Reunification? Many young South Koreans say, 'Let's not.'

Why We Wrote This

Every generation lives with the consequences of their parents’ decisions – not just as families, but as nations. Many older South Koreans hope to see a unified Korea. But for their children and grandchildren, uniting with the dramatically different North is a far less appealing prospect.

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters/File
Young people pose for photographs at Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul, South Korea.

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For years, North and South Korea have shared one ultimate, even sacrosanct, goal: reunification. But at last Friday’s inter-Korea summit, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un vowed to make “the first practical step for national reconciliation and unity”: pushing his country’s clocks 30 minutes ahead to match Seoul’s, three years after Pyongyang created its own time zone. To say there are bigger hurdles to reunification is an understatement. One of the biggest may be a young generation of South Koreans to whom reunification appears far-fetched, or downright undesirable. To many people in their 20s, with no memories of a united peninsula, there’s little to gain from trying to bring together the capitalist, democratic South and the impoverished, totalitarian North – a feat that could cost $5 trillion, for which they’d foot the bill. “Sure we are the same people and even the same race,” says one 28-year-old office worker in Seoul. “But politically and militarily we have been enemies as well.”

In the days since Friday's summit between the leaders of North and South Korea, a newfound optimism has taken hold in Seoul. “Spring has come to the Korean Peninsula,” proclaims a giant banner stretched across the side of a downtown office tower. Newspaper headlines have been equally hopeful, as have many people.

“I cried when I saw it,” says Lee Chan-young, a 20-year old culinary arts student, referring to the moment on Friday when the two leaders first met. “When they shook hands, it was like a dream come true.”

The meeting in the border village of Panmunjom last week was no doubt historic. It was, among other things, the first time a North Korean leader has set foot in the South. But it was also only the start of what will surely be a long and complicated process. Establishing peace and denuclearizing the peninsula won’t come easy after seven decades of hostilities, to say nothing of the much loftier aim: reunification.

Reunification has long been the ultimate – even sacrosanct – goal of both Koreas. The term “unification” appears four times in the joint statement signed by the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and the South’s president, Moon Jae-in, after their meeting. It even made it into the statement’s title: “The Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula.”

Yet such mentions don’t make the prospect of reunification imminent. In fact, many South Koreans view the idea as increasingly far-fetched. Decades of division have created an ever-widening economic and cultural gap that analysts say could take years to overcome – and that’s if South Koreans want to overcome it at all. Reunification has lost much of its appeal to a generation of young people who have no memory of a united peninsula. Many of them see little to gain from trying to bring together the capitalist, democratic South and the impoverished, totalitarian North.

It’s not only the younger generation that holds this view. Overall public support for reunification has steadily declined in the South Korea, where 57.8 percent see it as necessary, down from 69.3 percent in 2014, according to a survey published last year by the Korea Institute for National Unification, which is funded by the South Korean government. But among young people, many of whom aren’t swayed by appeals to ethnic heritage, the number is far lower. According to the survey, only 38.9 percent of those in their 20s say reunification is necessary.

“Sure we are the same people and even the same race,” says Ban Jae-hoon, a 28-year-old office worker in Seoul. “But politically and militarily we have been enemies as well.”

Mr. Ban’s views reflect the findings of a recent study published by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Seoul. The survey found that young South Koreans are more likely to see North Korea as a nation threatening the South’s security rather than as a people sharing the same ethnic background. For most of their lifetime, North Korea has been defined by its military provocations and nuclear ambitions. They don’t share the pain caused by the peninsula’s divide and the 1950-53 Korean War.  

“Unlike those in their 60s and older, who still shared a sense of national identity with the North Koreans, many in their 20s merely perceived North Korea as an ‘enemy’ or a ‘stranger,’ ” says an analysis of the survey. “Many young South Koreans take the North Korean threat so seriously that they believed the greatest benefit of unification would be the lower risk of war on the Korean Peninsula.”

Still, that doesn’t mean they’re calling for an immediate reunification. Only 7.2 percent of young people who responded to the survey said the peninsula should reunify as soon as possible. For many of them, the gap between the two countries is still too large.

The North’s economy is dwarfed by the South’s, the 11th largest in the world. Then there are the gaps in infrastructure, education, and health care, all of which leads economists to estimate that reunification could cost as much as $5 trillion – a cost that would fall almost entirely on South Korea.

“Young South Koreans are not willing to accept the economic burden,” says Jo Dong-joon, the deputy director of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. “They think the two Koreas are too different now.”

While reunification remains a distant goal – and one that could profoundly alter East Asian geopolitics – both North and South Korea have pledged to come together in smaller ways. During their summit on Friday, Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim agreed to resume temporary reunions between relatives separated by the Korean War and expand civilian exchanges. They also announced plans to set up a liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong, the site of a now-closed industrial complex that had for years been the biggest joint project between the two nations.

Joan Cho, an assistant professor of East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., says these kinds of exchanges – along with sustained economic development in the North – could go long way in strengthening public support for reunification in the South. So, too, could ongoing meetings between the leaders of both countries.

“The fact that Kim Jong-un came to South Korea had a positive effect on young South Koreans,” Dr. Cho says. “They saw a side of him that they hadn’t seen before. He was joking and smiling.”

Yang Eun-jun, a 26-year-old university student in Seoul, says she was encouraged by this other side of Kim.

“I don’t think he is a good person, but my opinion of him has improved a little bit because he has made an effort to have dialogue,” she says. “He’s not completely crazy.”

But Cho warns that it’s too soon to know how long that effect will last. “It's hard to tell if the summit really changed anyone’s mind about reunification,” she says. “This could just be a honeymoon period.”

In another gesture of goodwill, Kim has also promised to readjust his country’s clock to match the time zone in South Korea. The two countries had used the same time zone until 2015, when the North created its own by setting its clocks 30 minutes behind those in the South.

Kim said his decision to unify the time zone was “the first practical step for national reconciliation and unity,” according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency. There are many more to go.

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