Korean Peninsula Walks A Tightrope
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Politically, Militarily, Economically and Socially, Korea and its people walk a delicate path to a dynamic but uncertain future.

I just got back to Korea after several years absence for my world bicycle tour and a few other sundry things back in the States. Many people are surprised that I am glad to be back; Americans in general and those in the US Armed Services in particular more often than not have a sour attitude toward the place.

But I like Korea. And I like the Koreans. They are not the same and the basis for liking the two entities is different. I love Korea for its countryside; its rugged hills and ridges; dense forests that will soon turn brilliant colors to match any of my native New England; waterfalls and warm springs; tides higher than anywhere except the Minas Basin in Canada's Bay of Fundy. Glimmering cities and fashion stand amidst farmland where crops and good are still carried on A-frames. It is an intense country--never subtle, whether it is the smell of night soil from the rice paddies or the traffic jams over the Han river bridges. Their cuisine is intense, too: Kim chi can be an assault on the taste buds, not just a condiment.

And the Koreans are an intense people. What a contrast to the polite and deferent Japanese just on the other side of the "east Sea"---as Koreans call the Sea of Japan! See them dancing on the buses that go sailing down the nations highways (occasionally. They still dance while stuck in traffic, which is alot more often.) They are diligent workers putting in long hours, deferent to and respectful of authority, (in fact remarkably tolerant of heavyhandedness that would make americans cringe.) Life in the rural areas is still tough. Not only do you see grizzled men (who could easily pass as Confucious) bent and doubled from toiling all their lives on the farm, but there are still many left for whom the Korean War is a living memory; or more accurately, a living hell. And rural poverty is still widespread, especially in the "Cholla" provinces in the southwest. The beautiful people who pour into Seoul's Itaewon and Embassy districts never see this and wouldn't care even if they did, so as far as I am concerned I hope they leave the Koreans (and me) alone.

With Kim Il Sung's death, Kim Young Il's (supposed) overtures and feelers toward reconciliation with the south, there is more hope on the Korean Peninsula now than ever. This June's inter-Korean summit and tearful reunions in Seoul and Pyongyang seem to have set a momentum that will keep things moving forward, jerkily, toward unification in the foreseeable, if distant, future. Many people think this will be an economically costly and burdensome task--maybe an impossible one. Analogies to German reunification are widespread in the academic and political circles. But those analogies are dangerous, simplistic--an probably incorrect.

This is not an economics or political lesson...i'll go light on the jargon and stuff. But there are several reasons why Korean Unification will not be THAT difficult.

Finally, the country walks a sociological tightrope that people, especially foreigners, who have lived here for a time are all to familiar with. The downside of Koreans strong work ethic, family structure, ju'che and individualism is a tremendous pressure on their young to achieve. Outside libraries before opening hours on weekends, youngsters stand in queues to wait for seats that will not be available inside for those show up later. Examinations are brutal...rote learning and memorization widespread..discipline ruthless and competition for spots at the top universities fierce. The result has been dynamic growth--an asian tiger-- but the social costs are great and will loom larger as these young people enter adulthood and realize much of their youth has been stolen from them.