By Jasper Becker
Do North and South Korea belong to the same country? Are they the same race sharing the same history and language? The answers to these questions are far from clear even to the Koreans themselves. It depends on the day really or the Olympics. In the 2000, 2004, and 2006 Olympics the two countries joined together at the games’ opening ceremonies and marched in matching uniforms behind the Korean Unification Flag.
Not surprisingly it was easy for Scottish officials to put up the South Korean flag when North Korea’s women’s team played a match against Colombia at Hampden Park in Glasgow. The team refused to play until their flag with the red star was replaced on stadium screens. On Thursday, North Korea’s Olympic team accepted repeated apologies, including one from Prime Minister David Cameron.
Even so everyone has continued calling the country North Korea, even though the country should be referred to as the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) while South Korea is the Republic of Korea (ROK). In reality the DPRK does not officially recognize the ROK’s existence as a separate country but regards it as part of the DPRK under American control. The South Korean government is therefore a puppet regime and an enemy of Pyongyang which should be destroyed if necessary by an attack.
The North Koreans don’t in fact believe they are still the same people. The founder of the DPRK, Kim Il Sung, is believed to have created a new nation, loyal to him and his family. Every effort has been made since 1946 to create a separate history and culture which has little in common with either pre-1946 or the culture of the South. The North Koreans don’t even use the vocabulary or write with the same alphabet. If they are ever unified under the rule of the Kim family, the South Koreans would be forced to undergo a complete brainwashing and learn to become obedient subjects of the Kim dynasty.
During the heyday of constructive engagement under two South Koreans left-wing presidents, relations between the two halves were relatively friendly. After Kim Dae-jung introduced his ‘Sunshine Policy’ in 1998, Pyongyang allowed the two teams to march together. Ten years later the South Korean electorate, wearied by a policy which delivered too few gains, elected President Lee Myung-Bak in February 2008. Bilateral relations worsened and the North made a series of military attacks and has continued to threaten to turn Seoul into a sea of fire.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the two countries refused to march together, a move International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge called a “setback for peace.” There were no talks of marching together in 2012 either. But this is where the story gets interesting.
Kim Il Sung’s Swiss-educated grandson, Kim Jong Un, is now in power and has just ousted the military chief Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho. Many are now hoping that the 28-year old leader, who has been showing himself in public with his new wife, is going to abandon the military first policies of his father. Surely by now, he must realize that Pyongyang will have to change if the Kim dynasty is to survive as more than a tool of Chinese foreign policy.
The fact that it was so easy for the Olympic host nation to put up the wrong flag it will be another reminder of how few friends the North Koreans now have. The country is only being kept afloat with Chinese money. As one commentator in the Daily Telegraph wrote, they team might as well be walking behind the Chinese flag. A series of recent diplomatic blunders such as the attempted missile launch earlier this year, in defiance of the whole international community including China, has only deepened its isolation. Sooner, rather than later, Pyongyang will have to start rebuilding its ties with Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. But many in the Korean Peninsula are hoping that Kim Jung Un will be willing to start a whole new game.
Jasper Becker, an award-winning author, has worked as a foreign correspondent for twenty-five years, including fifteen years based in Beijing. He is author of Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, Hungry Ghosts, The Chinese, and City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China. An expert on East Asian history and politics, Becker’s work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, New Republic, The London Review of Books, National Geographic, and Time Asia.