Source: Matthias Hangst, Getty Images
Winning Gold for Korean Identity Politics | English Columnist Sooji Yang
*Disclaimer: Views shared are mine and not reflective of Berkeley Opinion as a whole. This piece is my interpretation of the stories and history surrounding the unified Korean march and team and its implications on inter-Korean relations and cultural identity.
Hand in hand, waving white flags with a blue, unified Korean peninsula at the center, North and South Koreans march together to the woeful sounds of Arirang at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics this year. Under the theme of peace, the Olympics featured a unified Korean march and women’s ice hockey team. And the Hermit Kingdom has come out of its shell to bask in the international spotlight that differs vastly from the international condemnation it normally receives and subjects itself to.
Skepticism of the unified march and team headlined major news outlets and magazines, pointing to the covert nature of the North Korean regime to utilize the Olympics as a publicity ploy-- one created to divert attention away from their human rights violations and nuclear threats, and lessen their strict international sanctions (Friedman 2018).
To a certain extent, this was successful. Much attention was paid to the North’s envoy of perfectly-synchronized cheerleaders and Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jung, likened to America’s Ivanka Trump, masking the dark realities of an isolated authoritarian regime and underplaying the importance of the North’s cooperation in the Olympics, albeit reluctant.
With North Korea yet again reduced to a comical caricature of a dictator whose crimes against humanity are undeniable and unforgivable, the unified march and team loses its steam. The media effectively misdirects the attention to the entertainment value of the Hermit Kingdom and its Hermit people, and the polarization of the Korean people.
However, there may be a crucial piece to the complex puzzle that is the inter-Korean relations greatly missing from the discussion about the unified Korea during the Olympics.
It easy to paint inter-Korean relations as a black-and-white debate: dictatorship vs. democracy, oppression vs. freedom, nuclear bombs vs. nuclear energy, Kim Jong Un vs. PSY. Instead, it should be painted black like hair carefully held together by a binyeo*, brown like the warm eyes of a grandfather selling gunbam* to young students, and golden like the skin of the children who spend their days playing jegichagi* outside in the sun.
The oversimplification of a complex issue, rooted in deep history and culture, and the sensationalized polarization of the two Koreas largely overlook the importance of Korean cultural identity. People, held together by this deep cultural history, should be at the center of the discussion.
Over 60 years of separation has inevitably fortified a profound boundary between the two Koreas and more importantly, produced younger generations of Koreans whose reality and sense of identity exist almost exclusively within these boundaries. Korean identity is subjected to dualistic paradigm of North vs. South, us vs. them, me vs. you.
South Koreans have arguably come to associate themselves more with their incredible economic growth and prosperity following the Korean War than the traditional values more readily seen in agrarian societies. The narrative of perseverance, hard work, and personal development may resonate more deeply with young Koreans, who between the ages 15 to 29 struggle with a high unemployment rate of 11.3% (Frayer 2017).
Understandably, these Koreans find themselves preoccupied by securing their livelihoods in a shrinking job market rather than by an age-old political dispute entrusted to them by older generations. By this token though, North Koreans do not have a place in the identity of modern South Korea that has become defined in terms of economic development, social progress, and international recognition. Of course, the lines drawn in their identity do not imply indifference to the issue and the plight of North Koreans. Instead, there is a need for some recognition of the cognizant separation between North and South Korean identities.
In a recent poll, 42.6% of South Koreans were against the unified Korean team, with 50% of South Koreans in their thirties opposing the team (Park 2018).
“Rather than feeling some surge of inter-Korean nationalism, younger South Koreans seem to view the North Korean athletes as free riders leeching off a South Korean team that worked hard to qualify for the Olympics” (Park 2018).
The polarization of identities is clear. The Olympics exposed a more divided Korea than a unified one.
However, the Korean people, north and south of the border, largely share the same language, culture, and traditional values embedded in Confucianism. Family, unity, and community are among the most crucial aspects to the cultural nature of the Korean people (Sorenson, Center for Global Education). That is not to say differing political ideologies have not had an impact on these values, but the essence of the Korean people and culture remain relatively the same.
Emphasis on familial ties extends outside of kinship-- Koreans express jeong, an indefinable concept of affection and bond, to non-kin (Sorenson, Center for Global Education). This underlines the notion that traditional Korean society is not made up of many isolated families, but of an entire network of strong emotional involvement with one another. The Korean colloquial language embodies this concept-- it is not uncommon to call older female waitstaff auntie or refer to non-kin elderly folks as grandma or grandpa.
In recent times, the Moon presidency, in efforts to ease Inter-Korean tensions, has framed the issue as a matter of economic utility and national security, not necessarily as a matter of upholding this network of jeong (Frank 2017). The cultural value of jeong is lost on an issue that has become too political and too international, of which Korean cultural values are largely dismissed and misunderstood. And North Korea is made more-or-less a means of economic utility to South Korea.
But Koreans have demonstrated the strength of jeong. The successful impeachment of the previous presidency involved a unified, galvanized effort of the Korean people who felt the Park administration grossly betrayed their trust and the network that binds Koreans together. The murder of student activist Park Jong-Chul in 1987 by the South’s then authoritarian government manifested into a collective mourning of a son, a brother, and a friend to all Koreans who took up signs on the streets to protest against the repressive government. Can the same be said for the injustices known to be found in North Korea?
In these cases, the sense of jeong enrages, inspires, and stirs the Korean people to extend empathy beyond familial boundaries and merge under a common cause of protecting kin and non-kin alike.
Confronting inter-Korean relations is inevitable-- North Korea has nuclear warheads, South Korea is flirting with an uncertain economic situation, and North Korea has been testing those warheads. Instead of solely examining the issue with predictive numbers and data, perhaps an inclusion of the inherent cultural value may shed light on the need to view this issue as a human one, rather than one that is solely political and economic. For all one knows, framing the issue as a human one may appeal to the jeong in Korean people, no matter what age, background, and political leaning.
A focus on people reveals the shared cultural value of an inherently boundless sense of kinship that has the power to unite under a shared fight. There is much debate on whether the fight against a totalitarian regime and its human rights violations is shared with the South, but the capacity to extend jeong to one another may indeed be. Two North Korean coaches were pictured cheering a South Korean athlete during the Olympics-- a simple gesture of jeong that may have a monumental, historical impact on the recognition that the common people of both sides are on the same team.
Source: Hankook Ilbo
Though the long-term impact of the Olympics on inter-Korean relations is uncertain, the momentary illusion of a unified people marching together in peace recognizes the singularity of the Korean people and gives rise to a far but possible reality. This all may be idealistic spewing but South Koreans have achieved revolutionary outcomes when united with a sense of jeong and purpose--it begs the question of what North and South Koreans together can achieve.
Whether the future holds reunification or peaceful coexistence, a future without warfare can only be secured by placing people at the center of the discussion. And regardless of differing views on the unified march and women’s hockey team at the Olympics, the event offers the world insight on the powerful, but unspoken feature of Korean culture and engages the Korean people to reexamine their personal connection to the issue, which hopefully invokes a sense of jeong.
*binyeo: traditional Korean hair pin
*gunbam: roasted chestnuts commonly sold in street food carts
*jegichagi: traditional children’s game