South Koreans aren’t candid about their views on unification

Ciztizens watch performances next to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, capital of Germany, on Oct. 3, 2008, Germany's Unification Day. Numerous celebrations are held in Berlin to mark the day. <File Photo=Xinhua>

As every visitor to Korea knows, there are two words which have exceptionally positive connotations in modern political Korean parlance. One is ‘nation’ (minjok), and the other is ‘unification’ (t’ongil). Indeed, more or less every Korean will assure a foreign interlocutor that unification of North and South should be seen as the supreme political goal of all Koreans. Often, the division of Korea is often presented as a root cause for all real or alleged social problems which currently exist in both parts of the country.

However, if a Korean gets to know you better, you are likely to discover that his/her professed enthusiasm for unification is full of caveats and is significantly less ardent than it appears at first sight. After a few rounds of soju, you are likely to hear that unification is surely a great idea, but one should not rush towards this great goal with excessive speed, since proper preparations are clearly necessary, and now South Korea is not ready yet for this wonderful triumph of national spirit.

If you happen to spend even more time together, you are likely to learn that your Korean interlocutors (especially if they happen to be young) worry about the huge costs of unification. They might even explicitly say that they do not see compelling reasons to spend the rest of their lives bankrolling their Northern neighbors whose ruin was brought about, above all, by North Korea’s own anachronistic policies.

These subjective observations are supported by public opinion polls. For example, in 2011 the Peace Research Institute conducted its regular annual survey dealing with attitudes towards North Korea and unification. Among the questions was how the respondents see North Korea. The most popular reply (44.1%) was ‘I used to see it as the same country but now I have gradually started to see it as a foreign country’. In the same poll,  28.5% said that they still see North Korea as the same country, but the third most popular answer (14.3%) was even more negative in its attitude to the supposed North Korean brethren: ‘I see North Korea as a foreign country, like China and others’.

In the same poll, South Koreans were asked whether they see North Koreans as their ‘tongp’o’ (this can be roughly translated as ‘ethnic brethren’). A majority (52.9%) said that they still see North Koreans as such, but a significant minority (30.2%) said that they don’t see North Koreans as their ethnic brethren anymore.

This slow-motion decline of the once universal enthusiasm for unification is also reflected by other polls. In 1994, 91.6% of the South Koreans said they considered unification “necessary”. In 2007, according to a poll conducted by Seoul National University, the number of such people shrank to 63.8%.

Few people can deny that the dream of (and enthusiasm for) unification, once a driving force of Korean politics, is slowly withering away. It is also clear that this process is especially pronounced among the younger generations of Koreans.

This is a relatively new development. From the end of the Korean War and until around 1980, South Korean politics and ideology was almost completely dominated by the Right. South Korean rightists of that era were die-hard anti-Communists and devoted Cold Warriors, who saw the eventual unification of Korea under a market-oriented and liberal regime as their primary long-term goal (albeit as time went by their commitment to and interest in the unification began to wane slightly). These views were predominant among the political and intellectual elite, and were widely shared by the broader South Korean public.

The next generation people who are now in their 40s and 50s, have a very different, even the opposite view of the North, but they also had no doubt that the unification was necessary. In their youth, many of them were influenced by leftist nationalist groups, whose leadership admired North Korea as an example to emulate (such groups enjoyed surprising popularity in South Korean university campuses of the 1980s). By now, most of the former student activists and their admirers have drifted from their initial enthusiasm for a peculiar mixture of nationalism and Stalinism. Nonetheless, they retain some residual sympathy toward the North Korean regime (not so much for the North Korean people, though). According to their ideology, unification was synonymous with the revival of South Korea, allegedly suffering under the yoke of US neo-imperialism.

But the younger people, those in their 20s and 30s, are different from both their parents and their grandparents. They grew up around the time or after democratization of South Korea in the late 1980s. They also were not exposed to circumstances that would make them particularly anti-communist, but they also were not much influenced by the campus Stalinism of their fathers.

For these people therefore, North Korea is increasingly irrelevant. Even if they have relatives there, they are unlikely to ever interact with these relatives. The contacts between two Koreas were almost completely frozen since the late 1940s, so those who have live memories of relatives in the North are now in their 70s. For the youngsters, the lost relatives are merely faces at old yellowed photos (and most of these lost relatives are also long dead). Political and social events in the North have next to no impact on their lives, which to a much larger degree depend on what happens in New York, Beijing and London. Indeed, a real estate market crisis in the US has significantly more impact on the young South Koreans’ lifestyle than a full-blown famine in North Korea.

Occasional trips to North Korea, and interactions with North Korean refugees has confirmed what the official anti-Communist propaganda has said from the 1960s (but what was not believed by the ‘anti-anti-Communist’ parents of the present-day youngsters until some 10-15 years ago): North Korea is a very, very poor country whose economy is in ruins and whose society is lagging decades behind the prosperous South.

Therefore, there is an ever increasing anxiety about unification costs which are widely expected to be astronomical. Some estimates – clearly unreliable and imprecise – have been made, putting the cost of post-unification reconstruction of North Korea in the vicinity of one trillion dollars (roughly the entire annual GDP of South Korea).

The bitter experiences of post-unification Germany confirmed their worst fears – and everybody understands that Germany was in much better shape by the time of unification. Therefore, younger Koreans do not see unification as the emancipation from the unfortunate past but instead as a looming economic disaster.

They presume that reconstructing the North will cost a fortune and they do not want to spend their entire working life paying for it – after all, it is clear that they will be a generation to meet the costs of unification if it happens any time soon. Their sympathies for common North Koreans have worn thin. Even those who feel pity about the sorry fate of the majority of North Koreans, often mix this feeling with a great deal of contempt – they decisively do not perceive the Northerners as their equals.

However, there is an interesting peculiarity: so far no one in Korean public life has been bold enough to articulate these fears openly, and ‘unification myth’ remains deeply embedded in the ideologies of both the Korean right and left. So publically, people remain silent, and usually feel that it is deeply non-patriotic to doubt the need for the unification at the first opportunity. One needs a few rounds of soju to initiate a frank conversation on this topic.

But times are changing and, to be honest, the present author does not like this particular change. Sooner or later the anti-unification feelings will surface, to become an important political factor which might even influence the actions of Seoul government in times of emergencies (and one can be sure that there will be a number of emergencies related to North Korea in the foreseeable future).

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