The Myth of ‘One Korea’

Aaron McKenzie
7 min readJul 13, 2017

(Originally published at Korea Business Central • 6 June 2013)

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” — F.A. Hayek

Tensions on the Korean peninsula, always at a low simmer, have once again come to a boil in recent months with the North Korean military threatening, yet again, to turn Seoul into a sea of fire and the South promising retaliation for any hostile actions. Even as most South Koreans yawn and go about their lives, and as Korean President Park Geun-hye and U.S. President Barack Obama issue the standard calls for dialogue and deterrence, it is worth remembering that the tense stability on the Korean peninsula will not last forever.

North Korea specialists largely agree that, whether through war or implosion, the North Korean state will eventually collapse, leaving South Korea to make good on its long-held promise of reunification.

But should reunification be the goal? This is the question that, perhaps inadvertently, Blaine Harden’s book Escape from Camp 14 raises.

Most readers of Escape from Camp 14, an account of Shin Dong-hyuk’s life in and escape from North Korea’s worst prison camp, will be drawn in by the sheer human drama of a story containing all the plot points and character complexity of a classic adventure tale. Yet, while Camp 14 follows one man’s struggle for freedom, it also has much to say about the nature of “Koreanness,” the future of the Korean peninsula, and the potential folly of reunification.

Shin was born a slave in North Korea’s Kaechon Internment Camp (a.k.a. Penal Colony #14). From his very conception, everything about Shin’s life was owned and controlled by the state. His parents had been thrown together in marriage by prison authorities as a reward for good behavior, but as a child, Shin seldom saw his father. When he was 14, Shin witnessed the execution of his mother and brother after they tried to escape, an attempt for which Shin himself endured severe torture.

Even as children, prisoners perform back-breaking labor — mining coal, building dams by hand, tilling garden plots — and they work until they keel over from exhaustion or until they are beaten to death or shot by guards for reasons ranging from attempted escape to a guard’s sour mood. Such executions are so routine that, as Shin notes, when he witnessed a six-year old classmate beaten to death for the crime of having a few kernels of corn in her pocket, he felt no shock or horror, only understanding.

Harden writes:

[Shin] had been trained by guards and teachers to believe that every time he was beaten, he deserved it — because of the treasonous blood he had inherited from his parents. The girl was no different. Shin thought her punishment was just and fair, and he never became angry with his teacher for killing her. He believed his classmates felt the same way.

Shin eventually managed to escape into China and, from there, he made his way to South Korea. Not surprisingly, Shin’s transition to life outside of the gulag and away from North Korea has been bumpy, to put it mildly, as he’s struggled to learn the basics of love and trust and to master skills that to an ordinary South Korean seem mundane, such as keeping a job and managing money. With the exception of short stints in the USA, Shin’s struggles have taken place in a South Korean society that is, on the whole, remarkably uninterested in North Korean affairs and thus impatient with the disruptions caused by resettling refugees.

In reading Shin’s story, one begins to see the early makings of the caste system that reunification is sure to bring. Korean students learn from an early age that Korea, as a unified nation and uniquely pure race, has roots that date back more than 4,300 years. This long history of unity, the story goes, was only disrupted by Japanese colonial savagery and, more recently, by Cold War politics. From this narrative follows the logical belief that destiny demands a reunification of North and South Korea.

This narrative, however, is likely wrong.

As Carter Eckert of Harvard’s Korea Institute has written (and as B.R. Myers, author of The Cleanest Race, has also argued), the whole idea of “Korea” is relatively recent:

…Before the late nineteenth century there was little, if any, feeling of loyalty toward the abstract concept of “Korea” as a nation-state, or toward fellow inhabitants of the peninsula as “Koreans.” Far more meaningful at the time, in addition to a sense of loyalty to the king, were attachments of Koreans to their village or region, and above all to their clan, lineage, and immediate and extended family.

The Korean elite in particular would have found the idea of nationalism not only strange but also uncivilized. Since at least the seventh century the ruling classes in Korea had thought of themselves in cultural terms less as Koreans than as members of a larger cosmopolitan civilization centered on China.

To the extent that a monolithic sense of “Koreanness” ever did exist, it will certainly be put to the test if the two Koreas reunify and millions of North Koreans stream southward in search of a decent meal amidst the bright lights of Seoul.

