Last October, I hiked up Bukhan-san outside of Seoul to pay homage to my late parents whose ashes rest in a shrine near the temple my father helped rebuild after the Korean War. While there, I sipped tea with the sunim (monk) who asked why I was visiting Korea. I was in Korea to give a lecture about what the reunification of Korea looks like through Korean American eyes.
The monk wanted to know why a Korean American of my generation cared at all about the reunification of a distant land my family and I had left behind. “What do North and South Koreans have in common?” he inquired, to which I reminded him that Koreans in the north and south speak the same language, eat the same food, share thousands of years of history, and are connected by a mountain range that extends from Baekdu-san to Chiri-san.
Yet the monk’s question was more about the vast ideological divide separating Koreans, and for many South Koreans and Korean Americans, the cost of reunification is almost always couched in narrow economic terms, i.e. calculations of the economic costs to absorb the impoverished North. But what all the creative accounting often fails to consider is the cost of maintaining division.
For one, division means the continued militarization of the Korean peninsula, which has tremendous costs—not just in terms of billions of won and dollars spent on the military—but in the way that fear continues to grip the Korean people and cloud their ability to envision a more just and peaceful society.
Militarization of Korea
When former President Bill Clinton visited the DMZ in 2003, he described it as the “scariest place on earth.” Along the 151-mile barbed-wire border dividing the North and South are 1.2 million landmines. For more than 60 years, the United States has spent over $2 billion annually to subsidize South Korea’s military, and South Korea has incurred tremendous cost to keep U.S. troops.
The United States has committed to spending $10 billion on base construction in South Korea, and South Korea has begun to increase its military budget annually by 10 percent under its $665 billion Defense Reform 2020 Initiative. John Feffer, editor of Foreign Policy In Focus, estimates that spending will go towards purchasing “expensive, high-tech systems, such as new F-15k fighters from Boeing, SM-6 ship to air missiles, and rapid response teams with 2,000 advanced armored vehicles to handle a possible North Korean collapse.”
South Korea is also preparing for 2012, when it will assume control of the U.S. Forces in Korea and bear the primary responsibility of the defense against North Korea. Although the 27,000 American troops now in South Korea will be reduced, thousands of American troops and a couple of U.S. military bases, in Pyongtaek and Osan, will remain to secure U.S. interests in the region.
The two huge bases in Pyongtaek and Osan are now major listening posts for the U.S. military. Investigative journalist and longtime contributor to The Nation Tim Shorrock, while conducting exhaustive research for his book Spies for Hire on the privatization of U.S. intelligence, uncovered unsavory evidence that the U.S. military bases are eavesdropping on Korean civilian activities. According to Shorrock, Pyongtaek has become a key overseas intelligence outpost for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Although the primary target is the DPRK, U.S. intelligence activities at Pyongtaek and Osan also monitor China, Vietnam, and other countries in Asia. “Scariest of all is their potential power to monitor South Korean communications,” states Shorrock.
Shorrock asserts that while the NSA must follow certain legal procedures to spy on Americans inside the United States, there are no restrictions on the NSA’s monitoring of overseas communications. Since 9/11, what is considered a threat has widened to include almost any activity that questions or challenges U.S. dominance. According to Shorrock, “That means that political activity aimed at curbing the buildup at Pyongtaek is very closely monitored. There may be certain restrictions on ROK authorities spying on Korean citizens; but the gloves would be off for U.S. authorities doing that.”
In the course of his investigation, Shorrock discovered an article by a U.S. Forces in Korea official on U.S. cooperation with ROK police in monitoring U.S. bases: “It’s an amazingly frank assessment that tells me that the anti-bases movement is being as closely monitored, and probably more so, than Al Qaeda – and basically puts the movement in the same camp as global terrorists.”
According to Jae-Jung Suh, professor at Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. military aims to transform into a 21st century global fighting machine, which includes realigning bases and further enmeshing South Korea and Japan into the U.S. military alliance. Not only does increasing the militarization of South Korea intensify military pressure against North Korea, Suh predicts that in the long run, it will exert pressure on Asian allies to fortify their militaries. This new arms race will further punctuate a deepening fault line between the U.S.-Asia alliance.
But there are more than economic costs associated with increasing the militarization of Korea. According to Selig Harrison of the Center for International Policy, “The subsidy provided by the U.S. presence enables South Koreans to postpone hard choices concerning how fast and how far to move toward reunification.” In other words, the U.S. military presence enables South Korea to provide a high level of defense against North Korea at a reduced cost. “The withdrawal of U.S. forces would force Seoul to decide whether it should seek the same level of security now provided by the U.S. presence by upgrading defense expenditures,” writes Harrison, “Or whether instead, the goal of accommodation and reunification with the north would be better served by negotiating a mutual reduction of forces with the north.”
The Militarization of Korean Civil Society
Since division, both Korean governments have used national security concerns to censor ideas that challenge the existing political and economic system. In the south, the National Security Law (NSL), first introduced by Syngman Rhee to quash popular movements and silence progressive dissidents, is still used by the South Korean government to arrest trade union leaders and repress union organizing and strikes. Most recently, several leaders from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions were arrested for their involvement in organizing protests against the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. According to Martin Hart-Landsberg, professor at Lewis and Clark University, “Division of the country continues to offer the government a powerful weapon to use against those seeking change.”
In July, the Ministry of National Defense prohibited all branches of the military from reading a list of 23 “seditious books” because they were considered either pro-North Korean, anti-government, anti-U.S., or anti-capitalist. Among the banned books are global best-sellers like Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, written by award-winning Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang. In August, Yonsei University professor Sei-Chul Oh and six others were arrested on charges of violating the NSL because of their involvement in a socialist organization, despite it being critical of North Korea. And during last summer’s massive candlelight vigils initiated by middle-school girls, a group of conservative South Koreans and Korea Americans held placards that read, “Anti-U.S. beef protesters are pro-North.”
