Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Is There Really No Way to Reunify Korea?

A fascinating land of 75 million people – 50 and 24,9 million, living on both sides of barbed wires and not being able to patch up. This is Korea.

But why does Korea have to be separated by so much hatred, weapons and other nonsense? Isn't it basically the same people on both sides?

When I was staying with Ryuji and Wiwe, his wife in Seoul, Korea, I had two great visitors. One of them was a familiar figure, a favourite from medieval Japan,

Hideyoshi Toyotami (1536-1598), the great unifier of Japan and the other one was Sejong the Great (1397-1450),

who had done similar things for Korea. Separated by a century, they could never have met but here they were side by side in my dream. The Japanese Daimyō spoke in a kind manner. Now, this being a dream, I found myself interrupting the great warlord with a question “Aren’t you great lords supposed to be in different time periods and actually enemies?” Patiently, the great warriors smiled and said: “Oh, things are very different when you free yourself from limited perspectives.”

Without wasting further words, the great Daimyōs asked me “Korea has been nice to you. What do you wish for the Korean people in return, one wish?” Then they nodded, royally signalling that not answering would be unacceptable.

What a question! Hideoshi Toyotami had banned slavery and had used his army to confiscate all weapons from the peasantry in then Japan, had them publicly melted into a Buddha statue, thus preventing any violent armed uprising and through this immensely symbolic act unified Japan. Sejong the Great created the Hangul alphabet to give Koreans a distinct identity and repelled invaders by capturing Tsushima.

Korean Reunification – Is it possible?

Here I am, given this immense task, staring at these figures, regal in presence yet not intimidating, demanding yet understanding and strangely I did not feel small in their august company. Only true greatness of spirit can lift another human being out of the innate smallness the human condition entails.

After the failure of the Sunshine Policies the closest the two Koreas have come to reunification is this selfie at the 2016 Rio Olympics:
On the Southern side, they are the fourth richest economy in the world, get a huge catch of gold medals in sports, and have the highest percentage of PhDs per capita in the world, though walking on the streets it seems that no one is actually thinking ahead because they are all busy staring into the screens of handheld devices.

On the northern side, they have the fourth largest army in the world. Survival entails being seen glorifying their rulers who all have funny haircuts. The Northern system can’t take over the far more advanced and infinitely richer south. You can’t wish that the ruling gang of the North would vanish into thin air and the southern system takes over the country. That would create a horrendous identity crisis that would last two generations of people battling feelings of “I am better than you because I am from the south”. As it happened in Germany, twenty years after the Wiedervereinigung, 14% of the older Easterners with nostalgia thought that life behind the wall was better than life now (Stockemer and Elder, 2015). 

Having a joint Korean system with sharing of power – that doesn’t seem possible even in a dream. East Germany was physically far from its main supporter, the Soviet Union, which also collapsed. But, North Korea shares borders with Russia and especially China, which is flourishing and powerful enough to prevent North Korea being gobbled by the South. The possibilities for a German style Wiedervereinigung is rather non-existent.

A Model for Korean Reunification

The answer came. Following the great Daimyo Hideyoshi’s example, all the weapons on both sides would be gathered in one place, melted for the metal and the metal would be used to create a gigantic statue of the Buddha occupying the demilitarized zone. There would be, following Korean ancient tradition, statues of four heavenly kings guarding the gates and they would be given funny haircuts as a symbolic gesture.

The Japanese rational idea in 1910 was to achieve efficiency of specialisation by concentrating industry in the north and agriculture in the south. Following this rational principle, the northern people would be responsible for the technological implementation of construction and technical maintenance of the 551 metre high statue facing east. To make themselves feel better, they could paint the Northern side of the statue in battleship grey, strictly no capitalist colours. The southern side could have traditional Korean colours. The main body of the statue will contain many walk-on-glass viewing platforms at over 200-meters. There will be a square on the northern side where people feeling nostalgic about the North can volunteer to stage hourly parades goose-stepping in bleak uniforms. The leaders with the funny haircuts would be given the great honour of integrating the northern perspective in museums all over the country. The Korean War Museum in Seoul has no mention of the northern casualties, as if the mothers in the north or children did not feel any pain when they lost their children or parents in the war.

