The word tongil, unification, has been around for as long as I can remember. My parent’s generation sang a song called “Our Wish Is Tongil,” composed by Ahn Byung-won in 1947, then a 22-year-old music student.
His father, Ahn Suk-ju, wrote the lyrics. He originally had named it “Our Wish Is Dognip,” meaning independence, during the time when independence was the priority issue for Koreans who were forced to live under Japanese rule. Japanese rule ended when Imperial Japan surrendered at the end of World War II. Thus, “independence” was no longer an issue.
Then came the division of Korea. This unwanted division prompted Ahn Sr. to replace dognip with tongil. The song became very popular and has remained so over the years, first in the South and later in the North.
The song evokes different feelings and meanings for different people, but mostly the singers are consumed with a longing for a united Korea. For 65 years, millions of those who were separated from their families and friends imagined being together with their loved ones as they sang this song. For them, the word “tongil” represented hope. But alas, the most of them have passed on while they waited. Only their dried tears speak for them.
In a recent interview with a Korean newspaper, Ahn said, “We shouldn’t sing this song any more. When we wrote this song, we thought unification would come sooner.”
The song has come dangerously close to becoming an anachronism. A symbol of false hope, perhaps.
Historically, the concept of unification was centered around political unification ― one nation, one flag, that sort of a thing. Following the division of the Korean peninsula, Kim Il-sung of the North rolled his tanks southward across the 38th Parallel in 1950, starting the Korean War in the name of unification. However, Kim’s unification drive failed, as the U.N. and the South Korean forces drove his troops back. The war ended with an armistice agreement in 1953, signed by Nam Il from North Korea, a Chinese representative, and William K. Harrison from the U.N.
Subsequently, Kim Il-sung and his son, Jong-il, continued to hold the view that by unifying the two Koreas they would “free” southern brethren from the U.S. and its puppet regime in Seoul. They have been quite consistent in this unification concept, made clear by their speeches and actions, to which the people of the South strongly object.
Nevertheless, the North and the South have made attempts to bring about unification. During the Park Chung-hee era, they held secret talks and issued 7.4 Joint Communique in 1972. In 1992, they issued South-North Basic Agreement after about 160 meetings, which included the language such as reconciliation, non-aggression, economical and cultural exchange and cooperation. Then came the 6.15 Joint Declaration in 2000. In these talks, both sides agreed to a peaceful unification on their own, without outside interference. This unification process would encompass all of Korean people and transcend ideological differences. So have been agreed and said, but to little effect.
In 2015, we are still stuck with barbed wire fences along the DMZ. There is no free travel across the border; no free correspondence; no free commerce. What exchanges there are between the two Koreas, they are heavily controlled by both sides. The two continue to spend ungodly sums of money in weaponry.
Yet, people continue to sing “Our Wish Is Tongil.” Because it is a good song, a song about hope and love. However, it seems that people sing this song less frequently now. Recent polls indicate that young people of South Korea are not interested in unification due to the aggressive actions taken by the North, namely, the sinking of Cheonan corvette and the bombing of Yeonpyeong-do Island in 2010, not to mention the nuclear and missile tests. It may be that the young people of the South are more realistic than their predecessors about the viability of one happy nation concept.
The young do not know what Korea was like before it was divided. Nor do they care. Therefore, it is pointless to insist on re-unification of the two Koreas and go back to the old days when Korea was one before the division. Rather, they need to see where they are going. They need to see that new unification will bring new opportunities and new prosperity for them.
Young people who have left the North and settled in the South are doing exactly that. They are doing things that respective governments are incapable of and/or unwilling to do. They are communicating with their relatives and friends back home. They have figured out ways to send money back home, as implausible as it seems. Their resourcefulness is uncanny. These young, committed people are making a difference in the North-South equation, and we need more of them. A lot more.
Then, together with the young people of the South, they will need to discuss and create a new world for themselves. Their new world ― one that will allow them to sing about their future beyond tongil.
By John Cha
John Cha lives and writes in Oakland, California. He has written books on Korean and American leaders, including Susan Ahn Cuddy, Young Paik, Hwang Jang-yop and Kim Hyang-soo. Cha is an award winning translator of Korean literature into English. ― Ed.