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Negotiating Away the Bloodline: North Korean National Identity and the Implications for Reunification


After Kim Jong-il’s death, outside experts speculated over whether or not Kim Jong-un would implement substantive reforms. In theory, bringing about major reforms in North Korea would help make reunification a reality. However, the structure of North Korean national identity makes political, economic and social reforms difficult to implement. This paper uses a constructivist approach towards understanding North Korean domestic and peninsular politics through the national identity lens. Potential political reforms face weak incentives due to national identity issues. North Korean national identity is composed of four primary components, with the first two being explicit and the latter two being implicit within the political system: (1) Korean culture and history, (2) localized Marxist-Leninist theory, (3) Confucianism and (4) Japanese imperial race theory. North Korean political actors cannot implement key political, social or economic reforms that would bring the country closer to the South Korean model without violating at least one of these four national identity components. As a result, one should not expect North Korean leaders to carry out major reforms leading towards reunification within the medium-term.

Sean Christopher Nelson is a second-year M.A. student at SAIS, concentrating in China Studies and South Asia Studies. He earned his B.A. in 2007 from the Johns Hopkins University, majoring in International Relations and East Asian Studies. In summer 2012, Sean interned with the U.S. Department of Commerce in New Delhi, where he worked on issues relating to U.S.-India bilateral economic ties. From 2008 to 2011, Sean worked for an online services firm based in Georgetown. Before that, he spent 2007 to 2008 in Beijing working for an online start-up company and teaching English at local hospitals and businesses. He also interned for his home district’s congressman on Capitol Hill. His research interests include energy and environment issues across the Asian continent.