US and Korea: A Relationship Re-imagined

Eun Soo’s Experience

           “Are you from North Korea or South Korea?” When I was first asked this question as a naïve fourth grader who had just moved to Singapore from Korea, it sounded strange. However, as I continued studying abroad in Singapore and eventually in America, this question proved to be a familiar conversation starter and an icebreaker. Every time the question was posed, I would adamantly throw my chest out and say matter-of-factly, “Of course I’m from South Korea.” Because my Korean classmates and I always gave the same answer over and over again, I started believing that South Korea was the only possible and “right” answer.

      When I was introduced to Chul-Ae in fifth grade, I didn’t even bother to ask her the question. It was only when I was met with a blank stare after asking her about her favorite restaurant in Seoul that I realized that something was wrong. “Chul-Ae, have you never eaten in Hyundai Department store? They have the most famous dumplings there!” When Chul-Ae told me she was from North Korea, images of rural shacks, iconic red scarves, and of course, the fat dictator from my South Korean textbooks flashed through my mind. I stared incredulously at Chul-Ae and started bombarding her with questions. “I heard you guys use a different language. Is it true that you have to march to school? Have you ever eaten ramen?” Eleven-year-old Chul-Ae was gracious enough to accept my ignorance. “Eun-Soo, South and North Korea share the same language. I walk to school with my friends and ramen is my favorite food in the world!”

     Chul-Ae and I grew to be best friends throughout fifth grade and week after week, I learned to doubt South Korea’s portrayal of North Korea. Unlike what South Korean elementary school textbooks taught me, Chul-Ae’s mom didn’t always wear Hanbok, the Korean traditional dress, and her family didn’t have to recite the national anthem in front of the television for two hours each morning.


Kenneth’s Experience

“Are you from the bad one or good one?”

“The good one, of course.”

    At the beginning of every new school year in Hawaii, classes begin with students introducing their names, what their favorite food was, and what cultural heritage they came from due to the immense diversity in the state. Every year my answer remained unchanged. “My name is Kenneth Lee, my favorite food is Kimchi, and my ethnicity is Korean”. Every time I replied, I would get the same question of whether my heritage traced back to the “bad” Korea or the “good” Korea. When I was young, I would proudly say I was from the “good” South Korea. However, when I was in middle school, my grandfather told me that he in fact fled North Korea during the Korean War, meaning that my roots come from both halves of the peninsula. It was from that point on that I realized that there is only one Korean heritage. Since then, I made sure that as a Korean-American and not a South Korean-American, I responded by saying, “I’m from Korea.”


America’s Approach to the Korean Peninsula

     America has always approached foreign policy toward the Korean peninsula in a bifurcated fashion: containing North Korea in order to prevent a second Korean War while simultaneously trying to support South Korea’s development. This strategy has been extremely successful in the Cold War era ultimately resulting in an immensely developed, modern, and powerful South Korea juxtaposed with a still militarily potent but generally weaker North Korea. America still approaches the Korean peninsula with this Cold-War mentality. However, the dissolution of the Soviet Union means that containment is no longer an effective strategy: it perpetuates the existing status quo. In 21st century Northeast Asia, the status quo is no longer preferable. To finally transcend the bygones of the Cold-War era, the better approach is to move forward and see North and South Korea as one, and to build the foundation for an inevitable reunification in the future. The future of American relationship with Korea is one where America moves away from Cold-War style brinkmanship and  looks at  Korea as a whole. This change can manifest itself through its overall diplomatic approach, military strategy, and policies of economic integration: a policy that we appropriately call the “One Korea” approach.


The Interview vs. Gangnam Style

       When The Interview was released in select cinemas and was aired online, millions of people either rushed to the cinemas or streamed it online, making it Sony’s most successful release and earning over $11 million in ticket sales. Its main appeal came from the blatant finger pointing at the inadequate North Korea and its derogatory yet humorous insults at the corrupt state. However, even without watching actual film, the poster is enough to prove that all Americans associate North Korea with missiles, destructive nuclear weapons, crazy dictators, and xenophobia. Americans fails to see beyond North Korea’s defense tactics and seemingly oppressive culture; to them, North Korea is already a failed state that perpetuates violence and evil in the world. In fact, those in the US who show favorable opinion towards North Korea are often berated and ostracized. On the other hand, when South Korean Psy’s worldwide hit “Gangnam Style” was released, America essentially worshipped him. Psy’s music video very shortly became the most watched video on Youtube, and he was given the privilege to perform at  concerts all around the world. He was scheduled meetings with world-famous politicians such as the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and former United States President Bill Clinton, as well as popular culture icons Jackie Chan and Betty White. Suddenly, within the span of a mere month, the entire world was interested in learning more aboutSouth Korea, thanks to Psy’s amusing portrayal of the country in his music video.