Fortunately, most North Koreans are not as psychologically or as physically battered as Shin, but the Korean fantasy of 우리민족 (“one blood, one race”) will quickly be exposed as the fiction that it is upon reunification. However similar the people of North and South Korea may have been when the peninsula was divided in 1945, they have quickly, and in important ways, become two markedly different groups.

Most visibly, decades of malnutrition have left North Koreans, on average, 12 centimeters shorter than their counterparts south of the 38th parallel. Even if such nutritional deficiencies have not had a lasting and negative impact on cognitive abilities, the lousy educational system of the North has left entire generations of North Koreans ill-equipped for life in the capitalistic fast-lane in South Korea. When combined with the distinctive Northern dialect of the Korean language, such disparities will immediately introduce a visible underclass into a South Korean society which takes homogeneity as a point of pride.

More subtle is the topic of culture. Contrary to the Korean national myth, nations and cultures are less the product of genetics than they are of common values and shared expectations. Over the past sixty-plus years of division, North and South Koreans have evolved entirely different institutions (by which I mean not only their governments but also the entire implicit social framework under which people interact and form expectations) and, in consequence, different cultures.

In the long run, of course, the North Korean people would benefit greatly by moving toward a set of cultural mores which more closely resemble those of South Korea. Institutions, however, are not imposed, either suddenly or from above, but are instead an evolved, emergent phenomenon. It is thus unfair and unrealistic to toss North Koreans into a South Korean-dominated society and expect them to make a seamless transition.

Acknowledging this, South Korea currently sends North Korean defectors to Hanawon, a re-education and resettlement facility outside of Seoul, where refugees are given a crash course on life in a modern, globalized world. To date, only about 20,000 refugees have made it to South Korea, and yet Hanawon, despite its valiant efforts, struggles to soften the landing even for this relatively small group. Imagine trying to reeducate up to 25 million North Koreans who have no sense of life in an open, democratic society.

There is, of course, a chance — slight, to be sure, but non-zero — that reunification simply never comes to pass. Most South Koreans insist that the nation pines in unison for reunification, but when pressed most will admit that they do not want immediate reunification.

“Maybe,” they say, “in 20 years…or in 50 years.”

Which is as good as saying, “not at all, at least not in my lifetime.”

Moreover, very few South Koreans have any memory of a unified Korea, and most young South Koreans are completely uninterested in North Korea as a topic of intellectual inquiry, much less as a source of fellow citizens.

Andrei Lankov, of Kookmin University, has speculated that it’s only a matter of time before a gutsy South Korean politician steps forward and asserts that reunification is not, and should not be, the goal. Once this pervasive heresy has been uttered, an honest debate can begin about how much in extra taxes and social strife South Koreans are willing to endure to back up their cherished ‘one race’ claim? The answer may well be “zero,” or at least nothing that would threaten the swell life that South Koreans have built for themselves over the past half-century.

Such an attitude, while seemingly callous, would be understandable. There is, after all, no universal law of magnetism which states that people sharing similar languages, cultural traditions, and histories must be always and forever yoked together into one political unit called a nation. Perhaps the openly-stated goal for policymakers — in South Korea and around the world — ought to be a stable North Korea which trades with, rather than antagonizes, its neighbors and which does not enslave and kill its citizens.*

What would the future of a post-Kim, independent North Korea (that is, a North Korea separate from the South but freed from the grip of the current regime) look like? Could such a state survive among the broad shoulders of its Northeast Asian neighbors? Perhaps most importantly, what would such a scenario mean for individual North Koreans who have not escaped and who would be tasked with building a new country? Questions such as these are too seldom discussed in polite company, but if one is truly interested in bettering the lives of the millions of people who remain in North Korea, they deserve consideration.



* Official admission of such a policy would be nearly impossible at present in South Korea. Articles 2 and 3 of the South Korean Constitution still identify the administration in Seoul as the only legitimate government on the Korean peninsula and, thus, all North Koreans are technically citizens of South Korea, entitled to all the rights and privileges such a status entails. However inconvenient this provision may be, renouncing it remains equally unpalatable. As Lankov notes: “An open renouncement of this decades old position would be fraught with numerous ideological and legal problems because it would imply the renouncement of the long-standing fiction of ‘one Korea.’”