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Two Korean diasporas

Published on 30 October 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Natura non facit saltus


Korea is a strange place – the incredibly successful South on one side, the failed Stalinist utopia lingering on in the North. The conventional portrait is so much in black and white, understanding how the two halves of this society evolved is difficult. I have done some reading up on the subject, and I found the long-term view stimulating.

In a nutshell: contemporary Korea is the history of two diasporas.

Korea’s autochthonous civilization is very old. At the same time, Korea was subject to opposite political and cultural pulls from the outside. China of the Yellow River, and then the semi-nomadic Liao influenced it from the northwest; the East Asian monsoon civilization and Japan influenced the lower part of the peninsula. Korea eventually united: it was unity in diversity. Confronted with the emergent Western challenge, Korea followed China’s and Japan’s policy of isolation. Japan annexed the country in 1910. Industrialization centered in the North.


Soviet/American occupation in 1945 replaced Japanese colonial rule. Hastily called to run the zones under their respective control, the Soviet Union imported Soviet Koreans.[1] The US relied to a good extent on the Christian minority in the South.[2] Both sides used exceedingly brutal methods to establish political control of their respective zones, with the North hemorrhaging about 5’000 refugees a day. The conflict escalated into civil war (1950-1953).[3] That left the two “brothers” permanently estranged.

South Korea flourished; North Korea survived on a thin diet of “national solipsism.” The per capita income difference between the two countries today is around 1:15[4] (to set this in perspective: for the FRG and the DDR in 1989 it was 1:3). The Kim regime survived by living dangerously: “Real or alleged proliferation attempts, nuclear and missile tests, and occasional shoot-outs do not reflect the insane bellicosity or irrationality of the North Korean leadership. On the contrary, these actions are manifestations of a quite rational survival strategy that may have no viable alternative if judged from the point of view of Pyongyang’s tiny elite.”[5] In other countries of Asia dictatorships mutated into “developmental dictatorships” where the “Communist oligarchy presided over an unprecedented economic growth while successfully maintaining domestic stability and enormously enriching themselves (Richard VINEN calls it “management buyout”). This Pyongyang cannot do, for inevitably reunification would ensue. This would wipe out the elite and grossly diminish whatever professional class there is. As for the ordinary North Koreans – they would become a cheap labor force for the south (not that the Kim would care). North Korean saber rattling is a code word for “the till is empty, please refill.” Poorly overseen foreign aid ties the regime over to the next crisis.

Andrei LANKOV has ideas about how to bring about regime change. I’ll revert to his thoughts as an example of “silent transformations”. In this blog, the question is not how and when to bring about regime change, but how to prepare for it.

Opposite, alien ideologies sponsored by diasporas have drawn asunder the two halves of Korea while burying the common past. For both halves, the past is decidedly much “foreign country” and unlikely to yield a viable common tradition – invented or not. The increasing tension between Buddhism and fundamental Protestantism in South Korea show how deep the change has been.

After 6o years, the two halves hardly know each other, and the disparity of wealth is staggering. Humpty Dumpty will be “put together again” – one way or the other. An emotional embrace between brothers – while chanting: “forgive and forget” – will not do.

For one, the costs will be staggering – somewhere is the ballpark figure of 1.5- 2.5 trillion US $[6] or the equivalent of one to two years of GDP. The dangers of rapid spoliation and permanent subordination of the North to a rapacious South are real. LANKOV points to the unresolved issue of land tenure. Land is one of the few assets of the North. The NKDR expropriated land both for agriculture and urban use from the outset. After unification, vast transfers of wealth will occur, if the original land owners are allowed to claim ownership.[7] Further pauperization of much of the Northern population will ensue.

Diasporas often bring change to their countries. Merchants ferry new ideas along with their wares.[8] The forces of change are diffuse and often incidental: these are “silent transformations.” They can be beneficial (pace Prof. HUNTINGTON). If ideology – even worse, foreign ideology – drives the change – this can set countries into radically different orbits. Danger may loom ahead.

[1] See e.g.: Sheila MIYOSHI JAGER (2013): Brothers at war: The unending conflict in Korea. Profile Books, London. Actually this diaspora consisted of ethnic Koreans that had lived under Soviet rule as well as resistance fighters against the Japanese who had sought refuge in the USSR. KIM Il Sung belonged to the latter. He was not Stalin’s first choice as leader of the North.

[2] The undermanned US occupation forces relied on the defeated Japanese as well as collaborators for control. They needed educated people with knowledge of English and trusty (i.e. anti-communist) ideology. This favored Mission-educated Christians, then a small minority of about 1%. Syngman RHEE https://bit.ly/1cfY8be had long been involved in the independence movement, but has lived as a missionary in the US until then. It is noteworthy that 5 of the 11 Korean Presidents were Christians, ruling for about half the lifespan of the Republic.

[3] See e.g. Bruce CUMINGS (2010): The Korean War. A history. Modern Library, New York.

[4] Andrei LANKOV (2013): The real North Korea. Life and politics in the failed Stalinist utopia. Oxford University Press, Oxford; (Pg. 112)

[5] Andrei LANKOV op. cit. Pg. 256.

[6] To put things in perspective: the cost of reunification was set at 1.9 trillion US$ in 2009. And this raised output per capita in the former DDR from 33% to 70% of the corresponding West German figure. https://reut.rs/1bBL6E4

[7] The Land Reform Act of 1946 in the NKDR was never acknowledged in the South. It would become void, if the state were simply to dissolve.

[8] See e.g.: Jerry H. BENTLEY (1993): Old world encounters. Cross-cultural contacts and exchanges in pre-modern times. Oxford University Press.

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