North Korea is a deeply nationalistic regime, and its nationalism has deep historical roots. To start with, East Asian communists of the 1920s and 1930s were quite nationalistic. Then, from the 1950s onwards, the North Korean leadership encouraged nationalism as a way to keep some distance from their troublesome patrons in Moscow and Beijing. Finally, with the Communist Bloc crumbling in the early 1990s, Pyongyang’s rulers chose nationalism as the main way to justify their continued reign.
One might argue that there is nothing special about this since all countries of East Asia are seriously permeated with ethnic nationalism. Frankly, for a country of such high levels of education and income, South Korea itself is an unusually nationalistic place. South Koreans love to talk about ``minjok” (the nation), often described in terms of race and bloodline, and tend to be quite suspicious of outsiders.
But things are changing in the South, slowly but surely. The old Korean nationalism emerged during colonial times in the struggle with the nationalism of Imperial Japan, but, paradoxically, it was based on a mold developed in Japan more than a century ago. Now it is being gradually replaced by a non-ethnic nationalism, with less emphasis on alleged biological unity.
The South is gradually becoming a multiethnic society. Nowadays, it has one of the world’s highest ratios of mixed marriages. It is also the home to nearly one million foreign workers.
Most of these mixed marriages are between South Korean farmers and women from poorer countries of Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, children from these marriages constitute a significant and growing part of students in South Korea’s school system.
However, things have changed little in the North. Its populace may be slowly losing their belief in the greatness of the “juche” idea, but the North seems to remain as an extremely nationalistic place.
Ethnic nationalism is one of the reasons why a majority of North Koreans assume that South Koreans dream of unification and would have probably embraced the North had not brutal foreign forces kept them from doing so (yes, the average North Korean seems to still sincerely believe that South Korea is under U.S. military occupation, and this occupation is the major obstacle to unification).
It would be just a minor exaggeration to say that the North and South inhabit two different ideological universes. Northerners still live in the ideological equivalent of 1930s Europe, with the emphasis on racial qualities, ethnic purity and eternal unity. Meanwhile, the South is moving towards a much more modern understanding of race, identity and the nation.
This is likely to lead to major problems if and when unification happens. Unification is most likely to be not the product of some complex diplomatic process. Like it or not, a repeat of the German scenario seems to be most realistic: The solution will be brought about, first of all, by an explosion of popular discontent about the dictatorial regime in the North, driven to a very large extent by the inflated expectations about unification.
Indeed, when the final crisis takes place, North Koreans are likely to assume that all their problems will be miraculously solved by unification. They believe in ethnic solidarity, and they probably expect that their South Korean brethren will be willing to share the immense prosperity of the South with their new found siblings.
This is not likely to happen, though. Younger South Koreans are increasingly skeptical about unification. It is quite possible that they will have to accept it anyway, but they are not going to be even remotely as generous as their North Korean brothers think.
This is bound to produce a lot of tension in post-unification Korea. It will not help that South Koreans are different. Not only because they are much taller and have better skin but also because they look more Western ― courtesy of the fact that they have acquired many foreign habits ― and their speech is flooded with the notorious ``Konglish.” One can easily imagine how Northerners will react to this. They will despise Southerners for their greed (real or perceived) and at the same time for the cultural corruption that’s occurred. And, of course, the Northerners (at least, some of them) will feel cheated, and will start looking for an identity of their own.
I would not be surprised if some version of ethnic nationalism will become the basis for a post-unification identity for North Korea (and there is little doubt that such an identity will emerge). North Koreans may tell themselves that Southerners, whilst richer, sold their national essence in order to achieve their prosperity. Therefore, the reasoning is likely to go thus ``the North should keep itself pure, and guard the national essence from foreign influence.’
This is not going to be pretty, but one should remember that almost every aspect of a post-unification future will be difficult for both Koreas. But in the absence of unification, things will be even more troublesome.”
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at email@example.com.