Asia-Pacific

Another Breed of Politics in Korea

The "unification flag" of the two Koreas used, since 1991, when the North and South march together at international sporting events. (Photo: Choi Jae-ku / AFP-Getty Images)

As the United States prepares sanctions against North Korea for counterfeiting, South Korea has welcomed in the year of the dog with a breed of "unification dogs."

After accusing Pyongyang of counterfeiting millions of dollars of U.S. currency, Washington has called on Seoul to commit to financial sanctions against the North. South Korean leaders, not eager to disturb prospects for another round of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons, have dismissed the U.S. request.

The South Korean stance highlights the diverging approaches to North Korea taken by Seoul and Washington. While U.S. leaders worry about the security implications of the Kim Jong Il regime's illicit activities, South Koreans have been preparing for peaceful unification of the peninsula, bracing themselves for a transition that many ardently desire.

South Korea's Other Geneticist

Five years ago, South Korean dog breeder Sung Kwang-soo hit on the idea of matching choice specimens of a North Korean breed with those of a South Korean breed. Their offspring, to be known as unification dogs, would embody the nation's wish for peaceful unification of the peninsula, South Korean news source YTN reported on Jan. 29.

Sung selected two top breeds, one hailing from Poongsan in North Korea and the other from Jindo on the southern extreme of South Korea. Eight male Poongsan dogs were then joined with 14 Jindo dogs.

The Poongsan breed, a type of hound, is known on the peninsula for its courage and calm nature. Poongsan dogs have even been said to track tigers. Their South Korean cousins, also brave, are famous for being clever and obedient to their masters.

The breeder hoped that their offspring would inherit both sets of attributes from their distinguished progenitors. Since the canine unification project began in May of 2001, six mixed couples have produced some 200 unification dogs.

While less famous than Snuppy, the cloned dog whose life proves that the work of disgraced geneticist Hwang Woo-suk was not all phony, the unification puppies also stand as symbols of national spirit. For South Koreans, that spirit now stems more from feelings of cultural pride – a culture they share with the North – than from the anti-communist ideology that once held the country together.

Preparing for Unification

Concrete plans for achieving the dream of unification are scarce, but that has not prevented South Koreans from getting ready. The unification dogs are just one way that South Koreans are preparing for the day the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) ceases to divide the peninsula.

South Korean conglomerate Hyundai, for example, operates factories in a special zone in North Korea and brings tourists from the South to North Korea's Mt. Geumgang.

Others have focused on the difficulties of getting along once South and North Koreans find themselves face to face. Books have appeared explaining how to understand the nuances of standard Pyongyang Korean, which has developed independent of South Korea's Seoul-based language system during the past 60 years of separation. For several years now, scholars have been studying Germany's experience after the fall of the Berlin Wall for lessons on how Koreans can manage their own transition. The most far-sighted have aired worries about adequate transportation infrastructure near the border that one day will not be.

Even if these measures make only minimal contributions toward real change on the Korean peninsula, they do reflect attitudes that are now widespread in the South. For many South Koreans, North Koreans are their brethren with whom they are united through a common cultural heritage. That was not always the feeling of South Koreans toward the North.

Before the transition to democracy in the 1980's, South Korean leaders rallied their subjects around an ideology of anti-communism. After decades of U.S.-backed authoritarian rule in South Korea, South Korea's citizens have turned against their former dictators and found solidarity in cultural pride. And looking north, they discovered North Koreans were also Korean.

Elections in 1997 brought to power long-time dissident Kim Dae-jung, who later earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at fostering dialogue with the North. Current South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, who was presented with a unification puppy upon taking office in 2003, supports his predecessor's "Sunshine Policy" of rapprochement with the North.

Diverging Priorities

Washington has another agenda on North Korea. The United States has now brought out evidence that North Korea has printed at least $45 million worth of $100 bills. Washington is seeking out support for sanctions that would prevent financial firms that conduct business in North Korea from operating in the United States.

U.S. entreaties for South Korea to join the sanctions have fallen on deaf ears in Seoul. President Roh Moo-hyun is quoted by The New York Times on Jan. 29 as saying that "friction and disagreement between South Korea and the United States" could arise if the allegations against North Korea led right away to extreme measures.

The cool response from South Korea's leaders comes on the heels of Seoul's November abstention from a vote in the United Nations General Assembly on a resolution expressing concerns about human rights in North Korea.

These episodes have made it clear that South Korea's priorities in the North differ from those of U.S. policy makers, who see the North Korean regime itself as the core problem that needs to be addressed. Seoul's approach to Pyongyang is driven by concern for maintaining inter-Korean relations, and neither the North Korean nuclear issue nor the charges of counterfeiting alter that.

While South Korea would certainly prefer a non-nuclear North, Seoul's stakes are not as high as Washington's or Tokyo's. It is unlikely that Pyongyang would drop a bomb just across the DMZ.

Changes on the Korean peninsula have reshaped Seoul's interests in the region and with regard to Washington. South Korean national identity is now more tied to Korean-ness, a trait North Koreans happen to share. Meanwhile, North Korea's nukes have not made Pyongyang any more threatening to the South.

U.S. leaders' difficulty in gaining cooperation from South Korea on a hard-line stance on the North is related less to any rising South Korean hostility to the United States than to declining South Korean hostility to their northern neighbors. That trend has made Seoul less dependent on Washington, where the current administrators might find Korea's unification puppies nothing to bark about.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Erik Mobrand.

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