As Olympics open door to reunification, young Koreans are tuning out

Older South Koreans have long dreamed of unification with the North, but more and more that dream is being seen as a delusion, especially by the younger generations, writes Saša Petricic.

South Korea's conciliatory steps haven’t been as popular as government hoped

A woman peers out at North Korea across the frozen Imjin River, which forms the border with the South. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

The Imjin River dividing North and South Korea is frozen solid, and the wind blowing across it is frigid. So are the stares of the soldiers on either side. They and their predecessors have been facing off like this — fingers on triggers — since the truce in the Korean War 65 years ago.

Technically, the two sides are still at war.

"I used to be one of those soldiers," said Kim Deok Su.

As a 20-year-old in the 1970s, he protected the South and loathed the North, he says.

"Now, as an old man, I feel we should be together again."

The whiff of a thaw in the relationship has brought a group of his fellow former soldiers this afternoon to the Odusan observatory — a hill overlooking the river border and the soldiers below — to peer through binoculars and to wonder: Is peace possible?

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CBC's Saša Petricic is in South Korea and took your questions about the politics of the peninsula:

Could North Korea's unexpected participation in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang — which will include athletes from the North and South marching into the opening ceremony together and playing on a first-of-its-kind joint women's hockey team — halt the North's growing belligerence?

Could military talks at the border this week lay the foundation for a peace treaty and even eventual unification?

That's long been the dream of older South Koreans, especially those separated from relatives on the other side.

"It would mean so much to me," said another former soldier at the observatory, Seo Byeong Gil. "I just want to go grab them and bring them here."
South Korean soldiers live in a network of towers that dot the border with the North - a narrow no-man’s land called the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which is actually one of the most heavily fortified international boundaries in the world. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

'Young people simply don't care as much'

But more and more in South Korea, that dream is seen as a delusion.

"That's the reality," said Cho Keun Yeong, who came to show his young children the heavily fortified border.

"Older people are dying, and young people simply don't care as much."

A survey released by the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification in December found that 72.1 per cent of South Koreans in their 20s believe unification is unnecessary. Support for unification grows with age, but the overall polling trend points down.

Over the past four years, national backing for unification has dropped more than 10 per cent, from 69.3 per cent to 57.8 per cent.

"We worry about paying the rent and getting jobs," said Jeong Joong-won, a 29-year-old artist.

He sits in a coffee shop jammed with 20-somethings near two of Seoul's big universities. Many of these young people took part in last year's massive candlelight protests that swept a corrupt conservative president from office and led to the election of Moon Jae-in, a liberal who's been pushing for North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics and other conciliatory steps.

Jeong Joong-won says South Koreans of his generation don't seek unification with the North because they have too many other things to worry about. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Those steps have not turned out to be as popular as the government expected.

"The socioeconomic situation for people in their 20s and 30s is difficult as it is," said Jeong. "People of my generation no longer have the luxury to think of grand ideas like unification."

With youth unemployment in South Korea at a record official high of 9.9 per cent, many young South Koreans worry about getting stuck with the bill for unification — the higher taxes that would be required if the North joins the South and needs upgrades to its schools, hospitals and economic infrastructure.

In fact, polls show very few South Koreans are willing to see their living conditions suffer in order to accommodate the North. Fewer than 10 per cent of those under 40 are willing to sacrifice to unify the peninsula, along with barely 16 per cent of South Koreans over 60 — the ones typically most eager to unify.

'I'm heartbroken'

Still, South Koreans see unification as a way to end the North's drive to arm itself with nuclear missiles and guarantee peace on the peninsula. More than 10 million people in Seoul live less than 60 kilometres from North Korea's heavy artillery, aimed right at them. It's little wonder, say those at the coffee shop, that the North is seen as a "crazy, evil regime."

Jeong Se-hyun shakes his head. He was South Korea's minister of unification from 2002 to 2006, a period known for the "sunshine policy" through which Seoul actively courted Pyongyang. The South offered economic and other forms of co-operation to try to convince the North to abandon its weapons program.

Jeong says it is still the best approach.

Jeong Se-hyun believes co-operation with the North is still South Korea's best approach to ensuring lasting peace. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

"When young people say, 'How can we unify with devils like that?' — I'm heartbroken," he said. "Our national division was a tragedy. It's something other countries won't understand because they didn't experience it."

And because those in their 20s and 30s didn't experience it either, he says, it's unlikely unification will happen for decades, if ever.

"Because that's when today's young people will be the leaders of this society, and that's not their goal."

But as he sips an iced coffee, 23-year-old Kim Dong-hwan says there has to be a better way to prevent war than an "unnecessary" unification project.

"Our generation is going to imagine a different solution to keep the peace between North and South," he said. "We have to find our own way."

Why is the peninsula divided? Watch this explainer to learn more: 


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.