mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Dreaming of a Unified Korea?

Kids think the darndest things.  In South Korea, they have the Unification Ministry scratching its head trying to figure out why the younger generation doesn’t want to reunify with the North.  The WaPo has the story:

Younger South Koreans are increasingly second-guessing a national goal. They don’t think an eventual unification with North Korea will restore order and salve old wounds; they think it will turn a prosperous country into a chaotic one. More than half of those in their teens and 20s don’t even think unification is necessary — though they’re taught to believe as much starting in fifth grade.

For those who remember the Korean War and its aftermath, the Korean Peninsula’s split is untenable. “I will never accept it as a permanent condition,” President Lee Myung-bak, whose brother and sister were killed in the war, said last week in an address to the U.S. Congress.

But with more young South Koreans growing dubious about reunification, the government is trying to force an attitude adjustment. In recent weeks, it has launched an online-only sitcom and sponsored a network reality show with pro-unification themes.

It is understandable that young people would feel reluctant to unite with a country which they have only experienced as a menace that occasionally lobs mortars at them. But the government is probably worrying more than it has to.  The kids are all right.

Back in the 1980s, young Germans used to be skeptical about reuniting with an East Germany that they had never known, but when the Wall fell, young people were the first to welcome East Berliners to the other side.

German unification proved to be difficult, expensive and at times emotionally fraught on both sides.  (I remember a popular German joke of the time: Why do the Chinese smile all the time?  Because their Wall is still standing.)  But the deep national commitment to unification was never seriously challenged and while differences and tender feelings linger, Germany today is clearly a single country.

Nationalism for the last 200 years has been the strongest single force in world politics.  The desire of people who share a cultural and linguistic history to associate together in one state has overthrown monarchs, started wars, led to massacres and ethnic cleansing — and provided a framework for the development of peaceful and prosperous democratic states all over the world.

Anybody who knows Korea (and I’ve been to both the North and the South) knows that nationalism is a strong force on the peninsula.  It would have to be; if Koreans didn’t have a deep sense of identity and a deep commitment to Korean culture, they would likely have been absorbed by larger neighbors as many other groups have been.  Smaller nationalities near big countries like the Vietnamese and Koreans in Asia, the Poles in Europe, Palestinians in the Middle East or the Cubans in North America develop feisty nationalistic identities — or they disappear.

The right event at the right time can change public opinion drastically. If North Korea’s dictatorship were to collapse and cease being a national security threat overnight, South Koreans of all ages would almost rally to the project of creating a single state for the Korean people.

The Unification Ministry should relax — though no doubt bureaucrats who otherwise have a hard time explaining what exactly it is that they do 9 to 5 when unification remains a distant project enjoy a “crisis” of the unification project which gives them something to do.

The job of unification, whenever it comes, won’t be easy; the gap between North Korea and South Korea is much wider than the gap between East and West Germany.  But Koreans are a tough people with a difficult history and it would not be wise to bet against them.

Features Icon
show comments
  • The Professor

    I defer to your judgment on this issue as you have visited both of the Koreas while I have not been to either. And I have no doubt that if we saw the collapse of the North Korean regime in the next few years, many South Koreans would pull together to work on reunification despite the extraordinary difficulties that will follow. Yet… I think the Unification Ministry has a point in being worried about shifting attitudes among the younger generation and I am not sure your comparison to Germany holds up under scrutiny. Almost sixty years have passed since the end of the Korean war and it has been split for over sixty-five. Only the elderly can now remember a united Korea, and one brutally occupied by Japan at that. Germany by the late 1980s, on the other hand, had been split for less than forty-five years and a sizable group of middle-aged and elderly Germans remembered well when their country was united. In addition, Germany was one of the Great Powers of Europe and the world, and both sides possessed not insignificant political clout in Europe in their respective ideological spheres throughout the mid-20th century. Those cultural memories, coupled with a strong nationalistic past, did much to help ease the reunification process along in Germany. Most Germans were eager to see their country reunite since the vast majority had either grown up under a united Germany or had been raised by parents who passed along those stories and experiences to them.

    Compared to Germany in 1990, an additional generation has grown up in the divided Koreas, and memory of a time when the peninsula was united grows fainter and fainter each year. The cultural differences continue to increase and the vast technological gap between the North and South will pit the younger “digital” generation of the South against Northern peers who will probably seem antiquated and even primitive if trends continue along the same lines in both countries. Increasingly many South Koreans will logically wonder why reunification with a country that is has become so alien in culture, history, technology, and memory is a goal of the government. And increasingly, the younger generation who question reunification will inherit the government and come of age to power. As you said, the gap between the two countries is already far wider than it was in Germany. Time is not on the side of the Unification Ministry and it is unlikely that any propaganda they busy themselves producing is going to stop the inevitable slide towards embracing the status quo of a divided Korea. Formally ending the war and ceasing hostilities is a worthwhile goal. But, after that has been achieved, what long-term strategic and economic gains will ultimately benefit South Korea by reuniting with the North? I cannot see those gains being worth the pain, stress, and domestic turmoil that unification will produce. I imagine many South Koreans are beginning to feel the same way.

  • Walter Sobchak

    They should want re-unification out of humanitarian concerns. The Northerners are being starved again.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service