Everybody in South Korea knows the song “Our Dream is Unification.”
I sang it in elementary school. I watched as Kim Jong-il and then South Korean president Kim Dae-jung sang it in Pyongyang at the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000. And I unwittingly teared up when Park Geun-hye, the recently ousted former president, sang a pretty tacky version with a huge choir to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan.
I don’t know how popular the song is in North Korea, but it reportedly spread in the North after 1989 after a South Korean activist illegally traveled to the country and sang it there. It certainly has been sung on official occasions in North Korea, indicating government approval.
North Korean children singing “Our Dream is Unification” on an unspecified date.
Composed in 1947 by a 21-year-old Seoul National University music major, it’s been an enduring expression of national aspiration to bring the two Koreas together.
But for all its lovely melody and uncontroversial lyrics — “Let us achieve unification, unification with all our sincerity” — the song aptly sums up the Korean impediment: The two Koreas, recognizing that they are two halves of a single whole, want to be together again, but on whose terms? Underlying the song is hostility that persists despite — or precisely because of — this perceived kinship and uncompromising goal on the part of both to unify the peninsula someday. (‘We are one people, so I will swallow you one day.’)
This complicated feeling is reflected in seemingly irreconcilable facets of inter-Korean relations: Military threats, a prospect of a nuclear war and competing ideologies are interspersed with powerful, tear-inducing stories about divided families, shared histories, and the possibility of a common future — one that might not be achieved, ironically, without the destruction of the other.
I am often asked by foreign media what “the feelings on the ground in South Korea” are like in light of repeated North Korean provocations. My answer, though, can only be complex given the reality.
Officially, unification, i.e. annexation, is the ultimate goal for each Korean state. In fact, the constitution of South Korea doesn’t even recognize the North as a separate state, seeing the whole Korean Peninsula as the South’s territory. (It’s also the legal justification for accepting North Korean defectors, who are, if we extend the logic of territoriality, South Korean citizens.) And just recently, on Sep. 2, in an article titled “Illuminate With High Value the Life Given to Unification Patriotism,” North Korea’s state media argued, “The North and South and overseas Koreans must embrace great national pride in serving the Dear Leader; and we must achieve the historic feat of unifying our homeland by following his patriotic guidance.”
Then, a day later, the country conducted its sixth and most threatening nuclear test. It involved a hydrogen bomb estimated to be 17 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that hit Hiroshima in 1945. It was less a show of unity than an unvarnished threat.
The love-hate feeling is stronger in the generations older than mine, the ones that actually experienced the process of division.
My grandfather grew up in an era when Pyongyang was better known for its cold noodle dish than communism. Families in Seoul often married their children to families in Kaesong, back then just another city a few hours’ drive up north, but known today mainly for the joint industrial complex that was shut down in 2016. My grandfather was 17 when the Korean War broke out, but initially he didn’t think much about differing ideologies. He even knew communists in his own village.
During the Korean War in the early 1950s, North Korean sympathizers overtook his village near Busan; people he knew were kidnapped and even killed. Today, he doesn’t hesitate to condemn Pyongyang and any South Korean professing sympathy for the North as “commies.”
My parents also grew up with frequent reminders of the threat the North posed. Schools instructed children to paint propaganda posters of North Koreans with horns on their heads. Citizens under suspicion of spying for the North were tortured and imprisoned without fair trial. North Korean soldiers attacked U.S. and South Korean soldiers with axes near the border. Once, in 1968, 31 North Korean soldiers attempting to attack the South Korean leadership even came within sight of the presidential palace in Seoul; trees behind the Blue House still bear the bullet holes from the skirmish.
It was an easier time to see North Korea as The Enemy. And yet a huge part of this public hatred was, ironically, love — love toward the bad brother, the brother with whom the South must reunite someday. This perverse love was easier to feel in the past, because enough people still remembered Korea during and before the war.
“General Ddori: the best security animation in the Republic of Korea!” This popular children’s animations from the late 1970s and 80s showed “general Ddori” catching dangerous North Korean spies, who were depicted as vicious animals.
“Love-hate” is actually a simplistic way of characterizing how some South Koreans perceive the North. Division has lasted almost seventy years, and the perceptions have become much harder to pinpoint in the 21st century, where a majority of the young have no direct ties to North Korea, except through their grandparents’ memories.
Here’s an example of how confusing it is to talk about South Korean perceptions: Even today, a majority of South Koreans still hold onto the idea of unification. Nearly 60 percent of South Koreans said unification was necessary, according to a 2017 survey by the Korean Institute for National Unification.
But the same institute noted that an increasing number of South Koreans felt indifferent towards unification: 58.6 percent answered that it didn’t make a big difference to their lives whether unification happened or not. How can the majority of South Koreans want unification and simultaneously not care about it? (Maybe it’s similar to how we all ‘want’ world peace but aren’t particularly troubled if the absence of world peace doesn’t affect our daily lives?)
