Pigs, Soccer, and National Delusion
Everyone tells themselves certain lies, whether they are aware of it or not. Nations do the same thing, often around ideas of grandeur, bravery and righteousness. This type of self-deceit — by and large — is not helpful, but it is also not particularly harmful either. When it comes to South Korea, this is not the case!
A highly contagious virus with a 100 percent fatality rate, and no known cure, is terrifying enough, even if it only affects pigs. In a country as small as South Korea, the risk of it spreading and wiping out the entire industry is very real. And this says nothing of the possibility of the virus mutating to be able to infect humans as well.
But when the first cases of African swine fever were announced, it was the region of the country — northern Gyeonggi Province, adjacent to the border with North Korea — that seemed to crystalize the fear. When it was no longer just farmed pigs, but wild boars, things became worse. When those infected boars were found inside the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas, once, then twice, this fear became an immediate cascade.
Soon the world’s most heavily fortified border was being reinforced further by a regiment of snipers and thermal vision drones. The lesson here for South Korea should have had nothing to do with the spread of disease or the pork industry — now suffering an irrational downturn in both sales and prices — and everything to do with how they actually see their Northern neighbour when structures fail, security is questionable, and national lies breakdown.
In the middle of this crisis, an inter-Korean soccer game was held in Pyongyang. It is not rare to encounter North Korean sporting teams, this was, after all, an official World Cup qualifying match. What made this into a spectacle was the use, by South Korea, of its national soccer team as vanguards for political and ideological ends.
Most national governments understandably refuse to send their athletes into North Korea, and so games of this kind are usually held in neutral third countries. What the South Korean athletes experienced is exactly what these governments are trying to avoid: a media shutdown, empty stadiums, visa issues, an absence of foreign media or representatives, politically intimidated referees, and complete — prisoner like — isolation (the South Korean team were restricted in their movement, had their cell phones confiscated, and held as the only guests in the otherwise empty Koryo Hotel).
So why would the Moon Jae-in administration, or anyone for that matter, submit their citizens to such an experience when they have the chance to avoid it? The answer: National reunification!
When Moon Jae-in announced in 2012 that he would achieve a North-South confederation before the end of his term in office, it was more than some grand political gesture. He was speaking to his own most deeply held, and publically expressed, desires… and also that of his country. It wasn’t the first time Moon had articulated this hope, and he must have taken stock of the public will, which whenever polled is overwhelmingly in favour of reunifying the peninsula.
First steps are necessary, and sport bears the brunt as it always tends to do. At the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the same outreach happened with Korea entering a unified women’s ice hockey team. What this meant in reality was South Korean players, who had qualified on their own merit, accepting North Korean players into their team, and with it relinquishing their own deserved and hard-earnt playing time. All for national ideology — all for a national lie!
The collective memories of a divided people is enough to make South Koreans instinctively tick ‘yes’ next to any box asking for reunification. Yet ask the follow-up questions of ‘are you willing to accept a tax increase to achieve this?’, or ‘are you willing to accept a reduction in your standard of living?’ and the responses shift quickly to ‘no!’
This sentiment plays out every day on the streets of South Korean cities through an unashamed, and unconcealed, discrimination and ostracising of defectors. Having this much actual difficulty accepting and integrating what is now only 30,000 North Koreans, things are unlikely to improve when reunification brings 25,000,000 more. South Koreans like to think about reunification a lot more than they like to live it.
The other side of this is a confrontational regime in North Korea that wants reunification just as much, but only on its terms, only under the government in Pyongyang and the rule of Kim Jong-un.
The South Korean soccer team emerged from the North Korean media blackout talking about a ‘rough’, ‘war-like’ experience, where the players were lucky to return ‘safe’ and ‘uninjured’, and of a society where “North Koreans wouldn’t even make eye contact when I talked to them, not to mention respond”.
And yet the lesson, again, seems to have been missed!
With whispers inside South Korea of biological pig-borne warfare from the North, and mental images of Kim Jong-un deliberately infecting his livestock and herding them across the DMZ, the Moon Jae-in administration took the more rational approach. The most likely scenario now unfolding across the border is one of unchecked agricultural disaster, something that North Korea has a long history with.
It is sensible to believe that the few wild boars that have managed to stumble through the mine fields of the DMZ, are the tip of a nationwide epidemic that the regime in Pyongyang is not equipped to address. In fact the National Intelligence Service (NIS) estimates that the entire country is infected and that the province of North Pyongan has been completely “wiped out”. With this in mind, South Korea reached out with the offer of help to their brothers and sisters (their self-professed future compatriots) and in response didn’t even get an acknowledgement of the offer.
Increasingly confident that the outbreak is coming from North Korea nonetheless, the military is currently deployed to fight pigs, but not before Seoul first “notified the North of our decision” in order to “prevent accidental clashes with the North due to our gunshots”.
There is a game of goodwill here, and only one side is playing it. And yet South Koreans are so fearful of further upsetting their begrudging partners in North Korea, that they will forgive nearly any infraction, while also viewing their own prudent and restrained actions as hostile. There is a battered wife syndrome to all of this — one side walking on eggshells, imagining that everything is their own fault; the other combative, aggressive and belligerent.
South Korea, and South Koreans, are not strictly responsible for the behaviour of their Northern neighbours, but they do have a choice. Keep telling themselves the old lies that reunification is something that they still want — in all its mess and detail — and that North Koreans are willing partners in an open, liberal and democratic version of this; or step away from the delusion and start seeing the regime in Pyongyang for what it actually is.
Yet as we speak, South Korea are bidding to jointly host the 2032 summer Olympics with North Korea, and pigs are still idling their way across the border, watched carefully through the rifle scopes of highly trained soldiers.