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Korea: Analysis From Washington -- Divided Countries, Divided Nations?

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 12 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The announcement that the presidents of North and South Korea will meet in Pyongyang in June has generated new hope for a rapprochement between the leaders of that long-divided nation.

But at the same time, it has highlighted once again the great difficulties inherent in the reconciliation of two states which claim to represent the same nation but whose social and political systems have caused their respective populations to diverge from one another.

On Monday, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il announced that they will meet in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on June 12.

Their announcement has been greeted around the world as the opening move in reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula, ending the isolation of North Korea, and perhaps most important, normalizing relations between the two Korean states.

The June session may in fact contribute to those developments. But commentators are already suggesting that the meeting could have a very different outcome because the two presidents may be drawing very different conclusions as to why the other agreed.

South Korea's Kim Dae Jung appears to believe that the meeting is taking place because Pyongyang desperately needs to break out of its diplomatic isolation. But North Korea's Kim Joong-Il may think that his tough line has forced Seoul to agree.

The international expectations about this meeting, the very different calculations of the two sides, and the likely future course of the two reflect the complicated and contradictory experiences of the three other divided nations in the post-World War II era.

Two of these divided nations have been reunited: North and South Vietnam by military force and East and West Germany as the result of the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. But the third -- the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China (on Taiwan) -- has yet to be resolved.

All these divisions were a product of the Cold War competition between Soviet-sponsored communism and Western liberal democracy, with one government embodying the first and the other representing the other.

During the Cold War, many people on both sides expected that one or the other would triumph and that these divided countries would unite under one or the other system, an expectation that explains the military commitment, East and West, in these states.

And since the end of the Cold War, equally many people have expected that the two governments in the remaining pair of divided nations would work together to move toward a single state.

Both these expectations and the obstacles on the way to their fulfillment are highlighted in the remaining cases of the two Chinas and the two Koreas. And they provide remarkable testimony to the power of culture and to its dynamism.

On the one hand, in a world where leaders are often quite dismissive of culture as a political force, the notion that two countries sharing a common historical culture should some day unite is quite remarkable.

But on the other hand, as both the united Vietnam and the united Germany have discovered, national cultures are dynamic things. Because of their experiences under very different political systems, the people of these two states diverged culturally.

Germany continues to face the problems of integrating the Germans of the east with the Germans of the west despite a massive government commitment to do just that. Indeed, many polls suggest that the two parts of the single German nation continue to diverge.

At the same time, differences between north and south Vietnam also continue to cause difficulties for the single state 25 years after reunification.

Such divides within what many insist on calling a single nation are even deeper in the two Chinas and the two Koreas, a reflection of more than 50 years of very different social, economic, and political systems.

And those divides will make progress toward reconciliation and reunification difficult if not impossible and slow the process of national integration if despite everything unification nonetheless takes place.

Those challenges will certainly be on the minds of both Korean leaders when they meet in June. But more than that, they serve as yet another indication of the power of culture to affect people and also the power of people to redefine their cultures.
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