One man’s one-Korea dreams

Kang Cheol-Hwan, North Korean defector and activist, thinks Kim Jong Il’s brutal North Korean regime will collapse within three years, five years at the most. But the prospect doesn’t make him giddy. On the contrary, the imminent fall of the one of the world’s most repressive states just means more work. However much he wants North and South Korea to be reunified, he knows that how it happens is as important as reunification itself.

“If it’s done wrong, it will fail,” Kang told me last week when he was in town to attend a conference on the fate of the North Korean regime. As founding director of the North Korea Strategy Center, a nonprofit in Seoul, Kang works to prepare North Korean defectors for leadership roles after reunification. But in many ways, he works just as hard to prepare South Koreans -- and even Korean Americans -- for the inevitability of a unified Korea. And its discontents.

We’ve seen it again and again: Once the dancing in the street is done, even a devoutly to-be-wished-for political revolution is as much pain as progress. Humans don’t make the leap from one political system to another with ease. We aren’t as good at any of it -- democracy, freedom, change -- as our politicians, myths and theories would lead you to believe.

The coda to Kang’s 10 grueling years in a North Korean labor camp is the disillusionment of freedom. In 1992, at the news conference announcing his defection, he encountered a skeptical press corps: Was he being used by the South Korean government? Journalists “who had lived their whole lives swaddled in perfect comfort, were looking down their noses,” he wrote in his memoir, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.”

Eighteen years later, Kang’s resentment still flares. He suspects South Koreans are too wrapped up in their search for wealth and status to even understand the horrors of the North Korean regime. Not only does he feel they lack “the internal courage to see the essence of evil,” but Kang doubts the South Korean public’s genuine desire for reunification.

In fact, according to opinion polls, many South Koreans do fear that the collapse of the North would see their country overrun by 23 million of their ethnic brethren scrambling for food and shelter. They may well be right: In Germany, the cost of unification proved to be a heavy burden on the new nation. And 20 years later, the divisions between East and West have yet to be healed.

Furthermore, as Kang knows from experience, South Koreans don’t always embrace their cousins from the North. “The qualities most prized in South Korea -- height, fair skin, affluence, prestigious degrees, designer clothes, English-language fluency -- are precisely those that the newly arrived defector lacks,” wrote Times reporter Barbara Demick in her book “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” Kang says he likes talking to Korean American audiences in part because he finds them more sympathetic to his cause than South Koreans. South Koreans would rather not think about the hardships in the North. Not only do a lot of Korean Americans have roots in the North, but, he says, “they are further away and are nostalgic for the homeland.”

Not surprisingly, Kang seeks to counter fear of unification and anti-Northern prejudice by talking up the growth of North Korea’s market economy. After the failure of its state-controlled economy in the 1990s -- and devastating famine in 1996, the Dear Leader has been unable to prevent a flood of private citizens from starting businesses. According to a recent study from the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, almost half of North Koreans now receive all of their income from the private sector.

It’s this fact that gives Kang hope that Korean reunification would go more smoothly than it went for the Germans. Kang thinks East Germans weren’t prepared for a market economy, and on top of that, they didn’t have much say in how reunification was achieved. Nascent capitalism in the North, and his efforts in the South, could change that.

Kang and his work represent a sobering, de-romanticized one-Korea future, but even he can’t suppress the hope inherent in his goals. I asked Kang how many years it would take for a reunified Korea to truly become one country. Fifteen, he answered. I hate to say it, but I think he may have to suffer one more wave of disillusionment.