Why we want reunification

(North and South Korean Olympic teams enter Sydney's Olympic opening celebrations under a reunification flag. Source: unikoreablog)

(North and South Korean Olympic teams enter Sydney's Olympic opening celebrations under a reunification flag. Source: unikoreablog)

by Dae-Han Song (Chief Editor, The [su:p])

A popular Korean saying goes: If you get the first two buttons of a shirt wrong, then the rest of the buttons will likewise follow. In other words, if you start off wrong, then the chain of events that follow will continue wrong. Thus, setting things right necessitates going back and correcting those first two buttons.

As part of US geopolitical stratagem 1, on Sept. 2, 1945 two weeks after Korea’s independence from Japan, the US Military’s General Order Number One officially divided Korea. Then, the division was cemented by war. Since then, Korea’s democracy and self-determination have been thrown off.

There is a continuity in our history. Korea’s Japanese collaborators became the U.S. collaborators. Division and US occupation allowed it. The coup d’etats and repression that followed were justified as measures for “national security.” Even after dictatorship, redbaiting remained a powerful tool of distraction and mobilization against liberals and progressives. If division has limited democracy, then it has gutted self-determination. Caught in a geopolitical game between China and the United States, North Korea is forced to depend on China, while South Korea is occupied by U.S. troops and has not even wartime operational control 2 of its military.  

To regain our self-determination, to shake off the chains on our democracy, we need reunification.

Division and dictatorship
South Korea’s dictatorships were intimately linked to division. When Japan was defeated, instead of being brought to justice for their betrayal and collaboration with colonial rule, the Japanese collaborators became the dictators. Their precarious hold upon division was cemented by war. Thereafter, they exploited workers and farmers while using the police and martial law to kill and torture those fighting for their rights, democracy and reunification. Yet, faced with dictatorship and division, South Koreans rose up for democracy and reunification.

In 1948, three years after independence and division, Syngman Rhee called for a South-only election that would officially establish the division by establishing a separate Republic of Korea. On April 3, three months before the election, the people of Jeju Island rose up against division and for a unified Korea. The uprising was violently suppressed by a scorched earth policy carried out under the auspices of the United States.

In 1960, Syngman Rhee was deposed by the April 19 student revolution. The greater political freedom allowed students to organize across campuses for reunification under the slogan “Let’s go towards the North. Come Down to the South.” Before the students’ planned visit to Pyongyang, General Park Chung Hee carried out a coup d’etat on May 16, 1961. He ruled for nearly 2 decades pushing a brutal industrialization policy that breathed life to Korea’s current conglomerates.

In 1979, when Park was assassinated, a brief democratic period opened up before General Chun Doo-hwan took over the government in 1980. He consolidated his power by declaring martial law against North Korean infiltration. Protests against martial law broke out across the country. They were all suppressed except for Gwangju. Its protesters were able to take over the city and self-govern before the uprising was violently brought down and 2,000 were killed under the auspices of the United States. For years, university students organized to reveal the truth of Gwangju and the need to cast off US influence.

In 1987, mass protests overthrew Chun and achieved direct presidential elections. The student movement quickly shifted from demands for democratization to reunification. The hundreds of thousands that had been calling for democracy in 1987, by 1988, after the first presidential election, were calling for reunification. In response, the Roh Tae-woo Administration established the July 7 declaration that allowed for meeting of separated families and exchange between civilians. Yet, the social movement was pushing beyond and challenging the government’s tepid efforts and mediated exchanges. In 1989, Rev. Moon Ik-hwang (famous for having translated the Bible into Korean) violated South Korea’s National Security Law and visited North Korea to meet Kim Il-sung, then leader of North Korea. He was arrested immediately upon re-entering South Korea. Im Soo-kyung, president of the National Association of Student Representatives, did the same to also be arrested.

In 1997, Koreans elected the first president from an opposition party. It was a milestone in South Korea’s democracy. It was followed by another in the reunification movement. On June 13, 2000, President Kim Dae-jung shocked the world when he was filmed live walking out of a plane to greet North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il at Pyongyang. This historic meeting concluded with the 6.15 declaration that established greater civilian exchange, exchange of political prisoners, and joint economic projects to work towards peaceful reunification by the wills of both Koreas.

But seven years later, hawkish conservatives reclaimed power in South Korea, mobilizing forces that had protested 10 years of liberal governments’ North Korea engagement policies. In 2012, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye, was elected after redbaiting her liberal opposition and mobilizing her conservative base. Thus, South Korea’s modern history, division and dictatorship, democracy and reunification continue to be intimately connected.

