Six decades after the end of hostilities on the Korean peninsula, what might the future hold for the two Koreas?
Many Koreans insist it is still one country – just a divided one.
It’s a view that would appear to be held by governments on both sides of the Demilitarised Zone, but just how those two parts might be joined again remains a mystery.
Michael Kenny, with this report compiled by Nikki Canning.
Sixteen years after the Armistice was signed in 1953, South Korea established its Ministry of Unification to work towards repairing the country’s division.
The Ministry also has a counterpart in the North, in the Communist government’s Unification Strategy department.
However the philosophical and political differences between the governments on both sides would appear to be insurmountable.
2012 saw major changes on both sides of the DMZ.
The beginning of the year saw a leadership transition in North Korea, following the death of President Kim Jung-il.
His third son, Kim Jong-Un, became president.
Parliamentary elections in April saw South Korea’s ruling conservative Saenuri party retain power.
Saenuri’s candidate, Park Geun-hye, also won December’s presidential elections, becoming the country’s first female leader.
The daughter of a former military ruler, the 60-year old has vowed to work to heal a divided society.
Ms Park returned to the presidential palace in Seoul where she had served as her father’s first lady in the 1970s, after her mother was assassinated by a North Korean-backed gunman.
Ms Park says she will negotiate with North Korea’s new young leader, but wants the North to give up its nuclear weapons program as a precondition for aid, something Pyongyang has so far refused to do.
The Republic of Korea’s relationship with its northern neighbour is largely facilitated by South Korea’s Unification Ministry.
It collates and analyses information about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, organises official exchanges and other cooperative programs involving trade and investment, as well as managing humanitarian assistance programs to North Korea.
The Ministry is also responsible for South Korea’s involvement in international multilateral fora, such as the Six-Party talks, and manages all dialogue between the two Koreas.
It also coordinates the resettlement program for North Korean refugees in South Korea – around 23,000 of them over the past two decades.
South Korea’s primary concern remains North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but of late tensions increased after several key incidents seen by South Korea as provocative in the extreme.
The first was the fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist after the 53 year-old woman wandered into a military area at a Kumgang mountain resort in North Korea in 2008.
Then in 2010, the navy ship Cheonan was sunk, later blamed by a South Korean-led team of international researchers on a torpedo fired from a North Korean midget submarine.
And later that same year, North Korea fired artillery and rocket shells at Yeonpyeong island after a South Korean artillery exercise in nearby waters, striking civilian homes, killing four South Koreans and injuring 19 others.
The effect on inter-Korean dialogue was profound.
(under translation) “After all these happenings from North Korea, we stopped all dialogue between the two and there is no channel now to make conversation and no exchanges at all.”
A Ministry of Unification official says a shift in policy was needed.
“This is the baggage from the period before then, that the generation caught up in the Cold War period had very strong anti-Communist education and we needed to bring the pendulum back to the other side. But we probably went too far during the Sunshine Policy. At that time we emphasised coexistence, cooperation and mutual trust but despite all those efforts, North Koreans kept developing their nuclear capabilities – and they’ve never changed.”
A senior Ministry offical says now the government’s priorities are: maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula, normalising relations with North Korea, and making substantive progress towards unification.
He says they’re doing this in several ways:
“Helping North Korea to settle down, help them come through these political difficulties from the power transition, economic difficulties [resulting in] starvation and so forth. And again emphasising making the young generation develop a desire for national unification in the future.”
The Ministry acknowledges that any public education campaign that aims to achieve the last part of the program will have to be pretty good.
[under translation] “Young people in Korea are not really interested in political issues other than unification. They are more interested in lifestyle – comfortable lives, nice houses and cars, convenient IT and technology. My generation is the first generation of a divided Korea. Understanding the need for unification is hard for Korean youngsters.”
One young Korean agrees.
“We don’t even talk about it! Just sometimes we make a joke about it.”
Jinah Kwon says North Korea only occupies a small part in the back of most young people’s minds, to be taken out and examined from time to time – as happened in 2010.
“When we had the Yeonpyeong island thing and the Cheonan warship, I was so worried so I sent messages to my friends and all their reactions were, ‘well it always happens like that and there won’t be anything more happening.’ I was working later as a researcher and having lunch with my colleagues and then we saw the television, it was the death of Kim Jong-il. I was so shocked and I was worried maybe something might happen to South Korea but my colleagues around me said ‘Oh, he died’, and they didn’t even pay attention – they weren’t really worried at all, yeah.”
But in her experience, the most interest in North Korea is coming from young, Christian South Koreans.
“For myself, I am involved in a prayer group at my church. We meet once a week and we pray for North Korea, for the people there. And then we study about North Korea – read a book, discuss it. Then we decide the direction of the prayer – how we should pray.”
After analysing the unification of Germany, Korea’s government says being better prepared can lessen the pain for both sides.
But absorbing North Korea’s largely impoverished population of around 24 million will be costly.
The Ministry has decided to resource unification initially from public fundraising, following the success of its public fundraising efforts in 2001 when the country repaid the I-M-F debt it incurred during the Asian economic crisis.
(under translation) “In Korea during the time of the IMF loan, we were having a really hard time. But the general public and Korean citizens voluntarily gave their gold and jewellery and things to the government to resolve the IMF problem at the time, so now we are planning to do that kind of public participation [again].”
Diplomatic and possible fundraising efforts are also extending to international stakeholders, with South Korea keen to explain that a unified and peaceful Korean peninsula would serve the interest of all.
Meanwhile, North Korea may also be tentatively reaching outwards again.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr has confirmed that the North Korean government is seeking to re-open its diplomatic mission in Canberra.
The embassy was closed in January 2008, apparently because of financial pressures.
Mr Carr hasn’t confirmed Australian approval for the move, but says it could help the federal government voice its human rights concerns to North Korea.
“A North Korean embassy in Canberra would enable us to register our deep and our strong concerns about the human rights crisis in North Korea, which is probably the most systemic abuse of human rights you could find on the planet.”
(Incidental sound effects courtesy of Chongdong Theatre’s musical “Miso”)
And World News Australia Radio will be broadcasting a special program-length feature on Thursday July 25, at 6.10 am and 6.10 pm, to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended hostilities on the Korean peninsula.