Europe Points Way to Korean Prosperity

By Galtung, Johan; Fischer-Dieskau, Dietrich | National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Europe Points Way to Korean Prosperity


Galtung, Johan, Fischer-Dieskau, Dietrich, National Catholic Reporter


The defection of Hwang Jang Yop, the leading theoretician of North Korea's state ideology, to South Korea has led to renewed tensions. At the same time, there are efforts to bring an official end to the Korean War after nearly 50 years, through four-party talks between South Korea, North Korea, the United States and China. Will these talks ultimately lead to Korean reunification? Part of the answer may lie in Korea's national character.

Koreans seem to have three main character traits: They are hardworking and devoted, a quality attributed to Confucianism. They have a missionary zeal to inform the unenlightened, perceiving compromise as weakness. And they feel deeply hurt at suffering injustice. Their diligence and strong motivation are positive traits, but with frustration and anger they become a problematic combination.

Were it not for the jealousies of its big neighbors China, Russia and Japan, it might have been absorbed by now -- as Japan attempted to do. Korea's neighbors may feel relieved that it is divided and exploits some of that pent-up zeal in mutual propaganda wars.

However, that situation is not stable. It may erupt into war at any moment, even if neither side expects to win, simply to preserve honor and display courage.

Many foreign commentators expected Korea to reunite after the Cold War, like Germany in 1990, but Korea's division has its own inner dynamics and could persist for generations. And Willy Brandt's conciliatory ostpolitik of the early 1970s made West Germany attractive to East Germans -- in addition to West Germany's being seen as the country of bananas and Volkswagens.

South Korea, by contrast, has become harsher over time, even gloating about the weakened position of the North due to recent food shortages caused by severe floods.

One can imagine several possible outcomes: the hard-liners on side dream of absorbing the other side; others prefer peaceful reunification, either gradually through cooperation and compromise, or in one step; finally, there is mutual isolation.

Absorption of one side by the other, whether by conquest or inner collapse, is undesirable and unlikely. Mutual isolation is likely, since people have become accustomed to it, but it is undesirable. Korean nationalism will not die, only hibernate -- and it could reawaken at any moment, leading to war.

The most promising approach is a series of steps leading to economic interaction between North and South Korea, and ultimately to political and security cooperation.

South Korean students advocating contacts with the North have been denied a voice and treated like criminals. In response, they have turned to violence. They must learn to pursue their goals nonviolently, putting forward concrete proposals for North-South cooperation.

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