        The Interview and Gangnam Style’s music video are both humorous adaptations of their respective countries. However, the US’ and the world’s drastically different responses to the divergent pieces of entertainment support the fact that no country in the world views them as one. To them, the “bad” Korea hosts a crazy line of pot-bellied leaders who have oppressed their country for decades, while the “good” Korea is the technological mecca of the world. However, in reality, the “bad” Korea is neither evil nor irrational; North Korea is a country with a strong emphasis on blood-related legacy of the family of leaders and also one that seeks comfort in maintaining the purity of the Han (Korean) blood. Furthermore, North Korea alone cannot be called xenophobic; South Korea is home to only three percent of other races, a statistic that is representative of the pride that Korea places in untainted Korean blood, otherwise known as being one hundred percent Korean. While politics have divided both countries, both North Korea and South Korea’s prioritize its Han roots, the same culture, and shared historical legacy as a single nation. The first step is to see that North and South Korea are one nation divided into two states; the people are of one race and one blood, after all. The divergent caricatures of North Korea like in the Interview and South Korea in Gangnam Style  fail to capture the fact that there are the same Korean people in the North and the South and that the people living in both states are culturally, historically, ethnically, and traditionally identical.


A Changing Military Landscape

      The 38th parallel is the most militarized border in the world with heavily-armed soldiers facing off across a thin no man’s land littered with explosive mines. Ironically, while North Korea has a burgeoning nuclear program, South Korea is protected by America’s nuclear umbrella. Moving forward into the 21st century, this military brinkmanship is the biggest tangible obstacle to meaningful change.

     From the South Korean and American point of view, the North Korean withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and development of a nascent nuclear weapons program is the obstacle to diplomacy. North Korea in the early 90s promised to not nuclearize but since then has repeatedly broken its promise. The calls and negotiations to denuclearize has always been incentivized by a removal of sanctions and humanitarian aid. However, the former is a small incentive given the rather closed off nature of the North Korean economy, and the latter also seems to be ineffective at persuasion despite the famine.

     North Korea’s reluctance to forfeit its nuclear program is often used as an example of the “craziness” of Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un. However, in reality, it is a rational response to what they see as legitimate national security threats. North Korea’s nuclear program started in the 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union. The sudden disappearance of Soviet support and military guarantees meant that North Korea became isolated and vulnerable, especially due to the famine catalyzed by various natural disasters. Generally, the end of the Cold War led to an escalation of military tension in the Korean peninsula; however, contrary to expectations, the escalation did not begin with North Korea.

     In 1997, America began its annual joint military exercises with South Korea; the Foal Eagle exercises is now one of the biggest military exercises in the world. North Korea has repeatedly announced that these military exercises, which also include the use of aircraft carriers and nuclear-equipped weaponry, is immensely threatening. These exercises involve hundreds of thousands of soldiers, naval battle groups, and dozens of aircraft near North Korea. Recently, the US also flew armed bombers as a part of the exercise. North Korea feels that there is a legitimate threat to their safety given that at one point in history, America conquered North Korea as a part of their counter-attack in the Korean war.

     By no means is North Korea’s regime morally justified in its pursual of a nuclear and military first policy at the expense of the people. However, objectively speaking, America has been saber-rattling to a significant degree that North Korea views its nuclear and military strategy as necessary for national security. Going forward, any deescalation requires America to seriously reconsider the grandiosity of the military exercise and perhaps its very existence. North Korea first invaded South Korea in 1950 because South Korea seemed like an easy target with no military power. Today, North Korea is already aware of America and South Korea’s military strength, independent of the military exercises. There is no coincidence that the expansion of the size of Foal Eagle has corresponded with North Korean missile launches, military exercises, and artillery fire in the past few years. Thus, the military exercise is largely superfluous and maintains the Cold-War style brinkmanship mentality, where there is a constant state of high alert on both sides. Reconsidering American strategy is a key first step in potentially lowering the military high-alertness across the peninsula, bringing about North Korean denuclearization and also initiating diplomatic talks regarding integration. Going into the future, given the fact that many South Koreans are starting to feel that a more conciliatory approach to North Korea is necessary, and because America has been pushing for South Korea to take greater control of the coalition military on the peninsula, it is indisputable that American and South Korean de-escalation can happen. North Korea, as the weaker power, will never take the first step at toning down the brinkmanship. However, America, as a world leader, can take that first step to lower military tensions and take the first step toward effective diplomacy.