Division and subjugation
There is a geographic synergy between North and South Korea that has bound them together for thousands of years. In contrast, the division was arbitrary with no social or political basis other than U.S. geopolitical Cold War strategy. The North is mountainous and full of minerals and the South is the peninsula’s rice bowl. But divided and isolated from most of the world by the United States, the North is forced to rely on China by selling its minerals. In the South, not only does it house foreign troops, its own troops are under foreign control as South Korea’s wartime operational control is in the hands of the US military. Ultimately, a reunified Korea would eliminate the pretext for U.S. military presence and bring greater stability to East Asia. Greater cooperation and coordination between both Koreas would allow it independence from the hold of the United States and China.

The path to reunification
Inter-Korean diplomacy has attempted to move towards peaceful reunification rather than Germany’s reunification through absorption. Two separate state structures would co-exist under a confederation. Greater cooperation, exchange and reconciliation would gradually lay the foundation for a future generation born after the war to pursue gradual reunification. More importantly peace would unbound the imagination.

It’s often said that many young South Koreans are reluctant to reunify. They fear the heavy costs South Korea will have to bear to bring up North Korea. Yet 10 years of liberal government under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun have shown the power of cooperation, exchange and reconciliation. During those ten years, South Koreans that had been indoctrinated to think North Koreans had tails were now going on tours of Mount Kumgang directly meeting and seeing that North Koreans did not. Mentioning Kim Jong-il or North Korea was no longer punished under the National Security Law. People openly wore Kim Jong-il shirts in the park. Something unimaginable and punishable under the National Security Law. In 2001, the movie Joint Security Area became the highest grossing film in Korea up to that moment. It told the story of North and South Korean soldiers on opposite sides of the DMZ striking an unlikely relationship. The movie not only portrayed North Koreans in a dignified and humane way, it also told a story of reconciliation and fraternity. It not only reflected the spirit of that time. It stirred the imagination to the absurd yet beautiful possibility of four soldiers from opposite sides becoming brothers in the most militarized border in the world. As people’s lives in South Korea becomes difficult, they concentrate on survival. Not only must reunification be planted again in people’s hearts, but also the economic, political and social synergy that can come from reunification. This requires not only exchange and reconciliation but also joint projects and cooperation. They require peace.

North Korea seeks peace with the United States
North Korea has pursued peace and reunification with South Korea since 1994. What, then, is behind North Korea’s missile tests, bellicose rhetoric and refusal of President Moon Jae-in’s proposals for greater exchange and cooperation? To understand North Korea, it is important to look at the situation from its perspective. While 10 years of inter-Korean dialogue — the likes which Moon is trying to bring back — was marked by greater cooperation, exchange and reconciliation between both Koreas, it was also marked by President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” designation of North Korea.

Seven of Bush’s eight years in office overlapped with the 10 years of South Korea’s Sunshine policy of engagement and dialogue. North Korea had already viewed South Korea as politically and militarily dominated by the United States. Those seven years under Bush confirmed that despite the South’s openness to improving relations, ultimately there was a limit to what could be achieved with South Korea without normalization of relations with the United States. Thus, rather than halting its great advances in missile and nuclear technology to thaw inter-Korean relations that would ultimately be limited by its relationship with the United States, North Korea continued advancing to the next stage of missile and nuclear technology as a means of achieving greater leverage in bringing the U.S. to the negotiating table for peace. It made the United States’ “strategic patience” of simply stalling and waiting for North Korea to collapse under economic sanctions more costly. Stalling would allow North Korea to keep advancing its nuclear missile capabilities. As predicted, North Korea’s achievement of ICBM capability has influenced the dialing down of soldiers participating in this year’s annual US-ROK military games and has taken out the nuclear option.

Our task in South Korea
If North Korea’s focus on normalizing relations with the United States means passing over the current South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, then is South Korea simply irrelevant? Despite the advances that the Moon administration is making in reforming South Korean society, it is unable to break from the constraints of its alliance with the United States and the influence of the country’s conservatives. As in the past, it is up to social movements to push past the constraints of liberal governments. The government’s acceptance of the U.S. Thaad missiles that offer more threat than security for South Koreans is one flagrant example of Moon’s inability to break free from the constraints of conservatives and U.S. influence. The role of the reunification movement as it was in the past 70 years is to achieve greater democracy and improve the lives of Koreans in order to lay the foundation for peaceful reunification centered on the people. This will require peace between North and South. The first step will be peace between the United States and North Korea. Thus, those in the U.S. and around the world have a role to play in reuniting a people again.

Special Thanks to Park Jae-seong, general secretary of Together Seoul, and Chung Yeon-wook, president of the Yongsan branch of the Justice Party, for all of their knowledge and insights.


  1. While Germany’s division has been justified as punishment for its aggression, that justification does not apply to the Korean Peninsula who was also victim by the aggressor Japan. As such, Korea’s division was a sacrificial lamb to the Cold War. 
  2. During times of war, the United States commands South Korea’s troops.