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Train to Pyongyang: Imagination, Utopia, and Korean Unification


This essay is motivated by the seeming contradiction that Korean unification is sought after by most Koreans yet speculations about the social and cultural changes it might bring are almost absent. This may be because Korean unification denotes a series of differences contrasted to the present—because it is a potent “master symbol” with one foot in utopian speculation and the other in policy studies. In this essay, I outline some of the complexities, starting with an examination of illustrations of unification in textbooks for the tensions and contradictions they introduce. I then turn to fiction and film, sketching not only what some South Koreans hope (or fear) will happen after unification with the North but, indeed, the limits of their imagination regarding what the future will hold for South Korea. In the end, I concur with Grinker that representations of unification are “utopian,” but I object to the association of “utopia” with a socially engineered straitjacket. On the contrary, the utopias projected here suggest stepping off a precipice into worlds unknown, futures defined by their radical difference from today. The end of the essay locates these more imaginative dimensions of Korean unification in the “hope” of Ernst Bloch.

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