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Congressional Briefing on the Reunification of Korea

Good morning. My name is Thomas Kim. I am a professor of politics and international relations at Scripps College, and the Acting Executive Director of the Korea Policy Institute. KPI is currently being put together as a research and educational institute modeled as a joint academic/community partnership that will provide educational resources and timely analyses of current events to U.S. policymakers, media, and the American public. Conceived by Korean Americans who have so much at stake in the outcome of policies toward Korea, KPI seeks to draw upon the wealth of untapped knowledge and experience within Korean American communities in order to support the development of pragmatic, well-informed U.S. policies toward Korea.

I’d like to thank Congressman Kucinich and his staff for the invitation to speak today at this briefing on the ongoing reunification of divided Korea. I will focus my remarks on the legacy of the Korean War up to the historic summit between Kim Dae Jung of South Korea and Kim Jong Il of North Korea that took place in June of 2000—a summit which led to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Kim Dae Jung and more importantly, opened up a new era for Korea.

Unfortunately, the promise of this new era is burdened by our collective inability to reconcile our past. The Korean War is the signal event of this past, marking Korea and Koreans everywhere in ways large and small, anticipated and unknown. It is not simply a historical event to be studied, but rather, something whose reach extends everywhere in contemporary Korean politics and society, and in the lives of Korean communities, be they on the Korean peninsula or here in the U.S.

Today, over 50 years after the shooting stopped, the diplomatic inability to end the Korean War means that there continue to be approximately 10 million people separated from their families. Until the historic June 2000 summit opened up significant relations between North and South, it was not unusual to see South Koreans coming here to acquire U.S. citizenship so that they could go to the North to visit their families. Until recently, every year dozens of elderly South Koreans, in despair that they would not see their loved ones across the demilitarized zone before they died, would travel northward as far as they could go before committing suicide. We in the U.S. must try to comprehend that the continuing division of both family and nation are deeply personal scars that mark the collective psyche of the Korean people, be they in the North, the South, or here in the U.S.

The Korean War has had a tremendous influence in sustaining the political and military structure of the peninsula. Most of the war was fought in the north, and it is not an exaggeration to say that every single North Korean alive at that time probably lost a family member in the war. While America may have forgotten about the war, North Korea has not. The North Korean state has, for decades, emphasized the threat posed by the U.S. military as a way to build popular support, and today, North Korea’s “military first” policy is predicated on the idea that the militarism of the United States continues to be the single greatest threat to Korea’s self-determination. The peaceful, diplomatic resolution of the Korean War and the normalization of relations between North Korea and the U.S. would thus promote a significant redistribution in North Korean resources away from its military, and would force the North Korean government to change a tune that is over half a century old.

In the south, the outbreak of war in 1950 gave the government an identity and legitimacy at a time that it had very little. After the armistice, the omnipresent threat and demonization of North Korea allowed South Korean dictators, backed by the military, to consolidate their power. Under the guise of national security against the North, the South Korean state systematically crushed social movements pushing for political, economic, and social rights. The rapid industrialization of South Korea that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s can be tied directly to severe repression of and violence toward working class, student, and other would be civil society movements that sought to democratize the nation. South Korea’s first genuinely open election in 1987 came over 50 years after the U.S. military came to Korea, and 7 years after the Gwangju Uprising planted the seeds for today’s shift in South Korean attitudes toward the U.S. government, especially among the younger generations. The inability to finally end the Korean War also justifies the continuing presence of roughly 34,000 US troops in about a 100 military installations and bases in South Korea. No doubt successful diplomatic efforts to end the war would lead to a renewed conversation about the appropriate role of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula and, more broadly, in Northeast Asia.

The role of U.S. troops in Korea is one of many conversations that South Koreans are already engaged in today. The open and dynamic dialogue occurring now comes on the heels of a long and palpable silence in Korean communities—a silence that was the legacy of government repression of democracy and dissent in the name of national security. This silence is now being openly confronted by South Korean scholars, politicians, activists, and former victims who are critical of the ways in which South Korean dictatorships wrote the history of modern Korea to advance their personal and political objectives.

This silence is also—finally—being confronted here in the U.S. by Korean Americans. Just as it did for Koreans in Korea, the historic summit meeting between the leaders of North and South has generated a wave of excitement and activity in Korean American communities wanting to take part in the historic process of reunification. Since division and war, there have always been Korean Americans working to unite Korea, and this past year was no exception. A Korean American delegation went to Pyongyang to mark the 5th anniversary of the historic June 2000 summit, and a different delegation went to Seoul to mark the 60th anniversary of independence from Japanese colonialism. The Korean American business community has been closely tracking recent events in Korea while keeping an eye on U.S. foreign policy, concerned that an instable security environment not only threatens their family and friends, but also their investments in transpacific trade. Forward thinking Korean American entrepreneurs, anxious not to be left behind the unification curve, have visited Pyongyang in an effort to build sustainable and profitable economic bridges.

Perhaps most important is that one can sense the beginning of a dramatic cultural shift occurring right now in Korean American communities. Just five years ago, even as a professor who specializes in politics and teaches about Korea, I could not openly discuss the legacy of the Korean War within the Korean American community. Five years ago, I could not tell you as I am telling you now that I am looking forward to visiting North Korea this year. And most importantly, five years ago, it would have been impossible to talk seriously about unification as we are doing right now. But today, I strongly believe that popular support is moving in that direction. Obviously the Korean American community is diverse, peppered with Republicans, Democrats, progressives, conservatives, and independents. Little is known about North Korea, and Korean American attitudes toward Kim Jong Il and North Korea range from deep antipathy to mistrust to open curiosity. But the lack of support among Korean Americans for Kim Jong Il and even outright hostility toward him must not be mistaken as support for U.S. policies that jeopardize peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. Indeed, what unites Korean Americans across the board is an absolute refusal to tolerate the outbreak of armed conflict on the Korean peninsula. Even the more conservative older generation is supportive of efforts to send a message to Washington that Korean Americans, irrespective of their political leanings, want to see the U.S. engage in diplomatic efforts that secure the peace. What unites Korean Americans is our deep, enduring hope that one day we will see and visit a unified Korea. What also unites us is our fear that our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, and our family and friends in Korea will be at war with our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, and our family and friends in America, our home. It is critical that any conversation about U.S. foreign policy toward the Korean peninsula understands what unites Korean Americans, how we are looking excitedly toward a new era, and how we still, unfortunately, live in our past. I thank you for your time.


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