Thursday, October 4, 2007

North Korea Talks and Reunification

The cool thing about traveling abroad is that every once in a while you end up right where something historical is happening.

This week, the president of South Korea, Roh Moo Hyun, crossed the border into North Korea to have talks with Kim Jong Il in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang. This is only the second time a South Korean president has done so. The entire event was clearly very important to all of Korea. At school, all the teachers gathered around the television in the teacher's room and watched as Roh Moo Hyun walked across the line separating North and South Korea. The television turned on again later that afternoon when the president arrived in Pyongyang. The timing of the meeting, I think, was also deeply reflective of how important this meeting is to the Korean people - yesterday, Wednesday October 3, was Foundation Day, a holiday celebrating, as you might guess, the founding of Korea. Not South Korea, mind you. Korea.

And as someone who is used to politics moving through the U.S. congress, where things happen very slowly and and in very small steps (unless you're going to war unjustly, of course) I wasn't sure how much would really get done at this historic meeting. However, if you read the article I posted above, you'll see they did agree to open up regular freight trains across the border, which hasn't been the case since the Korean War. The rest of the points in the agreement were more general, about putting together talks to finally formally end the Korean War and set up regular talks with one another - don't actually accomplish anything, but if the leaders of both countries follow through, some great things could happen here.

The thing that many Koreans are hoping for is eventual reunification. Reunification is an interesting issue here in South Korea - there seem to be very mixed opinions on it. I spoke to my co-teacher once about it, and he told me that the countries absolutely should and need to be unified again. "We are all Korean people," he told me. But I told him about the students I met at Kangwon University in Chuncheon, who expressed hesitation at the idea of reunification. They argued that uniting with North Korea would have a negative impact on the economy. Nevertheless, my co-teacher remained firm in his opinion, and told me the risk was worth it.

Although this agreement between North and South Korea did not reunify the country, it did take steps in that direction. It will be quite interesting to see how the next South Korean president handles North Korea, especially if he or she is conservative (the conservative party supports having a much harder line with North Korea). And this meeting certainly had undertones of political strategy. Elections for the next president occur in December, and President Roh Moo Hyun has not been very popular lately. I'm sure his willingness to engage in this talk (and the fact that it occurred over Foundation Day) had a great deal to do with his desire to 1.) end his presidency on a high note, and 2.) give his party a lift in the upcoming elections. Time will tell how his strategy worked, and where South Korea goes from here.

*I'm pretty sure everything I said about the politics and history of Korea in this blog are accurate. However, if I'm wrong about anything, I'm VERY sorry for my mistake, and would welcome a comment or email correcting me so that I don't continue to make a fool out of myself.

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