Young Koreans support the move towards peace. The latest efforts give some sort of hope to all generations for two reasons: first, we can expect a peaceful reunification of the two Koreas and, second, at least some form of stability would be possible. Reunification is more of a long-term prospect, but stability could be achieved in the near future. While all Koreans want the summit outcomes to bring peace to the Korean peninsula, young people would be the main stakeholders of the process as they have to carry the burden of reunification, and they have to serve in the military.
Young South Koreans, especially men, face quite a unique position in this sense; they live in an affluent country where the GDP per capita is around $30,000. Their sense of connection to North Korea is weaker than the older generations, and there is a growing cultural gap between the north and the south. However, they have to perform two years of compulsory military service, and if another war breaks out, they will be on the frontline. Simply put, they are the generation carrying the burden of reconciliation, but with much less motivation. So, an unstable peninsula gives an additional burden to the South Korean youth, in addition to the existing stress from the threat of unemployment.
Moreover, many South Koreans felt ‘betrayed’ by the north, as the south has assisted the north in many ways, but what it got in return was the nuclear weapons programme. This feeling has started changing slightly after the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and the South Korean K-pop concert in Pyongyang in early April, which was attended by Kim Jong-un.
A recent survey asked South Korean youth this question: Will North Korea give up its nuclear weapon? Seventy per cent answered no. The summit, however, is a good sign, and we hope to have a genuinely peaceful outcome. But, we are waiting to see how North Korea sticks to its summit commitments.
As a typical Korean, I do think unification is important. It is the shared view of Koreans, regardless of generations. It is deeply related to the history of the Korean peninsula, which goes back to some 4,000 to 5,000 years. Reunification is our manifest destiny as both north and south have the same language and culture. Our pronunciations and accents have small differences, but the writing system is the same, which means there is no real problem of communication. Simply put, Korea is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world, with our own unique ethnic and historical identity. Thus, we look at about seven decades of division as an abnormal interruption in post-war history. In that sense we, as Koreans, have already reached some sort of consensus on reunification.
However, I have to say that the timeframe for unification would be different for different people. A poll held in April showed that one-third of young Koreans were not in favour of unification. The reason is mainly economic. According to the Korean Statistics Bureau, South Korean unemployment rate is around 4 per cent, but for those aged between 19 and 29, the rate is significantly higher, at 10 per cent.
After taking the national college entrance exam, South Korean students have to think of jobs immediately. It is no longer abnormal to find many graduate and postgraduate students working in harsh conditions where significant amount of physical work is involved. Cheap labour from North Korea can be a real threat. So, these young South Koreans want real solutions before the unification.
I understand these concerns, but I hope to see unification soon. Because I do believe that the overall benefits for the Korean peninsula are bigger than the risks associated with it. The natural resources of North Korea, and its high rate of population growth (South Korean birth rate has been decreasing) and the absence of uncertainty and insecurity about the future of Korea are some of them.
Jessie, a PhD candidate at the University of Tennessee, is from Seoul.