South Korean textbooks describe the Korean War as the tragedy of fratricide. Countless families have been split along the 38th parallel and widely broadcast reunions of these separated families serve as a regular reminder that the two Koreas indeed share blood ties. Ethics classes during elementary and middle school frame the matter of reunification as an ethical imperative.
Abiding by a constitution that “aspires to peaceful reunification,” progressive regimes have pursued rapprochement with the “fraternal” North. Former President Kim Dae-jung became the first Korean Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his contribution to détente on the peninsula by staging the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. His successor, Roh Moo-hyun, represented continuity in advancing the “Sunshine Policy” that enticed the North into tighter economic cooperation and dialogues through humanitarian aid. Following a decade of conservative rule, incumbent President Moon Jae-in from the ruling Democratic Party made history by arranging out three inter-Korean summits in 2018.
Yet younger generations have a different view. According to the Korea Institute for National Unification, the vast majority of people under 40 years old eschew reunification. Meanwhile, research by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs illustrates this cohort’s overwhelming preference for perpetuating the status quo, under which the liberal democratic South prospers alone.
As opposed to the older generations’ conception of reunification as a “national mission” or “humanitarian realization,” the younger demographic increasingly subjects inter-Korean relations to rigorous analyses of whether or not such engagements represent “economic leaps” for the South. Lee Jae-myung, the current presidential candidate from the ruling Democratic Party, conforms to this sentiment. Lee favors pragmatic economic relations over reconciliation, deeming reunification to be an outdated goal.
Alarmingly, however, hostility and indifference are brewing underneath this change. As the sense of ethnic commonality diminishes, it’s easier for younger South Koreans to view the North entirely through the lens of enmity. Young South Koreans petitioned Moon to revoke the decision to field an inter-Korean ice hockey team at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Tellingly, around 60 percent of South Korean millennials now bristle at Moon’s intention to donate COVID-19 vaccines to the North. The share of South Koreans regarding the North as “the enemy” has more than doubled since 2005, while those entirely indifferent to whatever happens up north saw a significant uptick.
Politicians have seized on this change in sentiment to score points. Lee Jun-seok, the chairman of the leading opposition People Power Party, posited that “there is no room for compromise with the North,” adding that the South “should take over the North.” In January 2022, Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential candidate from the PPP, labeled North Korea as “the nemesis,” even mulling preemptive strikes.
Arguments against providing humanitarian aid have gained traction as indifference reigns and people’s vulnerability to misinformation regarding the North increases. The “alchemist conspiracy” holds North Korea transmutes rice into uranium by exchanging staple foods donated from the South for raw materials needed for nuclear weapons. Underpinning the aloofness and animosity is the growing “repugnance to North Korea’s backwardness.”
These changes in public perceptions, and their diplomatic manifestations, could hamper progress toward reciprocal and peaceful coexistence. Abandoning hopes of ethnic integration widens the psychological distance between the two Koreas, which fosters hostility and indifference.
The desire to minimize the divide between the two societies in order to buffer the repercussions of potential reunification has long formed the bedrock of humanitarian aid and economic cooperation. These efforts are predicated on the vision of peaceful “coexistence and co-prosperity” and “healing the single ethnic community,” which was expected to eventually feed into reunification. The fundamental element of this approach has been the interpretation of North Korean provocations as mere attention-seeking antics meant to clinch favorable international deals and to divert public attention from internal troubles.
Therefore, hopes for reunification enabled casting the North not as an existential threat but as a neighbor in need. Historically, a soft touch on South Korea’s part has gone a long way toward dissipating regional tensions. Despite the North’s 2017 nuclear test, which enraged the United States, it was Moon’s benign diplomatic maneuvers that achieved summits with Kim Jong Un the following year. Even Moon’s two conservative predecessors – Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak – had tolerated provocations from the North in order to keep economic and national ties alive.
Yet once the ideological, if not realistic, goal of reunification fades away, future inter-Korean relations will hang by flimsy economic lines. These weaker motivations would become more prone to larger geopolitical influences. It will be harder to resist, let alone mediate, the tide of grander strategies and combined postures, especially given the intensifying U.S. commitment to East Asia in the aftermath of the Afghanistan debacle.
Treating the North as a lost cause and downplaying ethnic and cultural links will hamper the avuncular approach pursued by a succession of South Korean administrations. Should Pyongyang resort to more military provocations, a South Korea that has given up on reunification would be more likely to completely reject the North as a pariah state and pursue more economic sanctions and even military retaliation. South Korea has always fared relatively well without inter-Korean economic cooperation, but still stayed the course to revitalize dialogues and mutual understanding with reunification in mind. Without the overarching tenet of reunification that has defied hostility from the North, maintenance of a peaceful relationship would be fraught and bumpy.
So far, diplomatic overtures on South Korea’s part have been meant to create the conditions necessary to pave the way to eventual amalgamation of the two Korean societies. Conditions such as denuclearization, economic integration, regional leveling-up of the North, and subsequently diminished grip of autocracy have been considered indispensable precursors to reunification. South Korea has shunned building its own nuclear arsenal based on the notion of the denuclearized Korean Peninsula as a precept for enduring peace. Although the prospect of South Korea developing nuclear weapons remains dim, the evaporation of reunification in the public mind and the North’s unrelenting insistence on nuclear weapons mean one less reason not to pursue nuclearization of the South.
The ramifications stretch to humanitarian causes as well. South Korea adheres to the principle of jus sanguinis in granting citizenship, meaning that even a drop of Korean blood warrants full access to Korean society. Hence, South Korean governments have always provided North Korean defectors with social security numbers and housing. Diplomatic shuffling such as a transfer of authority over inter-Korean relations from the Ministry of Unification to the National Intelligence Service or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – as suggested by Lee Jun-seok of the PPP – relegates the status of these defectors to that of asylum seekers, toward whom the South is infamously averse.
Reunification is falling out of vogue, both in the progressive and conservative camps. Younger generations, who will guide the future of inter-Korean relations, not only spurn the concept and possibility of reunification but also are increasingly hostile to the North. Realistically speaking, reunification is becoming more far-fetched each passing day. But its perceptive framework and behavioral manifestations can still contribute to reincorporating the North into the spirit of cooperation and diffusing the malaise draped over the peninsula. Otherwise, the major shift from reunification to mere economic cooperation risks weakening the core ideology that has allowed South Korea to embrace and avoid direct confrontation with the North – that the two owe their provenance to the same language, culture, and ethnicity.