Then there will be cafés and restaurants with karaoke, shops, libraries, an opera/theatre, movie theatres and maglev train connections with Seoul and Pyongyang. The main attraction will be a gigantic 24-hour Jjimjilbang (찜질방) (run by the southerners) in the middle of the statue. Seeing each other denuded of uniforms in a bubble-pool or sauna allows one to see the other as a human being, almost like us. It’s the black and white or binary perspective that is the real enemy.


In his days, the great Daimiyo had understood that Western “Christians” saw the world in binary terms, conquer or perish. So he had them crucified in order to save Japan from becoming their colony. 1854 and Commodore Perry in Japan would probably have happened much earlier if not for him. Emulating Hideyoshi Toyotami’s insightful action, all intervention by outside bankers, weapons dealers and military-industrial complexes (supplying both sides) and ideology peddlers in the Korean peninsula would be banned from interfering in Korean affairs and messing with the Korean people: The Korean brothers and sisters on both sides would be left in peace to work out things in a Jjimjilbang, not a takeover or political “unification” á la Germania but a common construction project. In the Jjimjilbangs (찜질방) and 105-floor sky-café’s they would get a loftier perspective and then discover that together they are better off enjoying life together than fighting each other with borrowed weapons that just make arms manufacturers far-away richer.

Then the kings told me to go to Jongmyo shrine and tell my answer there and disappeared. There cannot be a military solution. Talking hasn’t helped. Is it that only a gigantic symbolic action would bring closure to the hatred and heal the wounds of six decades? Without closure, there is no forward motion, no realisation of Mono no aware (物の哀れ). The next day, I literally stumbled into Jongmyo. It was a terribly hot day and I was sweating and sat down in exhaustion. Suddenly, there was a cool breeze from somewhere, which did not move the leaves of the trees around but soothed me and left me energized. Sejong the Great and Hideyoshi Toyotami had accepted my answer.

In the largest Jjimjilbang in the world and the 105-floor sky-café, Saturday April the 23rd, 2022 is a busy and peaceful day, isn’t it?

References: Stockemer D, Elder G.(2015). Germans 25 years after reunification – How much do they know about the German Democratic Republic and what is their value judgment of the socialist regime? Communist and Post-Communist Studies. 48 (2-3): pp. 113-22.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Should all Immigrants Assimilate?

Immigrants are a recurring phenomenon in many parts of the world and its importance will only grow in the near future. Immigrants adjust, assimilate or remain alienated and sometimes even become active agents of destruction through terrorism in their host countries.

They are either expelled or ordered to assimilate without fuss in most pull immigration countries. The simple argument is that if immigrants assimilate to the host society, discrimination decreases, immigrants contribute better according to their abilities and life becomes smoother for everyone. The counter argument is that if immigrants assimilate, they have to relinquish their own heritage and culture in order to adopt the local. This would mean that the host society is not enriched by an infusion of new ideas. 
“Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country.”
Theodore Roosevelt, US president 1901-1909.

The immigrants’ difficulty of adjusting is tolerated when the economic, political and social stability in the host country is high, and as long as there is a perception of current or future benefit from the immigrant.

But come hard times and the rules of engagement change. Then immigrants are easily perceived as burdens or threats. The othering of immigrants intensify and everything wrong with the host country’s economy, society, political atmosphere and morals are promptly ascribed to the avarice, immorality, stupidity, insufficient skills or lack of commitment of the newest immigrants. Vulnerable minorities also get the same treatment sometimes.

Are there ‘good’ immigrants and ‘bad’ immigrants?

It depends on whom we ask.

