Can Confucius bridge the gap between the two Koreas?

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An interview featuring Dr Caitlin Byrne from Bond University

The dialogue between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea and South Korea, is a history of long silences and tensions.

After the split of the peninsula introduced in the post-World War Two environment and entrenched through the Korean War of 1950, with the armistice signed in 1953, diplomatic exchanges between the two Koreas greatly diminished. The two countries are technically still at war, as the highly armed buffer zone between North and South Korea, known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), clearly shows. The DMZ may separate adversaries, but their starkly different developmental paths in the last 70 years have also turned them into strangers.

Although North and South Korea now reflect quite different societies, lifestyles and political views, they are still united by historical and cultural ties that speak to a shared ancient civilisation. Sporadic efforts have been made in recent years to facilitate dialogue between the two countries including through cultural exchanges, economic development projects and family reunions. Family reunions, like the one conducted recently with the assistance of the Red Cross Societies [1], reflect the deep, though aging familial bonds that link the two states and remind us of their shared national heritage.

Untitled
A South Korean lady kisses her North Korean father in a family reunion in October 2015. Retrieved here.

Another often overlooked tie connecting the two Koreas is the shared and deeply rooted attachment to Confucian tradition.

The teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius have had a profound and meaningful influence on the social structures of both countries, so much so that Korea, when still united, used to be referred to as the most Confucian society on earth.

An emphasis on family, personal betterment, respect for age and authority, are prominent elements of Confucian culture. They continue to feature in the daily life of all Koreans, both of North and South to this day, some 2,500 years after the death of Confucius.

Could we say then that Confucianism could be used as a key to close the gap between the two Koreas and help the two countries to develop a closer relation and release some of the tension that characterises their relationship?

Confucian Weekly Bulletin (CWB) explored this engaging topic with Dr Caitlin Byrne, a former diplomat and Bond University professor with years of extensive research on the issue of the Korean Peninsula.

CWB: Dr Byrne, what is the historical significance of Confucius for the Korean peninsula?

“For centuries now Korea (the nation) has considered its relationship to China as paramount to its domestic stability, international engagements and foreign policy. Confucian tradition was a hallmark of Korea’s intellectual development and scholarship from the 4th century onwards. As Korean historian Bruce Cummins (2005, 35) notes ‘in the local towns young men came of age reading the five great classics of Confucian learning’ [2]. Despite the many struggles and upheavals that beset the early history of the Korean peninsula, Confucian tradition was embedded as a strong and unifying force within society. Over centuries, the Koreans interlaced the teachings of Confucius within their own customs. Confucian themes including ‘loyalty to the king, filial love to one’s parents, fidelity in friendship, bravery in battle and chivalry in warfare’ endure in the North and South of the peninsula today. On occasion, when the Chinese Empire came under attack from foreigners and ‘barbarians’, Korea embraced the responsibility of protecting the purity of Confucian tradition, a responsibility that has delivered a unique attachment to that tradition, even today.”

Could you see the teachings of Confucius as a key to improve diplomatic relations between the two countries? If yes, how could this be achieved when the two countries are now so different?

“The shared attachment that both North and South Korea hold to the principles of Confucian tradition offers some potential for future engagement between the two nations that remain physically and ideologically separate. This potential rests in the unexpected familiarity that North and South Koreans might find in the way that they interrelate on interpersonal, familial and societal interactions. However, it is a potential that is obscured by layers of political, ideological and structural distrust. Peeling back these layers remains a significant challenge.”

Do you think we will be able to witness closer interaction across the Korean peninsula despite the political challenges?

“It will require multifaceted engagement strategies at the people-to-people level – spearheaded by the recognition of their shared memories, stories and tradition. The prospects for such engagement are limited but not out of reach. Yet they diminish with each passing year as those who can remember a unified Korea and might facilitate the sharing of stories, memories and histories pass on and a new normal forged in hostile separation takes hold.”

caitlin
Caitlin Byrne is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Bond University (Gold Coast, Australia) where she teaches and researches diplomacy and public diplomacy, with a special focus on Australia and the Asia-Pacific. She also has a particular interest in the Korean Peninsula.

[1] http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/20/us-northkorea-southkorea-reunions-idUSKCN0SE0A020151020#G33i3hTuAr4UyB0l.97

[2] Bruce Cummings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, (NY: Norton, 2005).

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