‘One Nation’ Dream: Do Younger South Koreans Want Reunification?

Olympic reconciliation, ongoing North Korea-U.S. hostility, yesterday a South Korean delegation to Pyongyang…. As usual, the Korean Peninsula is keeping observers on their toes. Amid all the intrigue, it’s easy to overlook the 50 million Koreans south of the demilitarized zone. How do they perceive North Korea? Do they still want unification? And why does the ‘unification consciousness’ of younger South Koreans seem to be weakening?

North and South Koreans often talk of being part of a single, ethnically homogeneous nation. Think about the ‘one nation’ rhetoric that both sides deployed during the Olympics. But they have been separate states, on their own trajectories, for 70 years. Are ethnic ties still a cast iron justification for bringing the two Koreas back together — and were they ever?

The ‘one nation’ question flared up ahead of last month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, when the two Koreas made a last-minute decision to field a joint women’s ice hockey teamThis was not the first joint team at an international event, but the decision so close to the opening ceremony prompted an angry backlash from many South Koreans, particularly the young.

The ice hockey scandal was fueled to some extent by concern for the South Korean players. But the particularly high proportion of South Koreans in their 20s and 30s opposing the joint team, according to a Gallup survey, brought renewed concerns about their flagging desire for unification.

It appears that fewer South Koreans in this age group feel the need to reunite as strongly as their older compatriots. A 2017 survey by Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) showed a direct correlation between age and perceived need for unification: 

  • Unification is necessary: 38.9 percent of 20-29 year-olds vs. 71.0 percent of 60+ year-olds
  • Positive attitude to a one-nation state: 20.9 percent of 20-29 year-olds vs. 47.3 percent of 60+ year-olds
  • Negative attitude to a one-nation state: 47.2 percent of 20-29 year-olds vs. 26.6 percent of 60+ year-olds

But further analysis by KINU researcher Park Ju-hwa suggested a more nuanced perception surrounding unification, one that’s not so clearly cut between the younger vs. older generations. While more older South Koreans claimed that unification was necessary, the discrepancy between younger and older attitudes decreased as the survey questions became more specific.

For example, 8 percent of those in their 20s said they were “ready to be worse-off for the sake of unification,” while 15.8 percent of respondents aged 60+ said the same. 9.7 percent of 20-somethings were willing to pay more taxes for unification; 22.4 percent of 60+ year-olds agreed. 

KINU researcher Park Ju-hwa, a co-author of the survey, believes personal experience and education are two key factors behind the differences between older and younger Koreans’ attitudes.

According to Park, unification was a more palpable goal for older South Koreans, who experienced their country being divided by other states — the former Soviet Union and the United States. 

“Becoming divided in 1945 came as a very abnormal experience for Koreans,” he said. “Division was done by foreign powers. Reunification discourse [in South Korea] was about making this abnormal situation normal again.”

“But as time went by, those born into division have come to find it normal. The dangers and pain of division are just a part of life, and reunification actually doesn’t appeal to the younger generation. They feel their lives are okay as things stand.”

“If the South Korean government said it wanted to charge more taxes to improve the relationship, I don’t think [South Koreans] would agree.” Lee Ju-young, 24-year-old software developer

Park also pointed to a “totally different” relationship between the state and personal identity for the younger generation. 

Since the late 1980s, the state has stepped down its efforts to indoctrinate its citizens, as South Korea transitioned to a liberal democracy.

“The state used to define the identity of its individuals through methods like the Charter of National Education. We were defined that way throughout our formal education. But South Korea doesn’t do that anymore.”

The Charter of National Education was promulgated in 1968 during the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, the father of currently-jailed ex-president Park Geun-hye. The charter, which many schoolchildren were forced to learn by heart, aimed to cultivate “moral spirit” and define the relationship between individuals and the state.

At this time, the Cold War was in full swing and relations between the two Koreas were at rock bottom. In January of 1968, a team of North Korean commandos was caught in Seoul on its way to assassinate Park Chung-hee, a sworn enemy of then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un.

The charter’s final paragraph sent a pretty unambiguous message about reunification on the terms of South Korea:

“Love of country and nation, penetrated by a spirit of anti-communist democracy, is the path that we follow and the foundation for embodying the ideals of the free world.”

The charter was abolished in 1994, reflecting South Korea’s growing discomfort with its authoritarian history under Park Chung-hee. (Like Park himself, the charter sharply divided proponents and critics.)  

While the imprint of such strongly nationalist and anti-communist education remains on older Koreans who received it, younger South Koreans are left in a normalized state of division without constantly being told by the state that it’s abnormal.

“Unnecessary concepts like ‘pro-North Korea’ and ‘anti-communism’ always spoil healthy discussions about the future of South Korea.” Jeong Gyu-bin, 31-year-old lawyer

North Korea’s pre-Olympics raising of regional tensions — with nuclear missile tests and threats — has not helped young people take a more positive view.

“North Korea’s performances are too forceful and its relationship [with the South] is too hostile,” said Lee Ju-young, a 24-year-old software developer. “If the South Korean government now said it wanted to charge more tax in order to improve the relationship I don’t think the people would agree.”