Characteristics that usually get valuable ‘points’ for immigration to many rich countries nowadays:
  • Education, very specific with a high job-market demand
  • Occupation, something that locals can’t or won’t do
  • Work experience, a lot of high quality experience which generates transferrable skills
  • Language ability
  • Age (usually pensionable age immigrants are welcome only if they bring enough money and get pensions from elsewhere)

Highly skilled foreigners best suited for demanding jobs get fast-track immigration permits to Canada. Saudi Arabia requires immigrants to go out of the country immediately when job contracts expire.

Canada in the late 19th century had clear orders of preference. This reflected how similar were the immigrants to the majority of the people already living there (First Nation people were not considered in this equation).
  • British and American agriculturalists
  • French
  • Belgians, Dutch, Scandinavians, Swiss, Finns, Russians, Austro-Hungarians, Germans, Ukrainians and Poles
  • Italians, Southern Slavs, Greeks and Syrians were considered less suitable for assimilation
  • Jews, Asians, Roma and Black people were the least desired as immigrants.

New Yorkers, in the 1890s, when asked which immigrants were the most desirable, mentioned Russian Jews in spite of their great contributions to society and culture.

In many countries, the results of applying these selection criteria, however, look slightly different from the brochures and application forms.
“We have a bubbling successful melting pot in this country so long as the ingredients are essentially European.”
― Jared Taylor, Convergence of Catastrophes, (2012)

How We Measure Assimilation

A fairly good definition of Assimilation: Assimilation, also called integration or incorporation, is the process by which the characteristics of members of immigrant groups and host societies come to resemble one another. Resemble is a key word here. It still allows the immigrant to retain vestiges of their own culture and does not necessarily entail total substitution of one set of characteristics with another.

A politician’s approach at definition of the assimilation situation:

 “A simple way to take measure of a country is to look at how many want in.. And how many want out.”
- Tony Blair.

Politicians, like economists, try to simplify things with assumptions that best suit their purposes. The host country’s main needs-related assumption is that they get the best highest skilled units of labour at the least input price by allowing selective immigration. It doesn’t always go that simply.
“We asked for workers. We got people instead.”       Max Frisch.

Research in USA reveals some interesting aspects of assimilation:
  • Economic and civic assimilation without significant cultural assimilation is rather common
  • Immigrants from other rich developed countries may not be better assimilated
  • Huge diversity in how different immigrant groups assimilate: best assimilators are from Vietnam, Cuba and the Philippines – all countries with previous US military occupation
  • Mexican immigrants to USA show low levels of economic and civic assimilation but normal levels of cultural assimilation

The entire history of the human race is a tale of immigration. The most widely accepted theory of how human beings spread all over the earth is the “Out of Africa” theory or academically “RSOH – recent single origin hypothesis”. Depending on which theory is currently accepted, humans have been emigrating and immigrating for the last 1.8 million years. So, with immense competition, is the playing field ever fair? Here again, it depends.
“From the day he left his parents' house, Abe [Reles] had to know his father was right, that America promises everything, but he also had to know his father was wrong--America gives nothing. Those things that are promised, they cannot be worked for but must be taken, conned away with good looks, obsequiousness, mimicry; or traded for with bit of your soul or the morals of the stories your parents told; or tricked away with lies; or wrested away with brute force.”
― Rich Cohen, Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams

Why People Migrate?

People migrate for different reasons. Some people fall in love and migrate to live with their loved one. Others go in search of better jobs or better climate and then some people are forced to migrate as refugees. “It’s better for me there than here” – is the underlying belief in all migration. Push factors explain why a person leaves a certain area, while pull factors explain the choice of destination and typically these factors complement each other in migration. Considering the coming huge waves of mass migrations to Europe, knowledge of these factors would be valuable in designing suitable win-win responses.

Push factors of migration:
  • High crime rate
  • Poverty
  • War or sectarian violence
  • Inability to cope with high corruption
  • Environmental reasons – persistent drought, crop failure, too cold or too hot
  • Social instability
  • Limited opportunities for improving one’s lot in life through education etc.
Pull factors of migration:
  • Low crime rate
  • Greater affluence
  • Peace
  • Significantly lower rate of corruption
  • Better climate
  • Social stability
  • Increased opportunities for improving one’s life

Recently the UK government decided to stop saving migrants drowning in the Mediterranean as saving the drowning is perceived as pull factor for migration to the UK.

