Hyper-sensalitionism clouds the true gravity of the moves towards reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula, write Korean New Zealanders Angela Suh and Rebekah Jaung.
What is the biggest historical event that you can fathom taking place in your lifetime? For most Koreans, unification or the alternative of catastrophic conflict on the Korean peninsula are high on the list. Colonisation, war and separation feature in the family history of almost everyone of Korean heritage, so the summit between President Moon Jae-in and Chairman Kim Jong-un has been the subject of intense interest for Koreans across age, class and political spectra. In South Korea, more than a third of households tuned in to watch the events unfold and even here in faraway Aotearoa we, like many in the local Korean community, spent the day watching the live-streams so as not to miss a moment.
Friday’s summit was only the third since the armistice which paused the Korean War in 1953. The two earlier summits also took place while a left-of-centre party was in government in the South (Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun). Approaches to unification form the foundation of politics in the South – conservatives position themselves closely with America, militarism and absorption unification, while many who founded the progressive parties began their political careers campaigning for peaceful unification.
While the majority of Koreans were cheering and wiping away tears; a small group of hardline conservatives were burning unification flags and waving American ones. The leader of the biggest opposition party, the Liberty Korea Party, accused Moon and Kim of putting on a “collaborative ‘peace show”. There is a reason Kim kept mentioning the “lost 11 years” – it correlates with a period of conservative leadership across South Korea and America, and cessation of talks between the North and South.
The extended state of war has led to the loss of sovereignty for Korea. There are still American military bases causing irreparable environmental damage in the South, the people of Gangjeong Village and Seongju live alongside military installations which threaten their way of life, and the US military has been complicit in the deaths of countless Koreans during the era of dictators including during the Jeju April 3 Uprising and the Gwangju May 18 Uprising.
Whether a relic of Cold War era propaganda, to push for vested interests or due to plain old racism and othering, misreporting by western media has been a source of frustration for those of us who are directly affected.
The characterisation of the inter-Korean conflict as a “bitter rivalry” erases the role of foreign interests in pushing the newly independent Chosun into war after the fall of the Japanese empire. Some publications have incorrectly placed all blame for earlier breakdowns in talks on the North. A number of commentators have minimised the achievements of the summit, some even dismissing its significance before it had taken place.
Closer to home, it’s been suggested that comparing what we’ve seen in recent days to the fall of the Berlin Wall is an overstatement.
In terms of historical significance, drawing parallels to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall is no overstatement. Long a symbol of cold war anxieties, the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of German unification, as well as the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Korean peninsula is in many ways the final battleground where Cold War politics are intact, making this the first (and last) instance of a peaceful resolution negotiated by oppositional Cold War states on their own terms.
Another issue is the nebulous classification of “experts” and undeclared conflicts of interest. In one local example, quotations have been sourced from American war analysts like those at the Albright Stonebridge Group, who built their credentials during the Clinton-Bush-Obama era of destabilising foreign states. In a similar vein, much of the reporting on the summit frames it as a North Korea vs USA issue, when the focus should really be on Korean self-determination. This is evident in the disproportionate emphasis on denuclearisation over other goals like securing peace, reuniting separated families and connecting transit lines between borders, which are arguably more pertinent to Korean nationals.
And what of Kim Jong-un? Contrary to the singular portrayal of Kim as a ruthlessly violent dictator in western media, the summit revealed an alternative view of the Chairman, one of a humorous, and at times even humble, leader. Throughout the summit, Kim displayed a jovial temperament; from assuring Moon that his morning sleep will no longer be interrupted, a tongue-in-cheek reference to previous dawn missile testings and reaffirmation of his pledge to denuclearise, to joking that the naengmyeon, the cold noodle dish from the Pyongyang region that was served as the main course for the state dinner, had been sourced “far away”. Most surprisingly, when discussing travel arrangements for the Pyongyang summit scheduled for this autumn, Kim showed concern for Moon’s comfort during the transit by commenting on the poor state of roads and infrastructure in the North, even going as far as to say that he was “embarrassed”. This admission was of course picked up by news sources like the BBC, who reported an inadequately translated version erasing the friendly and genuine delivery.
How to reconcile these starkly oppositional representations of Kim? White-washing decades of human rights violations in the DPRK with a few meme-able moments during the summit would be an insult to the memory of all those persecuted under the regime. However, a critical consideration of the West’s calculated portrayal of Kim, and to a larger extent, North Korea, is absolutely necessary. The fetishisation of North Korea by western media in their singular portrayal of the people as yearning to defect is in itself a form of cultural propaganda. Regrettably, these types of hyper-sensationalist reports are often the only source of information people in the west consume of the region, cultivating a news cycle characterised by smug voyeurism and cruel apathy.
The summit was consistent with the Moon administration’s unification policy which prioritises Korean sovereignty: “The division of the nation is the unfortunate legacy of the colonial era that made it impossible for us to determine our destiny on our own in the midst of cold war rivalries … We, with our own strength, have to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula and overcome the division.” Significantly, this summit follows a period of dynamic socio-political change in South Korea, with the Candlelight Revolution and a heightened sense of engagement and empowerment at the grass-roots.
This change in public perceptions and the mandate it gives the Moon administration should make us hopeful about the South’s resolve to make progress towards peace. A state of affairs which we know is also in the interests of Aotearoa. The era manipulating public opinion with red scares and fabricated North Korean spy scandals is over. If only the rest of the world would catch up.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.