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Thursday,August 18,2022
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North Korea and reunification recede into irrelevance among Korean students

The student movement and student attitudes have been central to the politics of unification in South Korea. Many important changes to unification policy like Roh Tae Woo's Nordpolitik and more recently Roh Moo-Hyun's peace and prosperity policy have been prompted by the student movement.
Student movements in Europe, US, and other Asian countries like Japan and Indonesia, once famous for their political activism and vitality, have for the most part disappeared from public view. Yet Korean students retain enthusiasm for politics and protest, and have effectively used new media such as the internet to express their resistance. South Koreans should be proud that their students and young people continue to engage in debate and protest around a huge number of topics including the environment, education, democracy, religion, morals, territorial and nationalism issues (such as the Dokdo and East Sea issues) and the economy.

As an observer of Korea, I am impressed by the intelligence and vitality of student debate. However, I am also struck by the absence within these recent conversations of two particular topics - North Korea and unification.

In previous decades, because of poor access to information on the North and South's restrictive political atmosphere, political discourse surrounding the unification issue was distorted. Delicate arguments requiring an open and democratic forum to be properly advanced were instead replaced by neatly opposing ideological arguments that enabled the student movement to concurrently support unification and oppose the incumbent Southern regime. The arguments were made along clear philosophical lines: socialism (sympathy for the perceived fairness of the North's system) vs. anti-communism and pro-capitalism; nationalism (those who supported national unification on any terms) vs. imperialism (those who opposed immediate unification and supported the continued presence of US troops); freedom (the right to interact with the North) vs. authoritarianism. Little was known about the real situation in the North and the South Korean political system was only just beginning its journey toward democratic consolidation. This distinct political environment caused the construction of a student unification movement whose debate and argument was set in clear black and white, dogmatic terms.

In retrospect, we know that the unification issue was more complicated than the ideological representations of the issue suggested. The realities in North Korea - desperate poverty, human rights abuses, famine, nuclear proliferation - have now been shown to the world and to South Korea. South Korea's post-authoritarian political system, albeit with many weaknesses, has proved itself to be robust and responsive form of government in the face of many difficulties. A black and white discussion now is meaningless and insufficient in addressing the challenges that lie ahead for the Korean peninsula. However, despite this, the discussion on unification continues to be cast in highly polarized, dogmatic terms across the Korean media and political spectrum. The present unification debate prevents clear choices: full engagement of the North or opposing any negotiations; the North as part of the so-called 'Axis of Evil', an abuser of human rights and producer of nuclear weapons or the North as a failing state, with a desperate and starving population, in need of propping up through the benevolence of the South (not mentioning any human rights abuses!). Between these two juxtapositions there is no space for thoughtful debate, no chance for negotiation and no opportunity for understanding and compassion.

Koreans know that the debate is far more complicated than the accepted dialogues suggest. For example, concerns relating to the social, political and financial cost of unification continue as a result of the perceived difficulties arising from German unification, and as a result of difficult interactions between South Koreans and North Korean refugees living in the South. There is the issue of Korean identity that requires discussion, as the unified Korean identity becomes harder to define the longer the two peoples are apart There is the need for sensible debate on negotiations with the North, about national defense and about Korea's regional neighbors. The debate can no longer be considered in terms of black and white. It is under grey shades.

There is no reason why the highly educated and articulate Korean student community could not initiate this urgent debate. Instead however, it has been noted by many political and social scientists like Michael Breen, a long-term follower of Korean culture and social trends, that for most Koreans in their twenties and thirties 'North Korea has receded into irrelevance'. 

Students therefore must be called on once again to direct, inspire, and reinvigorate the reunification debate. This debate cannot be allowed to continue along the current highly political and polarized lines as defined by the political elites and the mass media. As in the past, students must take responsibility for reconstructing the discussion in order to talk about the challenges that will face a reunified country, to debate current government policy in a thoughtful and rational way, indeed to even challenge the idea of unification itself. This will not only reinvigorate the discourse on unification but also bring some sense into the current national discourse. South Korean students have never shirked their political responsibilities in challenging the status quo and bringing brave and new ideas into the political forum. Now more than ever before, on the issue of unification, the voice of students needs to be heard.

Emma Campbell  PhD Student at the Australian National University.

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