One Korean Unification Flag: Two Irreconcilable Ideologies

 Photo from Omi Prive 

Photo from Omi Prive 

The world will catch a glimpse of political hope at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. After diplomatic dialogue at the heavily militarized border between North Korea and South Korea in mid-January, the neighboring countries agreed to unite their Olympic athletes under a unification flag during the opening ceremony of the Olympics on February 9.

While an apparent gesture towards more peaceful relations after several years of heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, the world remains apprehensive, and rightly so. What is the real significance of these two countries—these proven enemies—laying aside their differences for a sporting event?

This is not the first time the unification flag has been used to unite the two Koreas for a sporting event. In 1963, about a decade after the Korean Conflict, the two countries met to discuss the unification of their athletes for the Olympic games. However, those negotiations, and similar subsequent negotiations, failed to reach an agreement. Then, in 1990, the two Koreas agreed to send a joint cheering team to the Asian Games in Beijing, where members of the team raised small unification flags in support of athletes from both countries. Finally in 1991, the countries agreed to send a joint Korean team to the World Table Tennis Championship and march under the aforementioned unification flag. In the 2000, 2003, and 2006 Olympics, the Koreans continued to unite their athletes under the unification flag.  

But as tensions rose on the Korean peninsula, the unification flag raised by a joint delegation made its last appearance at the 2007 Asian Winter Games. As Korean tensions are at an all-time high, the timing of the decision to unite once again under the unification flag seems precarious.

Deeper issues hinder the unification of the Korean peninsula than unified sports teams. Irreconcilable ideological differences stand as the greatest obstacle to Korean unification.

While this unified Olympic delegation seems like a step towards reducing military tensions and possible reunification of the peninsula, the most realistic individuals will remain hesitant, for there is little significance in this ceremonial demonstration. Deeper issues hinder the unification of the Korean peninsula than unified sports teams. Irreconcilable ideological differences stand as the greatest obstacle to Korean unification.

After Japan lost its colonial control of the Korean peninsula in the aftermath of World War II, Soviet Russia structured a communist government under Kim Il Sung in the North, while the United States implemented democratic institutions in the South. In 1950, the North invaded the South in an attempt to reunify the peninsula.

Three years of intense fighting, which resulted in an embarrassing armistice for both sides, revealed the irreconcilable differences between the two regimes. The armistice divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, creating two independent countries, North Korea and South Korea. The North remained reclusive and hostile to the democratic West, while the South remained open to trade and diplomacy with the West and emerging democratic states in the East.

The regime created by Kim Il Sung—the grandfather of Kim Jong Un—in North Korea was more potent in its ideology than the Marxist-Leninist ideology of Soviet Russia. While Stalin deemed the Kremlin the infallible arbiter of truth, North Korea extends its ideology even further, viewing Kim Il Sung as a divine being. Kim Il Sung’s original “Juche” ideology, which is still enforced by propaganda and indoctrination, calls for North Korean people to sacrifice their lives for the cause of the Great Leader. This sacrifice is believed to result in permanent life. Another key part of the Great Leader’s Juche ideology is the desire to reunify the Korean peninsula under Juche, and then, the whole world.

While North and South will march under a unification flag at the Olympic opening ceremony today, the symbol of unification will mean something wildly different to a North Korean athlete than it will to a South Korean athlete.

North Korea and South Korea will never experience a peaceful reunification, as long as their respective hostile ideologies remain resolute. North Korea, as long as it embraces its Juche ideology, will settle for nothing less than a unified Korea under that doctrine, which would not be a positive political advancement for the peninsula.

This is the reality that politicians and concerned citizens of the world must understand. So, while North and South will march under a unification flag at the Olympic opening ceremony today, the symbol of unification will mean something wildly different to a North Korean athlete than it will to a South Korean athlete.

Yet, a glimpse of hope remains. With the intermingling of the North Korean and South Korean teams, members of the North Korean delegation will catch a genuine glimpse of what life is like outside the so-called Hermit Kingdom.

The opinions reflected in this OpEd are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff, faculty and students of The King's College