Columbus State Political Scientist Surveys Koreans on Unification

The governments of North Korea and South Korea may be discussing the possibility of reuniting, but the recent Korean flag incident at the Summer Olympics in London indicates it’s still a sensitive topic, a Columbus State University professor says.

North Korea’s women’s soccer team left the field for an hour during their opening London 2012 match on July 25 after South Korea’s flag was mistakenly displayed next to their names on an electronic scoreboard. Tom Dolan, CSU’s political science chair, said the protest probably struck a familiar chord for some Georgians.

“Didn’t a governor (Roy Barnes) lose an election because of a changed flag?” he said. “We have people here still flying the (Confederate) flag. It (the Korean flag mix-up) was an emotional issue.”

Dolan knows the two Koreas well. On the screen of his desktop computer is a photo from his summer 2012 trips to both countries. There’s Dolan, standing in North Korea with the border of South Korea a few feet behind him, marked by a thin dark line of tiles showing the nations’ border. It would be easy to imagine Dolan walking freely from one country to the other — maybe even straddling the border for kicks.

But that’s easier said than done.

The border is guarded by armed soldiers on both sides who would frown on border-crossing hijinks. But the main reason is that communist North Korea and democratic South Korea are as diametrically opposed ideologically as possible. Yet the idea of unification persists, and it led Dolan there to do research about the possibility of creating one Korea for the first time in 67 years.

“Both countries insist that they want it,” Dolan said. “A friend of mine in (South) Korea now is director of research for Korean unification.  He works for a government entity whose job it is to figure out how to do it. But both sides see unification very differently.”

North Koreans view the divided peninsula as unnatural. For them, putting the two halves together constitutes reunification. But most South Koreans, except those in their 70s and 80s, never knew a unified Korea, so South Koreans view the joining of the nations as unification, representing something new.

“North Korea says it will be a returning to the old way,” Dolan said. “South Koreans say it is a new game. It’s all semantics.”

Dolan, a former Navy intelligence officer, understands the repercussions of differing perceptions. He was a student in the national security affairs track at Navy Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., when his assignment officer in Boston, speaking with a Boston accent, broached the idea of Dolan going to Korea. But that’s not what Dolan heard.

“I thought he called asking me about my career,” Dolan said. “He thought I said I was interested in Korea.”

Dolan acknowledged he doesn’t speak the Korean language as well as during his military days, but he remembered enough to conduct his 2012 research. During two summer trips, Dolan conducted 250 face-to-face interviews on reunification. The surveys were conducted in Korean so as to facilitate more authentic data from a larger pool.

"A lot of Americans want to do research like this,” Dolan said. “But they want to do it in English, so you’ve got to find folks who speak English.  That automatically eliminates the folks you really want to deal with.”

Dolan’s preliminary findings are that support for unification is waning. He also believes older North Koreans are the ones who want reunification most, and they want it fast, before they die.

“Younger South Koreans live a very affluent lifestyle and realize unification is going to cost a lot,” Dolan said. “And they say, ‘Who’s going to be paying for this? Not the North Koreans.’ They realize they are going to be paying for it, so many of the younger South Koreans do not want rapid unification. They don’t think of the people of North Korea as family. They think of them as people who fire artillery shells and launch missiles at them.”

Dolan, who moved his family to Korea and adopted a daughter during his military stay there, favors reunification because he believes it would benefit people of both nations. But he’s not sure it will ever happen if left solely to those two governments.

“The two sides see unification so differently,” he said. “South Korea would like to absorb the north, get rid of all vestiges of communism, and then not have to worry about a military threat. North Korea says, `Our society is fine the way it is. We don’t want American imperialists to rule us the way they rule South Korea.’ It is an interesting time to be there.”