Sunshine Policy 2.0

     In 2000, President Kim Dae-Jung received the Nobel Peace Prize for his Sunshine Policy that aimed to bring greater economic cooperation with North Korea. He was widely dubbed as the “Nelson Mandela of Asia” for his endeavors for freedom, democracy, and greater integration with the North. His successor Roh Moo-Hyun continued his policy. However in 2008,  Lee Myung-Bak,  a member of the opposition Conservative Party (Saenuri Party), became president and refused to adapt Kim and Roh’s political approach. As a part of his party’s platform, his government took a harder line against the North Koreans and declared the Sunshine Policy a “failure” in large part due to North Korea’s continued nuclear program. However, as seen across the world, economic integration and liberalization is key for eventual political liberalization. Going into the future, a Sunshine Policy 2.0 would be effective and be a reasonable strategy for America and South Korea in complement with a changed mindset and military strategy.

     Firstly, the Sunshine Policy was not really a failure as declared by Lee’s Conservative government. One of the key successes of the policy was the Kaesong Industrial Complex completed in 2004, where South Korean companies employed more than 50, 000 North Korean workers. Despite rising tensions as of late, the industrial complex is still successfully operating to the benefit of North Korean workers who get a glimpse of the South’s modernity and receive a generous wage, and South Korean companies who get access to cheap, educated, and skilled labor. Additionally, the weak state of the N.Korean government especially after the devastating famine of the late 90s, has led to the creation of a black market. Technically, it is a black market because it is illegal to buy and sell goods outside the purview of the government, but in reality, North Korea has allowed markets and traders to conduct business all over the country. With Kaesong and the rise of informal marketplaces, North Korea is become more and more exposed to capitalism and liberalism.

     The Sunshine Policy would have complemented this burgeoning grassroots capitalism had it continued. Compared to the Kim Dae-Jung era of the late 90s and early 2000s, North Korea has a much more vibrant grassroots capitalist economy and there has been a flood of Hallyu products ranging from K-dramas to K-pop music. South Korea has a vibrant export economy, and has demographic challenges of an older population. North Korea is on a slow but steady track of adopting capitalism and requires a source of economic livelihood and development; hence the existence of the black market and their support of the Kaesong Industrial complex. With these factors on both sides of the 38th parallel, incentives are in place that make economic integration inevitable. Just like America’s policy toward lifting the Cuban embargo, slow steps toward integrating North Korea’s economy with that of South Korea and eventually the globe will be instrumental in developing a “One Korea” foreign policy.


Looking Toward the Optimal Future of American-Korean Relations

      On March 5 of this year, when the United States ambassador Mark Lippert visited South Korea, he was violently attacked by a razor-wielding man. That man, Kim Ki-Jong, wanted to express his opposition to joint American-South Korean military exercises, including the Foal Eagle exercises. He also wanted a more conciliatory approach toward the North and believed that American was hindering diplomacy. To the Americans, the four-inch cut on Mr. Lippert’s face, and the eighty stitches he needed was more than a physical injury; it was evidence of the high tensions and the need for a potential re-evaluation. Although South Korea does not and will never condone the actions of Kim Ki-Jong, many in the country have sentiments that  are in line with his; South Korea should not anger or intimidate their northern “brother” but rather aim for cooperation and the finding of common ground. America has as of late rejected the cooperative and open mind that many Koreans believe is necessary for reunification but the idea of a “One Korea” is determinedly ingrained in every Koreans’ psyche. This difference may potentially hurt Korean-American relations in the future, especially given the fact that North Korea and America have no formal diplomatic relations. Because the same honorable red blood runs in the veins of North and South Koreans, reunification should and will happen in order for Korea to prosper as one proud nation. Central to this purpose is for America to transcend the outdated Cold War policies and mentality so that all of North East Asia can be fully brought into perspective in the 21st century.

Eun Soo (Jackie) Kim

University of Southern California

Nationality: The Republic of Korea


Kenneth Lee

University of Southern California

Nationality: The United States of America

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Tags: #TPC2015


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Comment by Untung Waluyo on June 28, 2015 at 1:53am

Just watch the korean movies, don know anything about this relation.:) waluhyo

Comment by Al LeBlanc on May 23, 2015 at 10:52am

Most interesting article - thanks for creating and sharing   I'm reminded of the similarity of the DMZ with the Berlin Wall - "Mr. Gorbachev, take down this wall"  Ronald Reagan.  Having viisited the Berlin Wall and gone through Checkpoint Charlie and the De-Militarized Zone of the Koreas, it would seem that North Korea needs a truly "Enlightened Leader" versus Oppressive Dictator.who has his perceived challengers "machined gunned" by firing squad.  Likewise, any popular people uprising would probably be "machined gun" down.  

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