For younger South Koreans, the Korean War is just ancient history

Despite the ongoing rivalry between North Korea and South Korea, many seem to have grown apathetic toward the war’s impact on the peninsula, say observers.

Jason Lee/Reuters
Performers take part in a mass gymnastic and artistic performance 'Arirang,' in Pyongyang on Friday, July 26, as part of celebrations ahead of the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Six decades after the signing of the cease-fire agreement that effectively ended the Korean War, the South Korean government is concerned that young people are increasingly uninterested in a war that continues to influence East Asian politics and security. 

On July 27, 1953, three years after North Korea launched its invasion of the South, an armistice agreement intended to end hostilities on the divided peninsula went into effect. A permanent peace treaty has never been signed, a fact that underlies current tensions such as Pyongyang’s threats to launch nuclear strikes earlier this year. But despite the ongoing, and at times intense, rivalry between North Korea and South Korea, many South Koreans have grown apathetic toward the war’s impact, say observers.

“The legacy of the war is being forgotten,” says Andrew Salmon, author of two books on the Korean War. The Seoul-based writer says that in this very “future focused” country, there’s no time to dwell on the past. The conflict seems “like a war that took place in another country.”

American history textbooks have also been accused of overlooking the Korean War, often called the ”Forgotten War,” a conflict in which 33,000 US soldiers died while fighting North Korean and Chinese forces. 

Over the past five years, surveys reveal that many South Korean students and young adults get the facts wrong about the origins of the Korean War, which killed an estimated 1 million people on both sides of the border and separated tens of thousands of Korean families. Recent government and privately conducted polls show that respondents have trouble remembering when the war broke out, which nations were involved, as well as which country actually started the conflict.  

'Serious problem'

South Korean President Park Geun-hye recently called this apparent lack of understanding a “serious problem” for her nation, and ordered the Ministry of Education to strengthen its school curriculum on this period of modern history. “This shows that something is wrong with our education system,” Park was quoted saying by domestic press. 

During the decades following the Korean War, South Koreans were taught that the North was enemy No. 1. Military leaders in Seoul often used the fear of a communist takeover to their political advantage. But starting in the late 1990s, there was a shift in how students were taught about their northern neighbor, says Jasper Kim of the Asia Pacific Global Research Group. That’s when former president Kim Dae-jung began the pro-engagement strategy known as the Sunshine Policy.

“They had to create a legacy that was different than their predecessors,” Mr. Kim, the analyst, says of the Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. “They [their predecessors] were mostly from the military and more apt to support the US.” In order for these liberal politicians to win the presidency, they had to 'go against the grain' and win over voters with a different platform toward North Korea.”  

Teachers placed less emphasis on the war and more on the peninsula’s division during that time. Kim says this interpretation of the war’s facts has caused “stark differences” between South Korean generations as well as some resentment toward the United States

Conflicted by conspiracy theory

Some South Koreans who grew up during the now-defunct Sunshine Policy say they still feel conflicted over how to view the Korean War.  

Lee Han-byul, a 20-year-old university student, says that when she studied history in grade school, her friends believed in many of the conspiracy theories about the Korean War, such as that foreign powers were behind the whole thing.

“Even though we learned that North Korea started the war, I feel that it’s still up for debate, and if that’s what really happened, it seemed controversial,” she says. Ms. Lee adds the anniversary of the cease-fire agreement signing is “just a normal day” to her.

“When I was in middle school, all we learned was that we needed to unify with the North, but we never really learned why,” says another university student, 22-year-old Lee Ji-young. “But now, I think after North Korea’s attacks, people don’t really feel that way anymore.”

Lee Ji-young is referring to when North Korea bombed an inhabited South Korean island and was blamed for sinking a South Korean naval ship in 2010. Those incidents, as well as the almost daily provocations by Pyongyang during this past March and April, made Koreans such as herself question why they should help the North, she says.

North Korea’s bellicose antics might have helped South Korea’s ideological pendulum start swinging back the other way. Kim, the analyst, says the conservative President Park benefited from the youth vote during last year’s election. That’s in part because of this age group’s growing dissatisfaction toward the North. But Jasper Kim doesn’t think recalibrating school textbooks toward the right will make any difference on how students regard the Korean War.

“The young generation lives in a different Korea than their parents or especially their grandparents,” he says. “In the old days, people were all about the country, country over individualism. Now, they’re more interested in practical things, like finding a job.”

Author Mr. Salmon says its not surprising the war seems less relevant to young South Koreans these days. It’s a subtle dying off that all countries experience. “Every war becomes forgotten two or three generations down the line,” he says. “They’re only kept alive by historians.”

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