Here’s another, slightly longer, example: Like many young South Koreans, I grew up largely indifferent to the division. North Korean agents detonated a Korean Air flight mid-air in 1987. But I have no direct memory of this as I was born a year after the incident. I grew up learning English and how to play the piano (as many in my generation did). For most of my childhood North Korea was never a conversation at the dinner table, or anywhere else really.
To most South Koreans like myself, shared ancestry and geographical proximity mean next to nothing when there is no daily contact with the ‘neighbor.’
Guk Beom-geun, 22, is a popular online personality here in South Korea, and I recently translated a video by him, titled, “What the fuck is North Korea’s problem?” Guk explains to his viewers, mostly South Koreans in their teens and early twenties, Kim Jong-un’s motivations. Many of them probably live less than 100 km south of the border, in Seoul and its surrounding region, and they probably all know that the Koreas are technically at war.
“What the fuck is North Korea’s problem?”
But after watching Guk’s video, which touches on some very basic aspects of the current standoff, I wondered how much his viewers thought or even knew about North Korea. I wondered if they even vaguely felt the remnants of this Korean love-hate relationship that still characterize official rhetoric and informs the sentiments of the older generations.
Because today, it’s not love-hate, but indifference, that seems to dominate South Korean attitudes toward North Korea. This indifference is especially visible during Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threats. Last week, after North Korea launched another missile on Sep. 15, I went to the gym in the morning and chatted with an instructor in his 30s, while others ran on the treadmill watching on their respective screens news, morning talk shows and dramas. I asked him, “Do you really care about the threats?” He laughed, “Nah, not at all.” His reaction is the norm; to most South Koreans, the threats that make the headlines are just headlines. Life goes on as usual.
But here’s where the indifference gets more confusing: It’s not just indifference. Even the most indifferent South Koreans, whether they like it or not, had to sing the unification song at school. They were led to be aware of North Korea, whether they thought deeply about it or not. Despite having grown up generally indifferent to North Korea, there are moments when I realize that I also am a product of a divided nation, having internalized the ideas about brotherhood and reunification.
I remember watching president Kim Dae-jung meeting the North’s chairman Kim Jong-il, shaking hands and hugging as part of the South’s Sunshine Policy in the late 1990s and early 2000s. During the time of the liberal administrations’ reconciliatory policies toward North Korea — coinciding with my time in elementary and middle school — the name for state education regarding North Korea changed from “anti-communist education” to “unification education.” I was twelve when I watched, crying, the teams from the North and South walking hand in hand into the main stadium at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Despite telling myself I’m more critical about nationalist propaganda as an adult, I probably would still have this gut reaction if the teams were to march together at the 2018 winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea (although it’s unclear if North Korea will even participate).
The honest truth is, trying to answer the question “How do South Koreans perceive North Korea?” is confusing as hell. I personally don’t know exactly how I feel about it. Surveys aren’t necessarily illuminating. Even the government of South Korea seems confused. We’ve had decades of military dictatorships that portrayed North Korea as evil, followed by a decade of the Sunshine Policy up to the mid-2000s portraying North Korea as family, followed by another decade of two conservative administrations dramatically reversing course; and now we have another left-leaning president, who wants to sanction North Korea while promising to send humanitarian aid and calling for dialogue.
On both sides, the confused Koreas remain brothers, enemies, complete and utter strangers.
Meanwhile, the dream of unification recedes into the background. Over sixty years after the Korean War, it has become increasingly hard to sustain the illusion that the Koreas are one and that unification will be the pretty goal the song portrays it to be. International relations, with the rise of Trump against the so-called “Rocket Man,” make inter-Korean relations increasingly difficult to predict (not that they were ever easy to). Within South Korea, the dream battles against growing indifference and even hostility: After North Korea tested its hydrogen bomb on Sep. 3, Gallup Korea characterized South Korean perceptions of North Korea as “considerably cold.” Nearly 80 percent responded that they perceived North Korea as a threat, and over half of the respondents (even the young) supported arming South Korea with nuclear arms.
In 2013, the composer of “Our Dream is Unification” gave an interview to online media OhMyNews. Ahn Byeong-won expressed both embarrassment and surprise that his song has been sung for over 60 years. “I really want [the song] to be an obsolete song of the past. My last wish is to conduct as a choir sings the song at Panmunjom on the day of unification,” he said, mentioning the truce village within the Demilitarized Zone, where the 1953 armistice agreement was signed.
Unfortunately, Ahn, like many Koreans on both sides of the border, never got to see the dream fulfilled. He died two years later.
Cover image: Barbed wires at the North-South border. (Source: Pixabay)