. He called it the Unification Jar, and I still have a small magnetic replica nostalgically and, admittedly, ironically fixed to my refrigerator in Seoul. (I noticed, on a visit to the ministry in late March, that the massive jar has now been removed.)

Aside from the cost, I once asked then-South Korean government officials, how are you going to convince the young people of the South to support reunification when they’re not even allowed to access information about the North?

South Korea’s National Security Law, a vestige of the Korean War, prohibits its citizens from accessing and promoting North Korean propaganda. Given the nature of the regime, that means they’re barred from reading anything written in North Korea at all. It means every time you try to access a North Korean website—the state news agency KCNA or the party newspaper Rodong Sinmun, for example—a threatening police warning pops up on your screen. Even foreign sites deemed too sympathetic to the regime, such as the popular North Korea Tech website run by a California-based Briton named Martyn Williams, was banned until activists fought to have it overturned last year. Under the previous conservative administration, some citizens were prosecuted under the National Security Law for retweeting pro-North Korean users. Foreigners are expected to respect and adhere to the law as well. One South Korean-born American citizen who travelled to Pyongyang, wrote a book about North Korea and then embarked on a book tour in South Korea, was deported from the country and prohibited from entry for five years for viewpoints deemed too propagandistic.

North Korean materials are kept under virtual lock and key and overseen by government workers. Authorisation to copy certain materials, which then must be returned within two weeks, requires special government permission. Most materials, however, cannot be duplicated.

The effect is to criminalise curiosity about North Korea. As a result, I’ve found that South Koreans are among the least-knowledgable people when it comes to their neighbour. It is disconcerting; we expect South Koreans, given the shared history, culture and language, to have a better feel for the North than anyone else. The South Korean schools may no longer teach their children that North Koreans have horns. But for the most part, they have not replaced that propaganda with well-sourced information.

As a result, young South Koreans see themselves as entirely separate from the North Koreans—even though they may not have a choice in the matter. Your future, I tell my South Korean students, is intertwined with that of North Korea, whether you like it or not. North Korea will make sure of it, whether through overtures of peace—or provocation.

And what about the unified Korean women’s hockey team? The challenges were myriad. Not only did they have only a few weeks to train together, and to bridge differences in technique and style, but at a very basic level, they had to learn how to communicate. In addition to the difference in dialect between North and South, they had Canadian and American coaches as well as ethnic Korean players raised in Canada and the US who spoke no Korean.

The result? They lost all their games, even with President Moon and Kim Jong Un’s younger sister in the stands cheering them on. Still, what the athletes from the unified team gained went well beyond the empty scoreboard: a sense of camaraderie that comes from training and competing together side by side, regardless of nationality. The farewells were tearful and heartfelt. It is, perhaps, for the athletes themselves to judge whether the shattering of their Olympic dreams was a price worth paying for the show of unity.

President Moon, for his part, learned that support for reconciliation and reunification cannot be taken for granted, and furthermore just how deep the generation divide now runs in the South. He has been deft in acknowledging that generation’s concerns, and has regained support from his base. In the first week of April, a Gallup poll found that 84 per cent of South Koreans between the ages of 19 and 29 said that they approve of his presidency.

His next test comes in the end of April, when he sits down with Kim Jong Un. It will test his skills of diplomacy in dealing directly with the leader of one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous nations. It will also test his ability to convince the ambivalent younger generation of South Koreans to sign onto his dream of reconciliation. After all, they are the ones who will pay for it—through provocation, if talks fail, or through their wallets, if they succeed.