Korean Reunification Study Tour

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Korea study tour_US Embassy_PREFERRED
Photo Courtesy: Professor Eunjung Lim


The 150-mile-long inter-Korean border is one of the world’s most heavily armed regions. With the opening of Cuba, the Korean peninsula is now the only place where the Cold War still persists. Witnessing the demise of communism and the Arab Spring, one may naturally think North Korea will follow suit, and the two Koreas will reunify. However, Pyongyang still has a firm grip of the northern part of Korea, continues developing nuclear weapons, and persecutes some 28 million people. How can we overcome these challenges and restore the “Land of Morning Calm”? In search of the answer, 13 SAIS students, led by Professor Eunjung Lim, flew to Seoul during spring break.

Over the course of a week, the class visited 19 institutions, including government agencies, think tanks, companies, and an NGO. As busy as it was, the trip was full of learning. A noted expert on transitional economy, Dr. Kim Byung-yeon of Seoul National University, pointed out that North Korea is no longer a closed economy, with its external dependence amounting to more than 50 percent. In his view, the conventional security-oriented approach, neglecting such realities, failed to elicit a genuine change. Therefore, Kim insisted that we change Pyongyang’s economic constraints to alter its behavior through a combination of sanctions and engagement rather than a rigid containment policy. At Pangyo Techno Valley, a high-tech cluster near Seoul, students were mesmerized by Korea’s venture industry. In particular, innovations in information technology would have significant impacts on the two Koreas.

Learning continued at night. Mr. Marc Knapper, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy, hosted a reception for the group at his beautiful residence overlooking the 600-year-old capital. The event’s warm environment reflected the ever more robust U.S.-Korea alliance. Dr. Bae Jung-ho, Secretary General of the National Unification Advisory Council, invited the students to a dinner with scholars and North Korean refugees.

Students were also exposed to contrasting views on various issues, from the incumbent president’s reunification policies to the more fundamental question of whether reunification itself is even needed. While most Koreans concurred that the two Koreas should reunify at some point, they diverged on the specifics. For instance, Seoul’s position is to pursue a German-style, peaceful reunification on the principle of mutual trust. Yet, some experts expressed concerns over the administration’s inflexibility vis-à-vis Pyongyang. In addition, many seemed worried about practical problems, such as financial burdens and social integration. Younger generations were less enthusiastic; some even rejected the necessity. One scholar said Seoul should discard reunification as a national strategy and regard North Korea as a state, as does the United Nations. South Korea’s constitution does not recognize North Korea as a legitimate state, and vice versa.

The class had an unusual opportunity to meet with several prominent North Korean defectors. Journalist Joo Seong-ha at DongA Daily, who defected in 2002, shared his experiences and insights. Mr. Joo emphasized that Kim Jong-un will never forgo his nuclear program, unless the United States guarantees his survival. Nor will Kim use it, said Joo, since he is the richest individual on the peninsula. As such, Joo held that denuclearization can only be achieved through a settlement between Washington and Pyongyang. Another renowned defector-scholar, Dr. Choi Kyung-hee, spoke about the lack of understanding on North Korea. Researchers only acquire superficial knowledge of a society, Choi argued, without actually having lived there. This is a perennial problem among North Korea watchers in both Seoul and Washington.

In addition, the students visited Hanawon, a rehabilitation center under the Ministry of Unification, and Yeomyung School, an alternative school for refugees, where they looked at the issue from a very different perspective. People usually talk about high politics, such as denuclearization or great power diplomacy, when discussing inter-Korean affairs; little attention is paid to defectors, however. Unfortunately, such defectors often experience tragic incidents while fleeing, such as human trafficking or the execution of their families remaining in North Korea. They often say, if reincarnated, they would accept everything except being born in North Korea. Even worse, the South Korean society is rather aloof―sometimes even discriminatory―toward the refugees, only deepening their trauma. Students got teary-eyed as Ms. Cho Myung-sook, Yeomyung School’s vice principal, narrated such heart-wrenching stories.

Whether the two Koreas will reunify is still an open question. For sure, it is a daunting task, and may not even happen in our lifetimes. Also, there are divergent views across the political spectrum and generations. However, one thing is clear: the Korean peninsula deserves our attention. As a byproduct of the Cold War, the inter-Korean division is our collective responsibility―a situation that threatens global security and causes millions of people to live under unspeakable conditions. The times call for action, and the task is now ours.

The 2016 SAIS Korea trip was made possible through the generous support of many institutions and individuals. In particular, the author would like to express his deepest gratitude to those who have sponsored the Korea Studies program at SAIS.

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