[Outlook]The future is what countsThe summit meeting between South and North Korea is underway. South Korea’s president entered North Korea on foot, crossing the military demarcation line separating South and North Korea, which no Korean leader had done in the past 55 years. President Roh Moo-hyun met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and held discussions about a peace treaty that could end the hostile relations between South and North Korea of the past half-century, and ways of economic cooperation that will allow both South and North Korea to become prosperous.
I asked my students what they thought about the summit meeting.
Most students answered that they did not think much about it or that it did not concern them much. One student said it was unnatural to paint the yellow line on the road [at the North-South border] and the meeting seemed to be a media event. I asked them what they thought about reunification. A student answered that we need to be reunified but that our society would become unstable and it would cost a lot financially.
Youths these days are very different from the generation who went to college in the 1960s. People of that generation were not allowed to forget how things were when they were in elementary school. A teacher would say that the communists of North Korea had horns on their heads. We drew North Korean communists as we were told. But in one corner of our hearts, we held doubts or suspicions on whether they truly looked like monsters.
The Syngman Rhee administration and the despotic military rulers that followed used the division of the nation as a tool to maintain their grip on power. They also misled the people and instilled distorted perceptions about North Korea.
The distorted ideas about the members of the Workers’ Party and North Korea started to be broken in the 1980s. Protests against despotic rule here and the Gwangju democracy movement helped change South Koreans’ ideas about communism and North Korea.
Probably as a reaction to earlier oppressive education about North Korea, some students started to believe that the theory of communism was actually realized in North Korea. They praised the North and considered reunification to be our most important task. That was probably because the reality that they were living in was especially harsh and depressing.
But students these days who grew up enjoying political freedom and economic abundance have different ideas and values from older generations who went to college in the 1960s through the 1980s.
In the 1980s, students had aspirations for Korean national reunification.
These days, students are realistic; they calculate gains and losses. They no longer shout that our utmost wish is reunification, as the older generation used to do. They no longer think they would sacrifice themselves for the sake of reunification. Youths still think we need to give humanitarian aid to starving North Koreans but they hardly think North Koreans are our siblings. They would accept it if there are gains but would refuse if not.
Peaceful coexistence and economic development of South and North Korea, the major items on the agenda for the summit meeting, are certainly urgent tasks for us.
But methods to carry these out must change. If the South Korean president wants to use reunification or security issues to influence the result of the upcoming presidential election, the young generation and the entire nation will strongly protest.
This is not an era of ideologies like it used to be in the 1980s when young students felt passionate about reunification and Koreans as a single nation.
Young people these days are accustomed to a variety of cultures of different ethnic groups. If one shouts that reunification is the only way for survival, like in the old days, young people will not listen. They will simply regard it as the same old song or even a noise. Government authorities must understand these changes.
They need to explain logically how peace on the Korean Peninsula, economic exchanges and cooperation with North Korea, and reunification will benefit South Korea. They need to clarify benefits to persuade the South Koreans. The summit meeting ends today. Follow-up measures must be carried out to bring tangible benefits to South Korea. Only then will South Koreans welcome their efforts.
*The writer is a professor of education at Hanyang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Jung Jin-gon