Last October, I hiked up Bukhan-san outside of Seoul to pay homage to my late parents. Their ashes rest in a shrine near a 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 explained that I had been invited to give a lecture about what the reunification of Korea looks like through Korean American eyes.
The monk wanted to know why I cared about the reunification of a nation my family and I had left behind. I explained that from my vantage point as a woman of Korean descent living in the United States, the costs of the continuing division of Korea were enormous.
For over 60 years, the United States has spent over $2 billion annually subsidizing South Korea’s military. Although South Korea no longer lists North Korea as a major military threat, it plans to spend $665 billion on its military by 2020. In 2012, South Korea will assume control of the U.S. Forces in Korea and primary responsibility over North Korea, but thousands of American troops and U.S. military bases in Pyongtaek and Osan will remain to secure U.S. interests in the region.
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 withdrawal of these troops would force South Korea to decide whether to increase defense expenditures now provided by U.S. forces or invest in reunification.
As it stands now, division means the continued militarization of the Korean peninsula and an environment of fear among the Korean people that clouds their ability to envision a more just and peaceful future. Since division, both Korean governments have used national security concerns to censor ideas that challenge the existing political and economic system. In the south, for example, the National Security Law (NSL), first introduced by Syngman Rhee to quash popular movements, is still being used to arrest trade union leaders and repress union organizing and strikes. In July, the Ministry of National Defense prohibited the military from reading a list of “seditious books” considered pro-North Korean, anti-government, anti-U.S. or anti-capitalist, such as the global bestseller Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism written by Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang. In August, Yonsei University professor Oh Sei-Chul and six others were arrested for their involvement in a socialist organization, despite the group’s critical views of North Korea.
The United Nation’s Human Rights Council has even recommended abolition of the National Security Law, which marked its 60th anniversary in December. But it’s not just this law that is repressing dissent and styming change. Despite the end of the Cold War, the Cold War mentality still pervades the peninsula.
I confronted its legacy in 2006 when I visited my brother-in-law in Seoul following my trip to Pyongtaek where I met courageous villagers struggling to keep their land and homes from being demolished to accommodate the expansion of the Camp Humphries military base. After sharing a few photos, my brother-in-law vehemently demanded that I promptly end my slideshow. He called me naïve for being involved with bbalgangis — Communists — who were exploiting the elderly villagers to siphon more money from the government. Sadly, many of my siblings have echoed similar admonishments of my work to fight for equity, justice and peace. Whether we realize it or not, division has painfully impacted the family of every single Korean American.
Yet South and North Korea have taken bold steps toward reconciliation, and Russia and China now have diplomatic ties with both Koreas. Now Americans have a unique responsibility — especially in light of the fact that the United States was primarily responsible for dividing Korea — to help reunify the land and the people. And we can by pressuring President Obama to finally end the Korean War by signing a peace treaty with North Korea.
On my way down Bukhan-san, I recalled how my mother, months before she died, shared how happy she was that I was able to see a part of Korea (the north) she never could. Then I thought about how those from her generation — the last to remember one Korea — will soon pass. That’s why our task for reunification is urgent, not just for peace at home and within our families, but also to support Korea’s right to build a democratic, just and peaceful future, reunified.
Christine Ahn is a Fellow with the Korea Policy Institute.