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U.S. angers Koreans as reunification stalls

Bangkok, Thailand

The problem of North Korea may have been shoved to the back burner for much of the world because of the intense concentration on the impending war in Iraq, but reunification clearly remains a burning issue for Koreans. Just as clear is their frustration with the United States for what they see as its hindering of the reunification of North and South.

The term “axis of evil” is more than an attention-getting line in a speech in South Korea. Many there see it as the label that undid the admittedly tentative rapprochement that had developed in recent years between North and South.

Some of that frustration appeared evident last summer in the statement written by Bishop Peter Kang U-il in the official message for the Prayer Day for Reconciliation and Unity of Korean People (June 23): “As the division of the nation was not our own fault, so too, reunification seems unable to come about solely through our own will.”

The frustration also plays out against the backdrop of a change in power in South Korea. President Kim Dae-jung left office Feb. 25 with many unfulfilled promises. Kim, the first opposition figure elected in Korean history, had been heralded as “the people’s president,” but his last two years have been plagued by scandal and corruption, not unlike the politics he pledged to do away with. Even two of his sons were convicted of influence peddling. Many supporters were disillusioned.

When considering his legacy, however, history may overlook Kim’s failings and remember him for one thing: He cracked the veneer in North Korea’s isolation and took steps in reuniting a divided people through engaging the North economically and socially. Kim called this his “sunshine policy.”

In the fall 2002 newsletter of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, Fr. John Kim Jong-su, then the secretary general of the conference, wrote that Kim’s sunshine policy and the historic meeting in Pyongyang between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il on June 15, 2000, “gave much hope to Korean people for unity of their nation ... and [for the] healing of interminable pains and scars of the division. People thought that the unification work would move along actively even if unity might not come as early as they expected.

“However, the reality did not turn out quite as we expected. Some domestic problems interfered with the work. But the main reason was the change in U.S. policy toward North Korea after the Sept. 11 terrorism incident,” Fr. Kim wrote.

“The Bush administration defined North Korea as an ‘axis of evil’ and one of the countries that supports terrorism. Under such circumstances inter-Korean relations were badly affected. All follow-up procedures of the June 15 Joint Declaration were interrupted including inter-Korean dialogue and the reunion of separated families. The Korean peninsula entered a severe cold winter again.”

Regina Pyon of the Korean Catholic Human Rights Committee told NCR, “Now people know that always the U.S. stands in the way of the North and South. When we are getting closer, they interfere. Especially the remark of Bush, ‘axis of evil,’ made us very angry.”

“Think about the pains of our parents and grandparents, separated from their families for more than 50 years. We are one people and one family literally,” Pyon said. “Now people would like to communicate, exchange and reconcile with the people in the North.

“I do hope U.S. Catholics could help Korean people by pressuring their government not to make hostile policy and push hard toward North Korea,” she said.

Other people and groups say the same thing, and add that the U.S. presence is undermining stability on the peninsula, not supporting it. At the prayer meeting kicking off the Catholic Priests’ Association’s one-week fast near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul in December, the priest protesters asserted that Koreans have lost much due to the presence of the U.S. military in South Korea.

“Contrary to the reason for their stationing, their pro-war policy has blocked the peace and unity of our nation,” the priests charged.

Paul Hwang Kyung-hoon of the lay-run Woori Theological Institute in Seoul sees a change in attitude among people. Formerly, they saw all things associated with North Korea as bad and dangerous. He said various South Korean governments and allies found that reinforcing this attitude became the most efficient method of controlling people. But he said things are changing.

“They [the people] have gotten over the ideology of Cold War more and more,” he said. They don’t see North Korea as much of a threat as before.

He cited a Gallup poll from Dec. 14 that said only 31 percent of Koreans favor a withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. “But an activist to whom I called this afternoon pointed out that the percentage point could be much higher if the question were given to them on the condition of indicating specific time period like in five [or] 10 years,” Hwang said.

Koreans seem to desire a change in the stalemate that has pitted North and South against each other for more than 50 years. This was seen in the presidential election held Dec. 19. Voters were given a choice between conservative Lee Hoe-chang, who campaigned with the slogan “stability or instability,” and liberal Roh Moo-hyun, who in the final days of the campaign used the slogan “war or peace.” Roh won with heavy support from voters in their 20s and 30s, social activists, the working class and the disadvantaged.

Roh, much like Kim Dae-jung, is a believer in free markets and wants Korea to continue to globalize its economy. So ultimately, Hwang points out, the new government will need the United States as much as its predecessor did.

Few doubt change is coming.

Commenting on the election, The Korea Herald, one of the nation’s largest English language newspapers, editorialized: “Little wonder President-elect Roh has placed the issue of establishing a peace regime for the Korean Peninsula on top of his policy goals.”

The paper also noted that Roh has pledged to continue his predecessor’s “sunshine policies,” but adds, “One of the first jobs he will have to do when he takes office on Feb. 25 will be to help put an end to the protracted face-off between Pyongyang and Washington.”

This won’t be easy for Roh. The Bush administration has been no fan of the sunshine policy, and Roh opposed Bush’s planned “tailored containment” of North Korea.

Another reason cited for Roh’s potential friction with the Bush administration is that he is determined to demand greater equality in bilateral relations.

Long before the election, for the prayer day for reconciliation and unity, Bishop Kang spoke of the change that the church wants to see.

“We all understand that the interest of big powers and geopolitical relations exert great influence on our reunification efforts. Nonetheless, what is important for the reunification of Korea is our own volition and efforts to become one. Both South and North Korea understand that reunification cannot be achieved by appealing to arms. ...

“Nobody can deny that peaceful reunification is the only option open to Korean people. ... We need to continue dialogues and negotiations based on patience and tolerance. For this purpose, the government, the people and the church respectively have their roles to play.”

“For the last seven years, the church in Korea provided North Korea with a considerable amount of food, agricultural equipment, fertilizer and medicine. That was of great material help for North Koreans and contributed to change their feeling toward South Korea as well.

“Our positive concern and support would move our North Korean brethren’s minds from confrontation and distrust to amicability and unity, and then the real meaning of unification of Korean people would begin. Our prayer and action for reconciliation and unity of Korean people should continue.”

Free-lance writer Dennis Coday lives in Bangkok, Thailand.

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003