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As a young child, I recall tracking the aeroplane on the inflight map as it move towards Seoul Incheon International Airport, yet was always puzzled by what that country above the line on the map where South Korea ended and another country began. I would always hear about “North Korea, this, North Korea, that” from the chatter of family, the blaring of the news on the radio and television back home in the United Kingdom. To me, this raised two questions. First, what was this mysterious “North” that everyone was talking about, yet that I could never see for myself? And secondly, if the “North” was always couched in such negative terms, what about the “South” – what was so good about the South?
North Korea has been, and in this day and age, is increasingly, at the forefront of global affairs, whether due to its authoritarian rule, ongoing nuclear development, impoverished citizens, or hearing about the plight of North Korean citizens fleeing the oppression of their country to seek refuge abroad. In contrast with this somewhat bleak picture, South Korea is portrayed as an economic giant, a hub of cosmopolitanism, with highly-educated, highly-skilled citizens. A satellite map with which we are all too familiar shows a light-filled South Korea, yet north of the 38th parallel, the doldrums of darkness. Clichéd this may be, but in order to understand these two nation-states, we must try and understand them through their individual attributes, not simply what each nation-state is not. “North” and “South” have been dualisms incorporated in a wide variety of circumstances, whether the North–South divide in the United Kingdom, the wealth of the Global North in comparison to the aspirations of the Global South, or the most prominent demarcation between two once-united nation-states, North and South Korea. But before we can do this, it is important to unpack the foundation of such dualistic comparisons.
One of the central postulations of Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism is the means by which definition of the self is inherently comparative. The “self” is defined in opposition to the “other”, the “East” in opposition to the “West”. As is becoming increasingly prevalent in a world shaken and divided by the vicissitudes of Brexit, populism, and the re-emergence of boundaries, we are not who we are, but who we are not. For just as the “East” is what the West is not, as in Said’s work, the Remainers are those who did not vote Leave, in as much as one political party is defined by what is lacking in an opposition party. Tracing back through history, this is nothing new. We see this in the rhetoric of colonialism, where, as Homi Bhabha posits, the colonized peoples were defined not just by their indigenous roots, culture, and language, but also by who they were not: the colonized were not the same as the colonizers, no matter how hard the latter tried to convert them. As Bhabha states, colonized peoples were “almost the same, but not quite, almost the same, but not quite White.” It is this frame that has been, and continues to be, a central imaginary for the two countries situated north and south of the 38th parallel. Yet whilst it may helpful in assisting understanding both North and South Korea, it is not the only way of doing so.
It is easy to categorize North and South Korea as polar opposites: autocracy versus democracy, restriction versus freedom, no rights versus human rights, the list can go on, yet too often we think of the demilitarized zone as a dividing line not just between the physical states of the DPRK and the ROK, but also between the two cultures: the darkness of the North versus the bright lights of the South. Even so, we must not view South Korea through rose-tinted spectacles.
South Korea: not as rosy as it may sound
South Korea has largely become defined by through not being North Korea: the Republic of Korea without the “Democratic People’s” added to its name. Though showered with superlatives of everything that its northern counterpart is not – Asian Tiger, economic powerhouse, and the cultivation for cosmopolitan citizens – we rarely look at the more everyday elements of life in South Korea, where things may not be as optimistic as is often portrayed. South Korea may be what North Korea is not, but that does not mean that South Korea is a paradise on earth.
In recent times, the political scene of South Korea has come to the fore of global news. The downfall of former President Park Geun-hye (who has just been sentenced to twenty-four years behind bars, for corruption), and the arrest of Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, also on corruption charges, continues the trend that corruption in South Korean politics is nothing new. Historic examples include the cash-for-summit scandal surrounding the “Nelson Mandela of Korea”, Kim Dae Jung, in securing the landmark North–South summit in 2003, and the 22.5 years imprisonment and sentencing to death for Roh Tae-woo and Chun doo-hwan respectively, for bribery and corruption, in 1996 (the latter two were subsequently pardoned). But beyond the area of big-“P” high-politics, what about the everyday level? Whilst South Korean society may not suffer from the authoritarian burden that those in the North have to face, corruption remains rife even within the small-“p” political scene.
The Kim Young-ran anti-graft law, first proposed in 2012, and upheld by the South Korean Constitution in September 2016, was one step into transforming the ROK from not just an “Asian Tiger”, but also to an “anti-corruption Tiger”. Aimed to clamp down on improper solicitation, bribery, and corruption, the law renders it illegal for public officials to accept gifts of more than 50,000 won (about £35), or 10,000 won (£7) at private events (such as weddings and funerals). Dinner expenditures are limited to 30,000 won (£25). For a society where taking a whole team of potential business employees for dinner – where one person pays – is part and parcel of tradition, and where gift-giving is commonplace, the law has been criticized for going against the grain of cultural norms. But what is it really trying to address? At the more everyday level, potential business partners giving under-the-table “gifts” to potential employees, parents giving “gifts” to colleagues working at universities to which they wish their children to attend; these stories are not characteristic of South Korean society, but they are sadly also not uncommon.
Moreover, South Korea is a remarkably unequal society, whether in terms of gender, LGBT, or disability rights. Hierarchical and patriarchal legacies of yesteryear continue: hotel employees, for example, much prefer the job security of working for an international hotel chain, managed by a non-Korean boss, in contrast to having a Korean as a boss. When I asked why the latter may not be preferred, the answer was surprising: the chance of receiving regular pay, as well as fair treatment across employees, was much lower. This is a society in which norms and traditions roll on. And even at the more everyday level, I recall stories of relatives working in a Korean-owned store, being paid far less than their contract stated: “whatever the manager says, goes” was the reason.
These examples show that South Korea is not immune from societal plagues: it is a society defined by the mantra that if you miss the train, there is no next train coming. A society where the global phenomenon of “tiger mums” emerged, doing all they can for their children’s educational success, and, dare I say, this includes participating in the corrupt mechanisms undergirding societal interactions. In our comparisons of North and South, fuelled by comparisons of “self” versus “other”, we often overlook our more critical understandings of the latter. And whilst the prominence of the corruption trials of past Presidents Park and Lee may be shedding greater light on the prevalence of the hidden nature of South Korean society, we should not lose focus on the everyday.
Yet through visualizing North Korea as what the South is not, and vice versa, perhaps we can focus more on what unites the two countries, rather than what dives them. Words of pride, nationalism – the uniquely Korean-based nationalism of minjokjuui – and nationhood are today more resonant with division and fragmentation, pitting man against man, separating us from them. But can this help develop a more nuanced understanding of the two Koreas?
What unites us, not divides us?
The plight of North Korean defectors – many of whom are female – in escaping their homeland for lives in the South, in the UK, USA, and further afield, is testament to the desire to escape the harsh conditions of life in the North. Whilst many find home in Seoul, the South can be a daunting place, as stigmatization of North Koreans by their Southern counterparts is sadly not rare. Yet what unites the two countries together may transcend the political and physical division. We must not forget idea of a unified Korea – Choson, prior to establishment of the Korean Empire in 1897 – in informing our imaginaries of the Peninsula. As both South and North grapple with their own respective societal issues, perhaps it would do well to look back in time, to the once unified Korea, and to seek for ways in which the imagined community of a “Korea” can be rekindled in our understandings of the Peninsula.
For it is not as simple that South Korea is what North Korea is not, nor vice versa, but far more nuanced and complex.