The Declining Power of Inter-Korean Reunions

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The Declining Power of Inter-Korean Reunions

As historical memories fade, sympathy is waning.

The Declining Power of Inter-Korean Reunions
Credit: REUTERS/Kim Ho-Young/Korea Pool

The recent North-South family reunions event was another heart-wrenching affair in a war that has yet to come to a formal end. The event undoubtedly affected those who participated and almost certainly resonated with generation of South Koreans who actually experienced national division and the Korean War. But what about the rest of society? What about the youngest adults – South Korea’s future?

North-South relations do not matter to the youngest generation of South Koreans in the way they did for their parents and grandparents. Those in their 20s have no collective recollection of the Korean War or the decades of authoritarian rule that followed. Indeed, data suggest a rising pragmatism in the attitudes of young South Koreans towards North Korea.

For older generations, a historical memory of a time of national unification and a strong ethno-cultural connection conditioned views of North Korea. These generations, today’s parents and grandparents, cared about the country to the north. Anti-communist education and state propaganda certainly influenced people’s opinion of the Kim family regime, but North Korea certainly wasn’t “just another country.” Division meant a nation divided, and this was – and no doubt remains – a big deal for a great number of people.

The same cannot be said for South Koreans in their 20s. The “20s generation,” as it sometimes called, sees North Korea in a different light. This generation did not experience national division first-hand, nor did it take part in the protest-filled student movement of the 1970s and 80s, for which North Korea and national division were chief concerns.

South Koreans in their 20s have come of age in a political, economic, and social environment fundamentally different from that of their parents and grandparents. These are Koreans living in an era of greater political freedom but also increasing economic uncertainty. They never had to protest against an authoritarian South Korean government, but for some the most vivid memory of their adolescent years is the social dislocations brought on by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. That event brought a vibrant Korean economy to the brink and precipitated significant labor and financial reforms, the long-term consequences of which are now being felt.

An increasingly popular alternative name for the “20s generation” is the “seven-give-up generation,” a label that indicates what young people are apparently giving up: “love, marriage, childbirth, human relations, home ownership, personal dreams and hope.” The changes in living conditions are not just affecting what young people think about their prospects of marriage. These changes have precipitated a rising rationalism and new attitudes about North Korea.

Over the last few years, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies has released a number of public opinion surveys containing valuable and instructive data. A public opinion report released earlier this year, entitled “South Korean Attitudes toward North Korea and Reunification,” underscores the widening generation gap on North Korea. Between 2010 and 2014, data show that among all age cohorts, “interest in reunification” is lowest among those in their 20s, for every year.

Furthermore, among all cohorts who cite ethnicity as a “reason for necessity of reunification,” those in their 20s polled the lowest. In a country where an ethno-cultural affinity has long been the bedrock of unification support, this decline cannot be overstated.

As additional data show, when asked if they consider North Korea “one of us” or an “enemy,” South Koreans in their 20s were least likely to answer “one of us” and the most likely to answer “enemy.” Interestingly, this makes the 20s age cohort similar to the 60s age cohort – the group in South Korea understood to be the most conservative. The fundamental difference between the two groups being that one strongly supports unification while the other does not.

These data corroborate the findings of Korea University professor, Lee Shin-hwa, who in a 2010 contribution to Understanding Korean Identity shows that between 2005 and 2010, favorable opinions of North Korea dropped substantially, in large part due to the sinking of the Cheonan naval corvette and the bombing of Yeongpyong Island. Lee doesn’t break down his findings by age, but we can assume that those whose opinions were most effected by the events of 2010 were in their early 20s.

As reactions to the latest North Korean provocations indicate, young South Koreans are taking an increasingly bold, and arguably confrontational, stance towards North Korea. Add to the evidence a recent poll by the Asiatic Research Institute and the East Asia Institute (in cooperation with the JoonAng Ilbo), which finds that “Among respondents in their 20s, 63.5 percent said they have no interest in the North or the North Korean people.”

So what explains the change? It isn’t enough to simply say the provocation itself. This is true to an extent – and applies to all age cohorts; provocations result in less favorable views of North Korea across all age cohorts. But why are attitudes towards North Korea for the 20s age cohort relatively more affected?

For one expert, the explanation isn’t complicated: Support for things like unification is simply not in the interest of young South Koreans. The conditions under which new opinions are formed are such that North Korea is perceived to be a nuisance. And given the continual difficulties of North-South relations and the security threat posed by armed provocations (real and perceived), it should come as little surprise that South Korea’s youth thinks they way they do.

Young people in South Korea today are facing a host of economic challenges. For those who have no first-hand experience of a time when the nation wasn’t divided and did not experience the trial and tribulations of living under a dictatorship, things like upward mobility and job security take precedence over more lofty notions of national reunification.

To be clear, all of this isn’t to say that young South Koreans don’t support things like family reunions. The bigger picture perspective is that family reunions aren’t going to spark a sense of nostalgia among South Korea’s youth, nor are they going to result in a show of sympathy for the country to the north. As time goes by, the division moves closer to a state of permanence, at least in the minds of South Korea’s youngest generation.

Steven Denney is an Asian Institute Fellow at the University of Toronto.