I talked last month about why there are so many crosses scattered across the night-time skyline of any given Korean urban area, at least according to some. To quickly summarize, the theory is that Koreans just tend to have a great deal of difficulty getting along with each other, a lot of the time.
An article in the Korea Herald recently has inspired me to revisit that idea. It seems one of the candidates in the upcoming presidential election, Roh Moo-hyun, is campaigning, at least at this early stage, on a platform of reducing regional rivalries within Korea. It seems slightly risible that such a small country could have such powerful antagonism between ‘regions’, but it is the case. It’s common to hear people talk about the way Kyongsang province people talk, or Cholla province people behave. And worse, the major political parties, constantly splitting apart and reforming as they do, tend to be polarized around regional lines, rather than policy-driven. Roh is quoted as saying “Politics [in Korea] cannot take even one step forward and no political reform can succeed under the current circumstances.”
This is not a new problem for Korea. Although the line along the 38th parallel was drawn by the Americans in 1945 as a halfway point for Soviet and American armies to meet and accept the Japanese surrender, the eventual permanent partition was at least in part due to the inability of the Korean negotiators to agree on a path to unity. In the three years leading up to 1948 there were a number of attempts to reach a compromise, including a proposal for a 5 year joint US/Soviet trusteeship, and one for UN-sponsored elections. None were accepted, and in fall of 1948, two separate states were born. Although Koreans are not accustomed to taking responsibility for their history, it is the opinion of some that the partition can be laid at the feet of the multitude of nationalist groups and their constant bickering at the time as much as it can be attributed to superpower machinations, or anything else. Two years later, North invaded South, and failed, thanks to Alan Alda, as we all know.
For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with Mr. Roh, that little will change in this country until it can outgrow not only regionalism but ingrained reluctance to cooperate towards a common goal.