For ardent believers in reunification, recent diplomatic overtures by North Korea may be the most promising signs yet for the North and South to share friendlier ties, or even a unified future. But with issues such as youth unemployment, #MeToo scandals and housing woes impacting on their future, the topic of reunification is far from the minds of young South Koreans.
“I support reunification – but not in my generation.”
Like many young people in South Korea, university student Son Ye Eun, 23, spends very little time thinking about the DPRK. A lifetime of growing up with constant threats erupting from a hostile northern neighbour can make one quickly desensitised.
And her comment on a unified Korea is not an isolated view.
According to official estimates, as many as one million young South Koreans were jobless in 2017. The unemployment rate of people aged 15-29 stood at a record-high 9.8 percent at the end of February 2018. The crisis, described by the finance minister as being potentially “catastrophic”, prompted President Moon Jae In to draw up a US$3.7 billion (NZ$5.2 billion) budget to spur job creation for youths.
Against the backdrop of such sobering statistics, the economic impact of a reunified Korea would be, to many young people, unfathomable.
“There will be chaos,” says Lee Sion, 25, a recent graduate of an English translation and interpretation degree who is struggling to find full-time work.
“North Korea’s economy is worth about 40 times less than South Korea. I think reunification is the long-term goal. But now is not the time because our generation has a lot of serious troubles like unemployment, housing, marriage woes. Reunification in the near future would intensify all our problems.”
But despite the economic concerns, Shin Dae Young, 27, says the South has an obligation to help the North. “The economic impact will be terrible, but it won’t last forever,” says Shin, a fresh biotechnology graduate who is searching for a job in Seoul.
“The situation in North Korea is really terrible. They live in poverty. People could be killed for just watching South Korean shows. We have to help them – we were once one country.”
But even if things were rosy in South Korea, reunification feels like an unrealistic prospect to consider in the lifetimes of today’s young people.
Despite North Korea’s recent diplomatic overtures – which have raised some hopes of improved ties between the two Koreas, or even eventual peace on the Korean peninsula – Son has no expectations the situation will change.
“We all want North Korea to denuclearise, but they won’t.
“Nuclear weapons are North Korea’s safety net. If they don’t have it, they know they’ll be bullied, so they will never give it up.”
It’s impossible to know how long it would take for the North to come round to the idea of a democratic system, says Lee. “Unification to me means living in a shared democracy together with the North. It will take a long time.”
Youth political engagement
In the wake of major graft scandals involving political and prominent figures – such as disgraced former president Park Geun Hye and Samsung executive Lee Jae Yong – South Koreans aren’t taking the right to remove corrupt officials from power for granted.
Millions of people staged mass protests around the country in 2016–2017 to demand for Park’s resignation, after a news report uncovered evidence that she leaked state secrets to a family friend and profited over corrupt deals.
Park was sentenced to 24 years in prison on 6 April.
Shin watched the events unfold online while studying in New York.
“There was a lot of interest by overseas Korean students in the US because of Park’s impeachment,” Shin says.
“Park did nothing for the country for four years. She’s one of the reasons the economy is in such bad shape. She never did anything with North Korea either; in fact North-South relations got worse.
“I wasn’t much interested in politics before but because of the Park scandal, I care now more about what’s going on, what politicians are saying and where the country is headed.”
Son thinks the tide of speaking out is flowing on to other important issues, such as the #MeToo wave engulfing the country.
“South Korea’s society is currently strongly influenced by the voices of citizens. I think there is some spillover effect from Park’s scandal.
“Our new president Moon seems to be focusing on listening to citizens more so than recent leaders. For instance we now have a petition site for people to highlight their opinions.”
A democratic future is what South Koreans envision for their northern cousins.
“Being able to voice our concerns is a basic democratic right in South Korea,” says Son. “We want them to enjoy all these rights we have.”
– Asia Media Centre
Interview by Francine Chen in Seoul on the sidelines of the World Journalists Conference 2018, hosted and funded by the Journalists Association of Korea.