When unification is a tough sell
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
It was surprising to learn the reactions of young people in their 20s when they were asked about unification. “What if the Korean unification actually comes?” they wondered, surprisingly. Although it is an era of emotions bejeweled by grand ideas such as “the Korean War armistice’s end,” “unification of the Korean people” and “peace and prosperity,” their reactions were sour.
Singers of the two Koreas recently held hands together and sang the song, “Our Dream is Unification,” in front of Kim Jong-un. They shook hands with Kim and called it an “honor” and they called his wife the North Korean first lady. The state visit by Kim is no longer a daydream, and South Korean youngsters should have been excited to see such a sight. Because they are young, they should have been liberal and they should have been enthusiastic about the new detente. But that is a delusion.
I recently had an opportunity to listen young people’s opinions of Kim, unification and the Korean people. There were six people. A 29-year-old doctoral program student, Mr. Jeon; a 27-year-old office worker, Ms. Wu; a 26-year-old jobseeker, Ms. Gwon; a 26-year-old office intern, Mr. Hwang; a 23-year-old university student, Ms. Lee, and another 23-year-old university student, Ms. Kim.
They all graduated from or are attending universities in Seoul and their emotions and thoughts were brutally realistic.
I asked them what they think of Kim. “When I first read the news that he had a funny hairstyle and a fat body, that he had the nickname of ‘Dim Jong-un’ and that he was a young tyrant who shot his uncle with a field artillery, he felt like the subject of ridicule, not fear,” Hwang said.
They all forgot about the generational power transfer, human rights oppression, executions and assassinations and the rocket man with nuclear threats. Kim is no longer a clown or a tyrant. Now, he has become a leader of a normal country.
“He seemed funny and friendly, yet has a scary charisma. The Red Velvet member’s response that it was a great honor [to shake his hand] shows our generation’s emotions,” Wu said. “There are quite a lot of young people who feel a sense of awe when looking at Kim,” Hwang said.
They had no fantasy about the Korean people. The ideology that “blood is thicker than water” was an obsolete idea. They said it felt like an old fashioned fairytale that the two Koreas must unite because they are the same Korean people. They are critical towards the framework that unification and the Korean people are the same. They said it is a totalitarian idea and that it is hard to accept the argument.
The North’s offensive use of the idea of “just between Korean people” began with Article 1 of the June 15, 2000 North-South Joint Declaration, adopted after the historic summit. “The South and the North have agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country,” it said. The North is promoting the argument that the two Koreas must cooperate based on this. They said the U.S. intervention must be rejected and the two Koreas must cooperate to accomplish unification.
But South Korean youngsters are more convinced that the Korean people are “imagined communities.” It is a political community with sovereignty. South Koreans in their 20s are skeptical about the North’s proposal that the two Koreas must work together exclusively. They said unification is not dream, but a choice.
Although they agree with the general idea and justification of unification, they had conditions. The agony of the younger generation, who has had to give up on dating, marriage and having children because of economic hardships, was seen in the unification issue. One out of four of them do not have a job, and unification was not thrilling.
“National division was caused by our grandparents’ generation, and I don’t understand why we have to pay for the unification cost,” Lee said. “When a divorced couple remarries they do so because of a faith that they can live a better life, not because they were once married,” Wu said. “For the sake of the greater cause of unification, the small causes of individuals’ interests must not be sacrificed,” Kim said. The youngsters, therefore, prefer two Koreas as neighbors that coexist and exchange with each other.
For the young South Korean people facing a brutal reality, unification and a unified Korean people are a luxury. They may sound childish, but their arguments are reasonable. This is why “a grand transition of world history that everyone dreamed about but never realized,” as President Moon Jae-in said, will soon take place, but it doesn’t seem to resonate. Even if the nuclear dismantlement and peace will be agreed, the youngsters are very well aware that they are the ones who have to pay the astronomical bill. We probably want to ignore their criticisms, but that is the sentiment. We must persuade them and seek their understanding.
“For our generation, making ends meet became a dream, although it is a very natural way of living,” one of the youngsters said. “Asking us to pay the cost to live with North Korean strangers is an unconvincing argument for our generation.”
JoongAng Ilbo, April 13, Page 31