Our destination is fixed on the perpetual motion of search. Fixed in its perpetual exile. Here at my return in eighteen years, the war has not ended. We fight the same war. We are inside the same struggle seeking the same destination. We are severed in Two by an abstract enemy an invisible enemy under the title of liberators who have conveniently named the severance, Civil War. Cold War. Stalemate.
–Dictee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
These words, written by Cha in 1980, still hold true today. The continued division of Korea remains one of the last vestiges of the Cold War with no end in sight. On a recent Thursday night, Dr. Charles K. Armstrong spoke to a packed audience about North-South Korean issues, launching Korea Society’s Korea-In-Depth series. The division of Korea along the 38th parallel after World War II, suggested by the United States, accepted by the Soviet Union and opposed nearly by all Koreans, remains fixed when few people remember the Cold War. Armstrong addressed why this is so when “the bi-polarity of the Cold War” has long eroded.
In his talk, Armstrong described the central narrative of North-South relations as a series of impasses and failures at resolution. It began with the failure to hold a nationwide elections between 1945 to 1948 and continued from then on. In addition to the death and dislocation of millions of Koreans, Armstrong identified the greatest tragedy of the Korean conflict as the failure to reach a peace accord. Only a cessation of hostilities was agreed upon and the two Koreas are technically still at war after over sixty years. He characterized the history of North-South relations in five stages: Existential Antagonism (1948-1972); Toward Cautious Co-Existence (1972-1992), Cautious Opening (1998-2002); Deepening economic linkages (2003-2008) and possible Return to Confrontation (2008 to present). The policies of both South Korean and United States governments played a role in determining the tenor of these relations. Many agree that President George Bush’s action naming North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil” eroded the advances made during the Clinton administration. Over the years, there were opportunities to perhaps reach a different status quo but these paths were lost.
The fate of Korea, which had been colonized and ruled by Japan for the first half of the twentieth century, fell into the hands of these three men pictured above at the Yalta Summit in 1945. Due to the strategic location of Korea bordering both Russia and China by land and as Japan’s closest neighbor, Korea has been long embroiled in the geopolitical power struggles of other nations. Korea’s neighbors along with United States continue to have a strategic interest in the fate of the Koreas. Armstrong stated that for a long time United States mistakenly believed that it could influence China’s policies towards North Korea. Even greater mistake was its belief that China could influence North Korea. In other words, the situation remains very complicated and the future of North-South relations uncertain.
Following the talk, there was an equally engaging Q&A session. I was particularly struck by two comments. The First: during the mid 1980s, it was North Korea that was experiencing incredible economic growth and provided material aid to South Korea after a devastating flood. The Second: the apparent stability of the repressive North Korean government is to some extent consistent with traditional Korean culture and its particular brand of Confucianism extending respect for the father to the state. Thus what we are observing in Egypt is not likely to happen in North Korea. Lastly, I loved Armstrong’s discussion on the influence of Christianity, which had it’s stronghold in Pyongyang prior to the war, on North Korean myth making: the holy trinity reconceived as the father, the son and the communist party.
Charles K. Armstrong (PhD, Chicago) is the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences in the Department of History and director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. An expert on the modern history of Korea and East Asia, he has authored and edited several books on contemporary Korea, including The Koreas (2007), Korea at the Center: Dynamics of Regionalism in Northeast Asia (2006), Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State (2nd ed., 2006), The North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950 (2003), and numerous journal articles and book chapters. Photo credits: The third image is in the public domain and description can be found here. See the following links for images: #1 and #4. The picture of Charles K. Armstrong was taken by Woo Jung Cho and may not be reproduced without his permission.