Is Assimilation a Good or Bad thing?

Like all complex questions, this generates more questions than answers.
  • Do we have a shared understanding of assimilation? How is it different from integration and adjustment?
  • What is that to which one is supposed to assimilate - Frenchness, Americanness or Chineseness such that we can measure it? If we made tests for immigrants, what happens if a large section of locals cannot pass these tests? Only 44% of Americans with a college level education pass the Citizenship test for immigrants. 
  • Does assimilation necessarily produce better contribution to and engagement with the host society? Or is the obverse true?
  • If a high percentage of indigenous (born locally) people do not assimilate well, can they also be penalised in the same way as immigrants? Immigrants’ point of entry or deportation are usually airports, land borders or harbours, so what is the point of entry or deportation of indigenous people who do not assimilate?
Immigrating or being an immigrant is not something that one engages in flippantly. Immigrating usually means uprooting your life; sometimes you lose your property, friends, social connections, means of livelihood, professional and social influence and even your identity. For some immigrants life turns for the better and for some others it is the end of living and the beginning of survival. Being forced to give up their food habits and having to live on English food alone might scare the living daylight out of most immigrants and even Brits in Britain, and the British food scene would lose most of its wonderful diversity. The annual average of £425, that people in UK spend yearly on ethnic food shows that such a horror scenario is extremely unlikely.

Photo source:

Peter Salins, in his book Assimilation, American Style (1997), presents 3 criteria for assimilation:
  1. Immigrants must accept English as the national language
  2. Work and live by the protestant ethic (self-reliant, hardworking and morally upright)
  3. Be proud of the American identity and believe in America’s liberal democratic and egalitarian principles
This kind of dialectic of assimilation is rather problematic. 
  • Many people also seem to de-assimilate, as they get older. They might get disillusioned with what they assimilated to and entertain a nostalgic fondness of what they imagine as having ‘lost’.
  • Many people have no clear idea how such vague concepts e.g. protestant ethics really means and don’t find many locals living it either.
  • The identity that the host society gives to immigrants may significantly differ from how they’d like to be seen. A person may want to be seen as a happy and singing Neapolitan rather than an Italian stereotype or as a successful engineer rather than as a Korean. An immigrant from Guatemala or Mexico does not necessarily see herself as a “Hispanic” or “Latino”. 
  • Does assimilation mean adopting the thinking patterns of others? I am reminded almost weekly: “You can’t think like that!” and my response always is “I just did”. Do we really think thoughts? I’d say that we just register and react to thoughts coming to the focus of our consciousness. 
Then, is assimilation requirement a good thing? Learning the local language and culture brings immense benefits to both sides in the form of improved communication and understanding. Improved communication also might widen the horizons of the locals.

Assimilation is a sweet thing, like sugar. Too much for some people may cause health (mental) problems. Since when has being like everyone else made mavericks happy? Too little and there is no sweetness in your life, probably. Of course, being the eternal other also may give someone immense kicks and thus assimilation would be a high price. 

There is a third possibility over total assimilation or zero assimilation - selective assimilation. The immigrant assimilates to a degree that helps with living fulfilling lives yet retains aspects that enriches the new surroundings.

Recipe for successful selective assimilation: 

  • Quickly learn the local language and culture 
  • Learn to appreciate and be grateful for all the good things in the host society 
  • Stop finding faults with the host society like many locals do - moaning makes you boring
  • Find a way to contribute, at least to someone other than yourself - make friends!
  • Cherish your own culture and cultivate a deeper understanding and then communicate it to the locals who are interested in widening their horizons.
  • Find something in the new culture to cheer up your daily life - have fun!
So, assimilation oui, mais non.