Seoul—When the sleepy South Korean town of Pyeongchang was announced as the host of the 2018 Winter Olympics last month, Seoul went to unusual lengths to share the honor with its neighbor to the north. Both major parties vowed to pursue an inter-Korean team, and opposition leaders even spoke of co-hosting the games with North Korea. These overtures might have seemed generous, considering that in the past 15 months North Korea had sunk a South Korean naval vessel, shelled Yeongpyeong Island, and threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” But, in South Korea, where the president-elect pledges to “pursue the peaceful unification of the homeland” and where children sing “Our Wish is Unification,” the drive to rejoin the two Koreas is ingrained in the national psyche.
As an ailing Kim Jong-il prepares to hand an economically failing state to his son Kim Jong-un, that wish may be closer to fulfillment than ever. Last year, per WikiLeaks, President Lee Myung-bak’s national security adviser, Chun Yung-woo, predicted that North Korea “would collapse politically two to three years after the death of Kim Jong-il.” Park In-ho, president of The Daily NK—a Seoul-based news service that reports on events inside North Korea—told me the regime’s downfall was 70 percent likely within five years and “100 percent” certain within a decade.
There’s one problem, however: As the long-awaited reunion approaches, younger South Koreans are starting to question whether unification is really such a great idea.
FOR THE FIRST three decades after Korea was split along the thirty-eighth parallel, North and South Koreans had far more in common than not. Their political systems were radically different, to be sure, but they spoke the same language and shared 5,000 years of history.Economically, both were struggling—and, as late as the mid-’70s, South Korea’s GNP per capita was lower than that of the resource-rich North.
But, since the ’70s, South Korea has transformed itself from a poor autocracy into a first-world democracy that exports cars, electronics, and “Korean Wave” culture around the globe. Over the same period, North Korea has become more repressive, more impoverished, and more insular. Today, the average South Korean is about three inches taller than his Northern peer and speaks a very different form of Korean, expanded by contact with the wider world. While many parents and grandparents in South Korea still have brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, north of the thirty-eighth parallel, for many in their twenties and thirties, North Korea is simply another foreign country.
It remains political suicide in South Korea to bad-mouth unification (the major parties differ over how, not whether, to achieve it). But younger Koreans are increasingly questioning the wisdom of absorbing the bankrupt North. In May, during a trek through South Korea with six other reporters—sponsored by the East-West Center and the Korea Press Foundation—I visited Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, a kind of Korean Wellesley. It was exhibition day, and different clubs were out in full force, with students spinning prize wheels and blasting K-Pop through subwoofers that lined the walkways.
In a classroom inside a building that looked like something out of “Star Trek,” a panel of jean-clad students opened up to us about unification. One young woman said that North Korea and South Korea must unite because they were still “one nation.” Another contended that the two Korean governments should simply recognize each other and turn the 1953 armistice into a peace treaty. “One Korea,” she said, “is a romantic slogan.” Whether they supported unification or not, the students seemed far more preoccupied with the financial pressures ahead: landing a well-paying gig in South Korea’s hyper-competitive job market, so they could afford to live in Seoul and put future kids through after-hours private school, which is now practically de rigueur.
Their peers are similarly divided. A government survey conducted earlier this year found that, while 78 percent of Koreans 40 and older want unification, support drops to 64 percent for those aged 30-39, and 57 percent for the under-30 cohort. And, while 47 percent of those over 60 say they’re “very interested” in the unification issue, only 23 percent of 30-39-year-olds and 9 percent of 19-29-year-olds express similar enthusiasm.
This trend is not lost on South Korean officials. When we visited the Blue House (South Korea’s White House), Chun—the official quoted in WikiLeaks—remarked that younger Koreans have “been living in a divided land their entire lives, so they do not dream about unification every night and they are not ready to die for unification.” Kim Jung-ro, the unification ministry’s director of policy cooperation, told me that the younger generation’s ambivalence about unification was “one of our major concerns.”
Younger Koreans are particularly worried about the cost of unification. By way of comparison, one credible estimate for German unification puts the bill at $1.9 trillion. However, at the time of unification, West German GDP per capita was two and a half times that of East Germany. The South Korean ratio is nearly 17 times that of North Korea—and growing. And, while there were four West Germans to subsidize every East German, the Korean ratio is two to one—and shrinking.
Last August, President Lee broached the idea of covering the tab with a “unification tax.” However, a November poll showed that three out of every four Koreans were unwilling to pay more than 1 percent of their income to support unification, while 42 percent refused to pay anything. So-hyun “Amy” Lee, a 30-year-old interpreter from Seoul, explains that, while many Koreans her age back unification in theory, their support evaporates when confronted with the prospect of personal sacrifice. “Making their own lives is already a burden for them,” she says. “And, on top of that, they have to support the North Korean people?” Huh Won-soon, the 47-year-old social affairs editor of The Korea Economic Daily, sums up the generational divide this way: For Koreans his age and older, unification is an emotional issue—“It’s destiny!” The younger generation views it more as a cost-benefit analysis. “They say, ‘Why not two Koreas?’” he told me.
At the Hyundai Heavy Industries plant in Ulsan, I chatted with a 28-year-old employee, who asked that I not use her name. She told me that she once agreed with her parents on the matter. “When I was in school, like junior high or elementary school, I thought, ‘We have to have reunification, yeah!’” Upon entering the working world, though, she realized she had her own problems—and so did her country. South Korea already had too many destitute citizens who it couldn’t support. Why did it need 24 million more? “I feel sometimes guilty, because the people up there are suffering,” she said. “But they’re not really my family. Why should I care?” She laughed, then paused. “Am I too selfish?”
Ben Birnbaum is a reporter for The Washington Times. This article originally ran in the August 18, 2011, issue of the magazine.