Living with the Enemy (Review)

Posted January 8, 2007

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Korea

Review of Roland Bleiker, Divided Korea: Toward a Culture of Reconciliation (University of Minnesota Press, 2005) and Richard Saccone, Living with the Enemy (Hollym, 2006)


According to the ideology of South Korean nationalism, all Koreans are one: one people, one blood. Korea can claim thousands of years of common history. The last 60 years of division are thus but a blink of the eye. And thus does nationalism, as it turns from the past to the future, find its natural expression in reunification.


As a political agenda, reunification has considerable power. As a matter of practical politics, though, the notion that all Koreans are one raises innumerable challenges.


Richard Saccone found this out in the most direct way possible. After living in South Korea for 13 years, he spent a year in North Korea as a representative of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization. KEDO was the organization responsible for overseeing the part of the 1994 Agreed Framework that mandated the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea.


As he describes in his recent book Living with the Enemy, Saccone arrived at Sinpo on North Korea’s east coast in early December 2000. It was not an auspicious time. The Clinton administration was wrapping up its second term, and the Bush administration was poised to usher in a more adversarial approach to North Korea.


During his tenure at KEDO, when he wasn’t trying to explain the shift in U.S. policies, Saccone observed many of the characteristics that have divided Koreans more thoroughly than the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).


Take the matter of the two-story golf driving range. The South Koreans built the range as part of their accommodations near the construction site. Several hundred South Koreans labored alongside North Koreans and later Uzbekis to build the reactors. They had to have some place to live as well as a place to relax. According to South Korean custom, relaxation included golf.


The North Koreans didn’t see it that way. After touring the facilities, a DPRK representative complained to Saccone that although the reactor construction lagged years behind schedule, the South Koreans had found time to build a driving range and recreation center. “He asked if the workers came to the site on vacation or came to work,” Saccone recalls. Another North Korean official “cited enormous civil projects North Korea had completed in record time without the advantage of the so-called labor-saving equipment we benefited from.”


Here, in this apparently trivial disagreement over construction priorities, lies one of the profound differences between North and South. North Korea remains a relatively poor, strictly hierarchical society where the government determine the economic priorities and create the “shock brigades” to accomplish the task. South Korea, on the other hand, has become one of the top dozen economies in the world. Since the democratization of the late 1980s, workers cannot be exploited at the whim of the government. The North has been hardened by adversity, while the South has become soft – or so the North Koreans believe.


Five decades of separation did little to alter the blood and DNA of the Korean people. But the years of separation did create utterly different political cultures. Saccone found himself in the strange position of mediating between two cultures not his own. His underlying goal, beyond keeping the nuclear project more or less on schedule, was to build a relationship of trust with his North Korean interlocutors. His South Korean colleagues sometimes made this difficult.


Once, in negotiations with the North Koreans over one of the routine disagreements, Saccone sat and fumed as he watched a South Korean colleague proceed to break every rule of “getting to yes” negotiations. Saccone passed notes to the fellow. “Stop blaming them,” he wrote first. Then: “Stop accusing them.” Finally, nearly fed up, he wrote, “Offer a counterproposal instead of criticizing.” The South Korean ignored him.


On another occasion, a major incident threatened to break out when the North Korean authorities searched the baggage of a South Korean worker and discovered writings that criticized the North Korean leadership. Saccone was forced to mediate between the North Korean’s outrage and the principles of privacy by which he and the South Koreans operated.


When he wasn’t resolving these conflicts, Saccone was trying to interact with as much of North Korean society as he could, never passing up an opportunity to see a sight, visit a city, have an informal conversation, or even just wave from his taxi at schoolchildren. Sometimes his efforts at being a good-will ambassador makes him seem a bit gullible. But his portrait of North Korea is valuable precisely because of his willful suspension of prejudice. Saccone’s perspective is empathetic: he understands the pride of the North Koreans, their understandable shortcomings, their willingness to reciprocate in an atmosphere of trust. It is the rare U.S. emissary who goes to such lengths to understand and engage an official adversary.


Roland Bleiker raises Saccone’s perspective to the level of theory. A former Swiss official at the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission at Panmumjom, Bleiker has written a rather dry exposition on how Koreans can overcome division. Essentially, Bleiker has applied anthropologist Richard Roy Grinker’s book on Koreans views on reunification – Korea’s Futures – to the security field. The result is useful but a little thin.


In Divided Korea, Bleiker points out that South Koreans often speak of the North’s “soft landing” as if it simply meant absorption, believe that North Korea doesn’t offer anything worth preserving, and expect that reunification will consist simply of the spread of South Korean democratic capitalism northward. He refers to the experience of German reunification — the contempt of the “know it all” Western Germans for the hapless and “lamenting” East Germans — as a cautionary example.


The alternative, Bleiker suggests, lies in a more expansive understanding of security. For sixty years, the two Koreas have understood security in terms of military confrontation. The concept of “human security” – in which issues of food security, environmental security, job security and so on are added to military security – offers a better framework for reconciliation.


Bleiker, like Grinker before him, offers useful critiques of the patronizing attitudes that so often lie just beneath the surface of the unification discourse. But it’s hard to expect Koreans on either side of the DMZ to start appreciating and respecting their differences so early in the reunification process and with so many outside actors – Japan, the United States, China – so deeply skeptical of the overall project.


Divided Korea might have benefited from a discussion of the different shades of meaning for the word “tolerance.” At one level, tolerance means: I don’t like you, I don’t agree with you, but I will tolerate your existence. At another level, tolerance requires a more active engagement with the other person and a move from grudging acceptance to genuine respect. In this more enlightened sense of the word, tolerance permits criticism, but criticism from a position of respect and empathy.


What Bleiker proposes theoretically in terms of respect and empathy, Richard Saccone managed to achieve in practice during his stay in North Korea. It might seem counterintuitive that Koreans could learn anything from outsiders about their own experience of difference and yearning for reunification. But Bleiker’s model and Saccone’s personal example could serve as useful navigational points while North and South Korea make their way across the current minefield of division toward an embrace of equals.

Korean Quarterly, Summer 2007

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