Koreans in their 20s and 40s show generational divide on key issues

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Koreans in their 20s and 40s show generational divide on key issues

Young adults in South Korea were less likely to wish for unification with North Korea, less happy to share vaccines with the North or accept refugees, and less inclined for closer diplomatic relations with China compared to the older generation, according to a recent survey conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo with Embrain Public, a local poll research institute.
A total of 1,011 people in their 20s and 1,007 in their 40s were asked their opinions last month on several issues related to North Korea, refugees, recent labor policies and Korea’s relations with the United States and China.
In all topics related to North Korea — the two Koreas’ unification, vaccine support to the North and the possibility of a tax hike to pitch in to so-called unification funds, or funds to prepare for unification in the future — the people in their 20s responded more negatively than the people in their 40s.
A total of 47.1 percent of those in their 20s replied unification is not necessary for the two Koreas, whereas only 23.8 percent of those in their 40s said so. A total of 73.9 percent of those in their 40s said they think inter-Korean unification is necessary.
As for supplying vaccines to the North, often mentioned by the Moon Jae-in government, those in their 20s also responded more negatively: 58.9 percent of those in their 20s said they are largely unsupportive of the policy, while 31.3 percent of those in their 40s said so.
As for their willingness to pitch into the government’s unification-preparatory funds, 62.1 percent of the people in their 20s said they’re unwilling, while 41.9 percent of those in their 40s responded the same.
Though the survey did not ask for individual respondents' reasons for their opinions, recent postings on a social media platform in response to the Unification Ministry’s announcement last week on building a virtual reality facility for youth to experience tourist sites in North Korea may serve as some examples.
“Why do they assume that the young people of South Korea want to see anything of North Korea through VR programs?” wrote one user in an online community of young students in Korea.
“I wish the government would stop badgering us about unification,” wrote another user.
There was also a strong public backlash among young adults in South Korea during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, when the government announced they would merge the North Korean and South Korean women's ice hockey teams, which meant that some South Korean athletes would not be able to play at the Olympics despite having trained for the Games for years.
Such reactions among Korea’s younger adults are not surprising, according to some experts.
“The nationalistic 'one people with North Korea’ view no longer works for the MZ generation [millennials and Generation Z],” said Kang Won-taek, professor of political science at Seoul National University. “Discourse on unification can feel like a luxury for those in their 20s who are being pushed to the brink in their livelihoods, from issues such as high rates of unemployment and skyrocketing real estate prices. On the contrary, those in their 40s witnessed the first inter-Korean summit of 2000, and many of them may agree on the need for the two Koreas to unite.”
People in their 20s and 40s also showed some gaps in their responses to issues on diplomacy and alliances.
When asked about how the Korean government should respond to the deepening U.S.-China rivalry in the region, 90.5 percent of respondents in their 20s said Korea should place a higher importance on working with the United States, while only 4.5 percent of those in their 20s said Korea should place a higher importance on working with China. Among those in their 40s, 74.1 percent chose the United States, and 11.5 percent China.
On the refugee issue, 64.4 percent of the 20s surveyed said they’re largely unwilling to receive refugees into the country, while 37.8 percent of those in their 40s were largely unwilling.
When around 550 Yemenis flew into Jeju Island to seek asylum in Korea in 2018, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ambassador and actor Jung Woo-sung called for support for the asylum seekers, there was some backlash from a few young Korean communities.
“For some of these people in their 20s, who are just trying to find a job and a paycheck to sustain their lifestyles, they may feel that they don’t have the luxury to think about accepting a group of refugees into society,” said Lee Byung-hoon, a professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University.
The two generations also showed a divide on labor policies, particularly on the Moon government’s policy to turn all contract workers in the public sector into full-time employees.
A total of 59.2 percent of those in their 20s said the policy was “unfair,” compared to 42.7 percent of those in their 40s.
“The MZ generation, who values skills, judges that the conversion of contracted workers to full-time workers was about allowing a vertical movement in society without any assessment of the person’s professional skills and aptitude," said Lee. “On the other hand, those in their 40s tend to emphasize collectivism and communitarianism and recognize that the decision was justified in order to protect the weaker groups in society.”

BY SOHN GUK-HEE, SUNG JI-WON, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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