This week during a trip to Seoul, I took a straw poll. I wanted young South Koreans to tell me two things: are they worried about North Korea’s constant threats of annihilation? And do they support a unified Korean Peninsula?
Nobody I spoke with gave more than a passing thought to the recent surge in Pyongyang’s sabre-rattling. And nobody thought it was a good idea to open the border with North Korea and attempt social and economic reintegration.
The answers suggest that South Korea’s younger generation is an apathetic bunch. How can they just shrug about the possibility of a nuclear-armed rogue on their doorstep? And why wouldn't they want to help out their brethren in the North?
A 31-year-old man who made my morning espresso at a tiny coffee shop in Seoul’s Hongdae neighbourhood summed it up. Yes, the threats are common, but when you've heard them as often as South Koreans have, the threats lose their sting. “It's like dealing with a child,” he said, dismissively.
And while North and South Koreans share bloodlines, language and tradition, the differences stand out more. During more than six decades of separation, the two countries have taken divergent paths. Authoritarian rule in the North, democracy in the South. A poor, closed, centrally controlled economy in the North, a globalised market economy in the South. Military propaganda music in the North, K-pop tunes in the South. They have grown apart like estranged siblings and it would require too much work – not to mention billions of dollars in aid and investments – to make up for lost time. “We are just too different, culturally,” said the barista.
This presents a dilemma for policymakers in Seoul. Peaceful unification of the peninsula has been a goal of South Korean leaders since the constitution was drawn up in 1948. President Park Geun-hye said yesterday in Washington during a joint session of the US Congress that she hopes her “trustpolitik” policy would lead to peace on the peninsula and eventual reunification.
With his recent test explosion of a nuclear device, missile launches and withdrawal of North Korean workers from the Kaesong Industrial complex – a symbol of North-South economic cooperation – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hasn’t made unification seem too likely. A South Korean Ministry of Unification official I met on Tuesday acknowledged that North-South integration is, at this point, a tough idea to sell, especially to his country’s younger generation.
But maybe that’s beside the point. Talk of eventual unification has been a way for South Korea to maintain a dialogue, an open channel of communication, with the reclusive North. South Korean president Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea heavy-handedly from 1961 until he was shot dead by his intelligence chief in 1979, once said, “As long as you can touch an opponent with at least one hand, you can tell whether he will attack.” Maybe that’s why young South Koreans should support unification: not because of what it might do in the future but because of the doomsday scenario that it now helps to prevent from happening.
Kenji Hall is Asia editor-at-large for Monocle.