The division of Korea thus continues to legitimize government efforts in the north and south to suppress opposition on national security grounds. Hart-Landsberg points out that although North Koreans are in need of a new political economy, “it is important to keep in mind that the majority of working people in South Korea are also in need of and want significant transformation of their own system.” Today, 20 percent of South Koreans live in poverty (compared to 9 percent in 1996), and of the workforce, 54 percent are now irregular workers who on average earn half of what regular workers get paid. Growing poverty and inequality in South Korea today are the result of neoliberal policies stemming from trade agreements and structural adjustment loans imposed by the International Monetary Fund following the 1997 financial crisis.
But it’s not just the law that represses dissent and stymies change, it’s the Cold War mentality that automatically labels those who fighting for equity, justice, and historical accuracy as a bbalgangi—a Communist.
This really hit home for me in the winter of 2006 when I visited my brother-in-law in Seoul following my trip to Pyongtaek where I traveled with an international delegation to bring media attention to courageous elder farmers struggling to keep their land, homes and village from being seized and demolished to accommodate the expansion of the Camp Humphreys military base. In anticipation of my meeting with my brother-in-law, I prepared a slideshow of photographs I had taken during the villagers’ 811th candlelight vigil. After a few photos, my brother-in-law vehemently demanded that I promptly end my slideshow. From his point of view, the Communists had masterminded a scheme to exploit the elderly villagers to siphon more money from the government. He called me naïve and admonished me from being involved with bbalgangis. My heart sank.
Conclusion: Now is the Time for Peace
Now when I reflect on the Buddhist monk asking me why I care about the reunification of a nation thousands of miles away, I think back to when I stood there in front of the elderly Korean villagers in the barn where they held their 811th consecutive candlelight vigil. I remember introducing myself in my broken Korean and with tears pouring down my face apologizing to them for what the U.S. government was doing to their homes, their livelihoods, their dignity—all in the name of national security.
I recently visited the website of the U.S. Army Korea Media Center and was very disheartened to see aerial photographs of the land once tilled by and inhabited by Pyongtaek farmers. The land is now being used to expand the U.S. military base, including the construction of water parks and golf courses to accommodate American military personnel and their families.
This is particularly disturbing in light of the fact that the U.S. bears the lion’s share of responsibility for dividing Korea in the first place. Having this responsibility also makes our country especially accountable to help create conditions for reunifying Korea.
There are many things we can do in the United States to help this process along. Foremost on this list is to finally end the Korean War by signing a peace treaty with North Korea. In the past decade, South and North Korea have taken bold steps towards reconciliation, and both Russia and China have diplomatic relations with both Koreas. The Bush administration primed the ground for President Obama to sign a peace treaty by removing North Korea from the U.S. terrorist list. Now President Obama is presented with a golden opportunity to finally end the Korean War.
Last December in Seoul, James Laney, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea under Clinton delivered a talk where he said,
One item should be at the top of the agenda, however, in order to remove all unnecessary obstacles to progress, that is the establishment of a peace treaty to replace the truce that has been in place since 1953. One of the things that have bedeviled all talks until now is the unresolved status of the Korean War. A peace treaty would provide a baseline for relationships, eliminating the question of the other’s legitimacy and its right to exist. Absent such a peace treaty, every dispute presents afresh the question of the other side’s legitimacy. Only with a treaty in place will both sides be relieved of the political demand to see each move as conferring approval or not. After more than half a century, it is time for us to come to terms with existence simply as a fact, and not see it as a concession.
This March, the ROK government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be touring the United States and Canada to share the findings of their investigation into the history of mass political executions in South Korea during the Korean War. For the past three years, the Truth Commission has excavated mass gravesites, taken testimony from witnesses and family survivors and pored over police and military files in South Korea and in the United States. They have confirmed that the South Korean government conducted mass political executions of leftists and dissidents, including dozens of children, during the early stages of the Korean War. Declassified documents also confirm that U.S. military officers oversaw at least one killing and another sanctioned a mass political execution.
At the Korea Policy Institute conference on reunification at UC Berkeley last fall, Bruce Cumings, the eminent Korea historian and University of Chicago professor spoke of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He said, “Their definition of truth is archival truth, forensic truth, the marks on the skeletons truth, personal or narrative truth, social or dialogue truth, events, healing and restorative truth, and not punishing people at the end of it, which was Nelson Mandela’s [approach]. And [the Truth Commission] said, by pursuing truth this way we reduce the number of lies that can be circulated unchallenged in public discourse.” At the end of his talk, Cumings reminded us, “Truth precedes reconciliation, reconciliation precedes reunification, and we are now luckily at least 10 years in the era of reconciliation.” Cumings is referring to the decade of engagement with the north initiated by former South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung, as well as the period in which South Koreans started to openly discuss their own past of oppression.
Millions of Koreans and Korean-Americans are invested in the movement for peace and reunification because they want to reunite their own families. Unfortunately for many of them, the process of reconciling the two Koreas may take longer than they have to live. If Cumings is right that truth and reconciliation precedes reunification, then all the pieces seem to be aligned for President Obama to allow the reunification process to unfold between North and South Korea by signing a peace treaty. But it will take political pressure to ensure that peace in Korea gets on President Obama’s agenda by Korean-Americans who must take action to eliminate the costs of maintaining this very expensive division and for lasting peace on the peninsula.
Christine Ahn is a Fellow with the Korea Policy Institute.