22 May 2018

South Koreans want engagement with the North, but not reunification


Korean peninsula fever has taken over international news in recent months. A dramatic inter-Korean summit and the tense build up to a (potential) Trump-Kim summit in Singapore have resulted in plenty of airtime for the region. But, while the high politics has been more than worthy of our attention, what of the millions of Korean people whose futures are being discussed in this process? What are their views on the fate of the peninsula?

In North Korea, for obvious reasons, it is impossible for us to have a reliable indication of public opinion. While there have been reports of cautious optimism in the aftermath of the Panmunjom Summit, it is very difficult to verify, let alone quantify, such anecdotal evidence.

In any case, in a system such as North Korea’s, the views of these people will sadly play no part whatsoever in their government’s policy. We must, nonetheless, never forget that these people exist and matter greatly.

In South Korea, on the other hand, we have a thriving democracy and a wealth of information regarding public opinion. And, so far, President Moon Jae-in has been doing rather well. In the days after the inter-Korean summit, his personal approval rating shot above 85 per cent in some opinion polls, with approval of the Panmunjom Declaration itself at almost 90 per cent.

These figures might seem inordinately high, but they are not unprecedented. Shortly after the first inter-Korean summit in June 2000, polls showed similar approval ratings for then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s policy of engagement with the North (the “Sunshine Policy”) at around 85-90 per cent.

These enormous approval ratings did not last, however. By the end of Kim Dae-jung’s term in 2002, the Sunshine Policy’s popularity had slumped to 35 per cent. A major reason behind this was the one-sided nature of the policy. North Korea barely reciprocated any of the “sunshine” it received, and the South Korean people grew jaded.

This is an important lesson for the Moon administration. Last week we witnessed a return to North Korea’s characteristic bellicose rhetoric, cancelling a meeting with the South and chastising Moon’s government as “incompetent” and “senseless”. As history shows us, the South Korean people are unlikely to continue to support engagement if this is all they get back from the North.

But what of the future? Supposing that inter-Korean engagement continues, the Trump- Kim summit goes ahead, and both are hugely successful — what do Koreans want to happen next?

The Panmunjom Declaration — as with all previous inter-Korean agreements — emphasises the unity of the Korean nation and specifically mentions reunification multiple times. Many outside observers may, therefore, assume that reunification is the goal of the vast majority of Koreans. But this is no longer the case.

The Sunshine Policy years saw the beginnings of a major generational shift in South Korean society. Younger people became increasingly indifferent or actively hostile towards the idea of reunification. This phenomenon has continued, with official government polls conducted in 2017, for example, showing that as many as 71 per cent of those in their twenties were opposed to reunification.

Older generations in South Korea have a strong emotional attachment to the North which makes reunification more necessary in their eyes. Some will have close relatives over the border, including — for the very oldest — people they grew up with. This, among other reasons, binds them psychologically to a unified Korea. But as this generation is lost, such sentiments are also disappearing.

Replacing them are younger generations who see little upside in reunification. Suggested estimates of the cost of such a process have been as high as three trillion dollars, and young people just aren’t prepared to shoulder that cost.

In contrast to their elders, young people increasingly perceive North Korea as a foreign country, with its people far different from them. When quizzed, young South Koreans often state that they have much more in common with young Americans or Europeans than with those north of the border.

Such differences were exemplified during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, when North Korean cheerleaders — seemingly from a different age from the perspective of young people — rallied support for the joint Korean ice hockey team, alongside contemporary South Korean hip-hop acts. The cultural juxtaposition was palpable.

The formation of that joint ice hockey team was also deeply controversial among young South Koreans. Some members of the South’s team — who had worked hard to make the cut — had to give up their places for players from the North. This caused outrage among young people, who didn’t see why such a sacrifice was necessary.

In this way, it is not that young South Koreans are not patriotic but that, more than ever, they take pride in their identity as citizens of a hugely successful South Korea, rather than a shared ethnicity with North Koreans.

As the first generations to grow up in a democratic, prosperous and fully developed society, they also have other things to worry about besides Korean reunification. What’s the latest K-Pop inspired fashion trend? Did that drama series actor just have plastic surgery on his nose? What will I do if I don’t get into Seoul National University? This is likely what a young South Korean is thinking these days, not listening to the Arirang folk song, dreaming of a unified nation.

Some may see this as a tragedy — a heart-breaking separation of a people, now grown so distant that many no longer possess a sense of fraternity. But if a majority no longer want a unified Korea, then policymakers must surely listen. After all, inter-Korean peace rhetoric is consistently full of references to Koreans deciding the future of Korea. That should not only refer to Korean governments, but also to the Korean people.

We cannot know for sure the future trend of public opinion in South Korea, and we certainly have very little idea what the people of the North think about their nation’s future. But as we watch events on the Korean peninsula unfold, we — and their leaders — should give strong weight to the thoughts and feelings of the Korean people. It is their future, after all.

Chris Deacon is a postgraduate student in Korean Studies at SOAS, University of London