North Korea is a one-party state led by a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship. Surveillance is pervasive, arbitrary arrests and detention are common, and punishments for political offenses are severe. The state maintains a system of camps for political prisoners where torture, forced labor, starvation, and other atrocities take place. While some social and economic changes have been observed in recent years, including a growth in small-scale private business activity, human rights violations are still widespread, grave, and systematic.
South Korea’s democratic system features regular rotations of power and robust political pluralism, with the largest parties representing conservative and liberal views. Civil liberties are generally respected, though the country struggles with minority rights and social integration. Legal bans on pro–North Korean activity affect legitimate political expression, and members of the press can face pressure from the government over their coverage of or commentary on inter-Korean relations. Corruption is also a persistent problem, with scandals implicating successive governments and executives from the country’s largest companies in recent years.
The United States is a federal republic whose people benefit from a vibrant political system, a strong rule-of-law tradition, robust freedoms of expression and religious belief, and a wide array of other civil liberties. However, in recent years its democratic institutions have suffered erosion, as reflected in rising political polarization and extremism, partisan pressure on the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, harmful policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.
Japan is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has governed almost continuously since 1955, with stints in opposition from 1993 to 1994 and 2009 to 2012. Political rights and civil liberties are generally well respected. Outstanding challenges include ethnic and gender-based discrimination and claims of improperly close relations between government and the business sector.
by Haeryun Kang
When North Korean forces surged across the 38th parallel in June 1950, starting the three-year Korean War, my grandfather Kang Yeon-gu was a teenage student on summer break.
He was lucky. His farming village on the southeastern tip of the Korean Peninsula was about as far from the outbreak of fighting as you could get. Millions of people were streaming south to the area seeking safety. One of his neighbors today in Busan had fled there with the family cow in tow. Gramps, who turned 90 this year, survived the war. After millions of deaths and thousands of divided families, an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. But the Korean War has never technically ended. Neither has the division of the Korean nation.
Decades after Vietnam and Germany were reunified, ending their postwar divisions, Korean estrangement has only solidified. To the outside observer, the rupture between modern, democratic South Korea and the backward, repressive North — one of the last remaining symbols of the Cold War — can seem permanent.
But a strange longing for unification persists across generations and borders, a jumble of personal and collective narratives about nation and identity that reveals the complexity of how Koreans perceive their division.
My parents’ generation in South Korea lived through the impoverished postwar decades of military dictatorship and the Red Scare, when North Korean terrorist attacks, military incursions and espionage felt visceral. My parents painted anti-Communist posters at school.
I grew up in the democratic and wealthy South Korea that emerged. At the height of the so-called sunshine era in the early 2000s — a period of North-South political détente in which reunification seemed possible, if still remote — my senior art project in high school was about reunited families and optimism about a unified Korea. I was 11 when the North and South Korean teams marched into the stadium together during the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000. I watched on television with tears of joy. For a brief time after that, my dream career was to lead South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, which deals with inter-Korean affairs.
The first time I met a North Korean was in 2010, in Vienna of all places. A museum was hosting an exhibition of North Korean art, and I went three times. During my last visit, a man who identified himself as a bureaucrat from North Korea’s Culture Ministry approached me. We introduced ourselves, including where in each Korea we were from. We didn’t need an interpreter, and coincidentally, his surname was also Kang, from the same ancestral clan. The conversation was short, and we didn’t discuss any grand feelings of national unity. But the memory of briefly reaching across the divide remains powerful for me.
South Koreans are taught that North Koreans are still our people; they are part of our country. We’re taught to yearn for unification. During the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018, when women’s ice hockey players from both Koreas played as one team, crowds of Koreans waved the flag of unification and chanted, “We are one!”
Yet our dreams of unification have always collided with contradictory, polarizing messages about the North, internalized since childhood. North Korea’s government is the enemy and an existential threat. Appearing too sympathetic to the North can be viewed as a violation of South Korea’s National Security Act. The South Korean government blocks many North Korean websites.
North Korean missile launches and nuclear tests generate global headlines, but South Koreans — inured to these constant provocations — just shrug. (North Korea conducted a missile test? Just another Thursday in Seoul.) It’s just one sign of the real and widespread indifference with which many South Koreans have come to regard the North.
Since that moment of unity on the Olympic ice in Pyeongchang, the isolated North Korean regime in Pyongyang has resumed its nuclear and long-range missile testing. South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative, has taken a harder line on the North. Inter-Korean relations have frozen again. The threat of a new war is always there.
Every day, unification looks more like an illusion. How can we close such an immense gulf? According to one comparison, South Korea’s nominal G.D.P. may be 57 times as large as the North’s. The South is a robust and healthy democracy: The U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Freedom House gave South Korea a score of 83 out of 100 in political rights and civil liberties; North Korea, ruled with an iron fist by the Kim dynasty, scored a 3.
Despite everything that South Koreans have been taught to wish for, the desire for unification is waning, especially among younger citizens. According to a prominent annual survey, last year just 46 percent of respondents felt that unification was “very” or “somewhat” necessary, the second-lowest level since the survey began in 2007. Nearly 27 percent felt that it wasn’t necessary. My feelings of support for unification — Should we? Can we? — are still alive, but I’m increasingly skeptical.
There are still persuasive arguments for unification, like our shared history and language, the immeasurable value of securing freedom for North Koreans and, of course, peace. Together, we perhaps could shed our reliance on bigger powers like the United States and China and enjoy a peace dividend as a single economy that beats its swords into plowshares.
But there is also the challenge of reconciling vast differences in culture, ideology and political structures, the potentially high economic costs that the South could bear and the need to focus on bread-and-butter issues on our side of the border.
Often missing from the debate is the perspective of North Koreans. A 2018 survey found that 90.8 percent of recently defected North Koreans said that before defecting, they felt unification was “very necessary” (probably owing at least in part to the North’s pro-unification propaganda).
I still dream that all Koreans can have the freedom to meet each other, for separated families to reunite, for North Korean defectors to safely return home if they want. But those things seem as distant as ever.
During the most recent period of relative détente, a group of South Korean musicians visited Pyongyang in 2018. At the end of their peace concert, they sang a unification song. “Our wish is unification,” the South Korean performers sang, “unification that saves our people.” The audience of hundreds of North Koreans joined in, singing and waving their arms in unison.
Watching on television, the 11-year-old in me came back, and I cried. The passage of time is numbing the pain of separation and the inherited trauma passed down to each generation. But there was still something there, if only for a moment.
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