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The next ‘Korea problem’ may be about the growing identity divide on the peninsula

- February 21, 2018
Seated behind North Korea’s cheerleaders at the Olympics are, from left, Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president; Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee; Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea, and Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un. (AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea made an unprecedented move in the 2018 Winter Olympics. It sent athletes to compete — and a squad of peppy cheerleaders — and did so under a “one Korea” banner.

The international media have largely dubbed this diplomatic maneuver a “gold medal” success. An official delegation led by Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister, helped North Korea get what it undoubtedly aimed for: At minimum, the regime has a friendly human face; at best, Pyongyang has driven a wedge between South Korea and the United States, even as the regime finds itself increasingly isolated in a nuclear standoff.

Far beyond the network cameras, what would this “one Korea” look like, though? A number of analysts and North Korean defectors alike see the collapse of Kim’s regime as a very real possibility. This Olympics twist in North Korea’s relations with the outside world highlights a deeper, ongoing conflict over national identity on the divided peninsula — one that is sure to shape its future politics.

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South Korea, already home to some 30,000 defectors from the North, has prepared for reunification for years. The government in Seoul is well aware that radical changes in Pyongyang would probably lead to significant spillover of North Koreans into South Korea. After life in one of the world’s most isolated and authoritarian regimes, how would North Koreans adapt to living in a democracy? Could they become good democrats who fulfill the roles expected of the democratic citizen? 

New data suggests national identity matters

In new research based on a survey of North Korean defectors, I asked these defectors whether they feel a sense of responsibility to vote — the quintessential role of the democratic citizen. I discovered that national identity — specifically, conational identification with South Koreans — is an important factor in whether North Koreans feel this democratic duty. Many academics still view Korea as an ethnically homogeneous nation. But when you ask North Koreans who have come over to South Korea, there is a great deal of variation in how much they feel that “oneness.”

Feelings of national belonging matter for how defectors approach democratic citizenship for the first time. In fact, I find that they matter far more than factors like satisfaction with resettlement aid or fair treatment by the state. Strongly identifying with one Korean nation, vs. only weakly, turns out to be the difference between a North Korean who feels a duty to vote vs. one who does not, controlling for key background characteristics. And while the duty to vote is a small sliver of what it means to be a democratic citizen, a healthy democracy depends on this type of political spirit.

The unexpected way national unity helps democracy 

Why do feelings of national unity matter? Probably not in the way most would expect. In follow-up work based on lengthy interviews with defectors, I find a counterintuitive story. Many North Koreans hold a deeply ingrained script or code of conduct that emphasizes citizen sacrifice and duty to the nation. For North Koreans who see South Koreans as part of that nation, this script — a product of authoritarian socialization in the North — shifts into a sense of democratic duty in the democratic South.

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Researchers often look at the transition into democracy as the shedding of the authoritarian past. In that context, the reality of what helps many North Koreans adapt to South Korean democracy is quite ironic. Yet for the North Koreans telling their stories, this extension of political duty seemed to be quite natural. As one defector said to me: “Even when I lived in the North, I always thought that those who care about the country would do things for it. So now that I live here, I just go and vote. It’s just uptown and downtown. Underneath, we are all Korean. … We are one by blood.”

PyeongChang, Pyongyang and the peninsula 

It isn’t clear South Koreans would agree. In this light, the real news of the 2018 Winter Olympics is not really North Korea’s move, but South Korea’s deeply divided response. Many South Koreans have warmly, if nervously, welcomed the North Koreans. But some say Seoul has been too accommodating — especially at a cost to some of its own athletes.

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Protesters held signs that asked: “PyeongChang or Pyongyang Olympics?” This sentiment is particularly widespread among South Korean youth, who no longer feel the same kind of national unity with North Koreans as their grandparents did. Fewer than 1 in 5 South Koreans in their 20s now support unification, and only a third see shared ethnicity as an important reason for it. Yet they are the ones who will have to carry the torch into negotiating Korea’s complicated future: Unification may bring economic benefits in the long run, but it is likely to come at a high political cost to democracy.

Behind the images of North Korean cheerleaders and the united flag in the 2018 Winter Olympics, there is a growing identity divide on the Korean Peninsula — and a different kind of “North Korea problem.” How North and South Koreans come to see each other — as one of “us” or “them” — is going to matter a great deal in whether and how democracy ultimately shakes out on the peninsula.

Aram Hur is a postdoctoral fellow at New York University who studies comparative political behavior and East Asian politics.