Guest Column: Unification Junction, What’s Your Function?

Tuesday 23rd September, 2014

“Conjunction junction, what’s your function?” are the words I remember most from the Schoolhouse Rock series back in the 70s when my children were growing up. It was such a catchy tune. We would sing it together over and over—“hooking up words and phrases and clauses/ conjunction junction how’s that function?”

To me, this song is a metaphor for what’s going on in the arena of Korean unification, especially the crucial, conjunctive role the former residents of North Korea play. They inspired me to write this essay, “Unification Junction, What’s Your Function?” and a series of essays about unification that are to follow.

Alas, “Unification Junction” is not as catchy as “Conjunction Junction.” But unification and conjunction do share a common theme. They both connote “together as one.”


Unification, or reunification, has been a word often quoted in the Korean peninsula over the years – sixty-nine years, to be exact. Ever since the victors of the Pacific War, the U.S. and former Soviet Union, divided the peninsula at its waist, the line drawn at the 38th Parallel, in order to facilitate the surrendering of Imperial Japanese forces, became permanent.

The DMZ stood in their way, fortified on both sides of the line with canons, missiles, tanks, and countless land mines, making for an impassable wall to negotiate.

This, of course, came at the expense of ten million or so Koreans who experienced forced separation from their loved ones.

For sixty-nine years, these separated families pined for unification. With unification, lay their only hope to see their family. Alas, most of them have died waiting. The DMZ stood in their way, fortified on both sides of the line with canons, missiles, tanks, and countless land mines, making for an impassable wall to negotiate. Only a handful have crossed the DMZ and continue to do so, provided that governments on both sides of the fence agree to their passage.


That is not to say that the border between the two Koreas is completely sealed. People manage to escape the North and enter the South via China and Southeast Asia. About 26,000 exiles reside in the South now with more to come. Many of them have accomplished what neither government is willing to do, or capable of doing. They stay in contact with their relatives and friends back home. They even send them money.

The days of top-down communication [in North Korea] are fading quickly.

Thus, people in the North are learning about the outside world, and in the process, people in the South are learning about the people of the North. Southerners interact face-to-face with newcomers from the North and hear about life in the North first-hand.

Up to now, communication in the North has been a top-down model; a highly centralized, one-way communication from the party central to the plebeians in the countryside. The party elites use Karl Marx’s model of communication to control the flow of information, thereby advancing their agenda only.

Kim Jong-il, an admirer of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist, built his propaganda machinery in kind to exercise his absolute control over the population. His modus operandi was to “isolate the people from the outside; feed them only the information we want them to have.”

People have new tools for telling their stories, and story telling is the first step to building a community.

People-to-people communication across Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – once unthinkable – is happening now and growing, courtesy of the newcomers from the North. This is a very significant development. Most likely, this phenomenon will continue even though Pyongyang is trying very hard to stem the tide. Pyongyang apparatchiks, the loyal members of the controlling party, rely on their usual fear tactics to discourage the North Korean people from communicating with those outside.

These elites, however, must realize by now that they have a huge battle on their hands. They are fighting against cell-phones, the Internet, and memory sticks. No amount of wireless detectors can patrol those ubiquitous, invisible electronic waves. The days of top-down communication are fading quickly. People have new tools for telling their stories, and story telling is the first step to building a community. Koreans are now standing at a new junction on their way to unification.


Communication breeds understanding, which leads to exchange, and then community building in earnest. At present, a three-way communication spearheads the effort, comprised of the people currently residing in the North, former residents of the North now residing in the South, and the people of the South. The former residents of the North form a bridge to both sides of the DMZ.

The former residents of the North form a bridge to both sides of the DMZ.

A hard road to hoe remains; that is, building a community that would transcend the hardened reality of such entrenched geopolitical division. Yet, these former residents have overcome their familial division despite the stubborn political division; an accomplishment never before imagined. The political division did not deter them from uniting their families, and this feat should not go unnoticed. In fact, it should serve as the road map to uniting the rest of the families that remain separated by the DMZ.

When they have achieved an unfettered three-way communication, the former residents of the North will have fulfilled their function as the “conjunction,” no ands or buts. They will have hooked up words and phrases and clauses of union and linked that train of words to take us to a new junction. That junction will be the “Unification Junction,” a place to form a consensus about their future. Then they can sing their new chorus together, as one.

So much for the talk about junctions… I will explore specific steps and options about Korean unification in the upcoming series of essays.

John Cha is a freelance writer and translator. He has written a number of books, including EXIT EMPEROR KIM JONG-IL: Notes from His Former Mentor, a collaboration project with K.J. Sohn (손광주). The book presents a compelling portrait of two men, Kim Jong-il and his former mentor Hwang Jang-yop, who were caught up in a struggle for the survival of North Korean society.

Featured image: Flickr, Conjunction Junction

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