[Viewpoint] How the new generation thinks

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[Viewpoint] How the new generation thinks

The funeral of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is over. His unexpected death was a great shock to the South, still technically at war with the North. But South Korean society reacted calmly toward the serious turn of events. The reactions of young people were particularly different from when North Korean President Kim Il Sung died.

In the 1980s, Kim Il Sung used to be called the “General” by university students. It was, of course, an expression mostly used by student activists who believed in the Juche - self-reliance - ideology, but others used it as well. After Kim died in 1994, a group of university students led by the Hanchongryun, or the Korean Federation of University Students Councils, demanded that they be allowed to visit Pyongyang to mourn the North Korean founder’s death. This time around, compared to the past, the student community is extremely calm and quiet after Kim Jong-il’s death.

Perhaps the only incident that captured the media’s attention was an attempt by a Seoul National University student to open a mourning altar for Kim on the campus. After strong criticism and opposition by other students, the attempt failed. Youngsters’ view of the North has clearly changed or evolved over time.

An interesting result of a recent survey of Koreans in their 20’s and 30’s conducted by the Young Professionals Institute of Korea is that the Cheonan’s sinking and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last year were incidents that made a strong impact socially. The impact of the attacks was particularly strong for those in their 20’s, while those in their 30’s said the foreign exchange crisis of the late 1990s had a slightly stronger impact than the two attacks.

The Cheonan’s sinking and the Yeonpyeong Island shelling were felt as shocks because the youngsters have grown up in the post-Cold War era and during a time of reconciliation between the two Koreas. They were probably the first times the youngsters could feel palpably the North’s hostility. Because they could actually have to join a war as active soldiers or reserve troops if an emergency comes, the youngsters probably felt that the North’s hostile acts are actually problems directly linked to them.

The changed attitude toward the North by youngsters could be seen as a positive change by a conservative. But the younger generation’s view is far more complex. The split in the South reflects the difference in the ideological views toward the North in South Korea.

The conservative prefers unification through the collapse of the North’s regime, which can be brought about by oppressing it, while the liberals want unification by making the North heavily rely on the South through increased exchanges and cooperation. The difference is about how the two sides perceive the current North Korean regime and how they want to achieve unification. For both sides, the ultimate goal is Korean unification.

But the younger generation’s view of the North goes beyond the traditional divide between the older generation’s liberals and conservatives. A survey by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies in August showed that 32.5 percent of participants aged between 19 to 29 said they think unification is not a necessity. Since Korean society has long kept the belief that unification is a must, some respondents may have fibbed a bit. There is probably a higher numbers of youngsters who don’t feel that strongly about unification.

While the older generation’s view toward the North is all about unification, despite the fierce ideological conflicts that divide society, the youngsters’ view is more about indifference.

Because of that indifference, the death of Kim Jong-il was not special to the youngsters and that is why the youngsters are cynical about the ideological conflict between the society’s conservative and liberals. The North Korea policy of our country must change, not only because of the new regime in power in the North, but also because of our own generational change in the South.

And yet, is the South alone in experiencing a changed view of the North and unification in its younger generation? Although the North is a hard-to-read society, North Korean youngsters probably have a different view of their own country and unification from their elders, who experienced the Korean War and the Cold War. Furthermore, the North’s new leader is a young man in his late 20’s. Even if he is fed advice from the old elites of his country, his contemporaries will eventually emerge as his fellow leaders.

With the launch of the Kim Jong-un leadership, we are at a time in which we must to pay attention to generational changes on inter-Korean issues that are taking place in both Koreas.

*The writer is a professor of political science at the Seoul National University.

By Kang Won-Taek
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