The end of the Cold War in most of the world at the beginning of the 1990s has left North Korea increasingly isolated. Though foreign powers still wield heavy influence over the Korean Peninsula, North Korea is increasingly portrayed internationally as a lone rogue state, apparently willing to defying even its closest ally, China. 

The frustration with North Korea is especially true for young South Korean men, who have to spend almost two years doing compulsory military service, usually in their early 20s.

“North Korea’s behavior affects my life directly,” said Lee. “As a South Korean citizen I could be drafted back into the army, which would place my life in danger. And those of my family. When you imagine losing your family, no one wants that.”

Being born in 1994, so long after national division, had also left Lee with a diminished sense of being part of the same nation.

“My feeling of being part of one nation is quite weak,” he said.

Not all young South Koreans take the same view, pointing out that the status quo brings problems of its own.

“Defense costs are quite high these days: about three trillion won or 4 percent of the national budget,” said Jeong Gyu-bin, a 31-year-old labor lawyer. “If we can lessen this cost we can assign the money to other important social issues.”

Jeong pointed out how military service “wastes” two years of the lives of young South Korean men when they were in their prime, and generated a male-dominated culture and oppressive atmosphere in wider society. National division even had a negative effect on South Korean politics, he said. 

“Unnecessary concepts like ‘pro-North Korea’ and ‘anti-communism’ always spoil healthy discussions about the future of South Korea.”

Even after the transition to democracy, South Korean conservatives have frequently smeared their progressive opponents with charges of being “commies” or “pro-North Korea.” Jeong hopes that unification will eliminate these biases.


The historical illusion of ‘unified Korea’

Historically speaking, was ‘unified Korea’ a norm or an exception? Was there a unified ‘Koreanness’? 

Legend places the beginning of ‘Korean’ history with the foundation of a state called Gojoseon in 2,333 BC. But it was only in 676 CE that Silla, an ancient state in the southeastern part of the peninsula, ‘unified Korea’ (according to modern textbooks) by vanquishing rivals Baekje and Goguryeo. Even then, much of today’s North Korea was part of another state, Balhae, that extended far into Manchuria and today’s Russian Maritime Province and was probably populated largely by a group of people known as Jurchens. But were Jurchens also ‘Korean,’ and is that even a meaningful question?

The Korean nation, like most others, is a subjective concept. As anthropologist Benedict Anderson famously argued, it has no objective definition and can only be imagined: “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”

The imagined nation becomes most pronounced in times of war and foreign oppression: It gathered strength in the late 19th century when Korea was under pressure from external powers and risked losing its political sovereignty. When Japan became Korea’s colonial occupier in officially in 1910, nationalism about ‘Korea’ (or Joseon, as it was then called) was channeled into efforts for liberation.

But almost as soon as Korea gained independence following Japan’s defeat in World War II, it was chopped in half by the United States and the Soviet Union as part of the Cold War. North Korea and South Korea became separate states in 1948, each laying claim to the other half of the peninsula.

The Korean nation…has no objective definition and can only be imagined. 

The indignation and injustice of a nation divided by powers beyond its control fueled much unification discourse in the late twentieth century.

Ryu Da-sle, a 24-year-old South Korean teacher-in-training, believes unification is necessary because North and South Koreans belong to the same nation. Even so, she stresses that it must be a gradual process.

“At first, since we’re very different, even if we unify, we might have to coexist as two states in a federation,” she said. “Maybe later, we’ll be ready to be governed together.”

Could North Korea could accommodate such a solution? Researcher Park Ju-hwa believes it’s now a possibility.

“North Korea might still be talking officially about unification but in reality I feel it’s recently been looking for a two-state solution,” he said. “I think its aim might now be to get rid of its rogue state image and gain recognition from international society as a normal state. That’s why it sent Kim Yong-nam and Kim Yo-jong to Pyeongchang: It was trying to be appear normal, like the U.S. and Japan, by sending a delegation.”

But the U.S. remains the third party in an equation that South Korean must struggle to balance.

On Feb. 25, the day the Olympics ended, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency carried an official statement blasting sanctions announced by the U.S., saying, “If tension on the Korean peninsula escalates into a brink of war due to the U.S. reckless actions, all the catastrophic consequences resulting therefrom will be borne by the United States.”

Not long after on Mar. 5, Kim Jong-un held his first direct talks with a delegation from South Korea, talking of rewriting history and reaching a “satisfactory agreement” with the South. According to the Blue House, the North has expressed its commitment to denuclearization and to discussions with the White House. 

Whatever the statements, North Korea’s nuclear standoff with the United States is still far from resolved. Time will tell whether the recent Olympic shows of goodwill – ice hockey controversies aside – will develop into lasting positive ties. Even then, given the many modern nations whose unity as political entities remain illusive, perhaps it can no longer be taken for granted that Korean unification is a must. 


Cover image: Young South Koreans take selfies while dressed in traditional hanbok at Changdeok Palace in central Seoul. (Se-Woong Koo/Korea Exposé)