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Koreans Not All for One

The South's younger generations are indifferent or even hostile to the notion of reunification with the impoverished North.

October 14, 2002|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL -- Kim In Woo, an aspiring architect with spiky hair and a Levi's sweatshirt, has never met a North Korean and never hopes to meet one. In fact, the 20-year-old South Korean student would be perfectly happy to keep the North Koreans on their side of the DMZ forever.

Flipping distractedly through a Cosmopolitan magazine on a table in an Internet cafe where he and a friend are waiting for a computer to open up, Kim shrugs his shoulders at the idea of reuniting North and South. "We are enjoying an affluent life right now," he says. "Why bother?"

Such talk would have been tantamount to heresy a few years ago. Since the peninsula was divided after World War II and convulsed by the Korean War, it has been conventional wisdom that Koreans are a people yearning to be made whole again, a people who spend their waking hours pining for their missing countrymen.

"Unification is our desire. Even in our dreams, it is our desire," go the lyrics to a song that is as familiar to millions of South Korean schoolchildren as the national anthem.

But South Korea's younger generations are increasingly indifferent or downright hostile to the idea of reunification. With no personal experience of the 1950-53 Korean War and little, if any, contact with North Koreans, many would just as soon ignore the very existence of the impoverished communist nation hovering to the north.

Recent events, such as the groundbreaking on a railroad connecting the Koreas and a parade of North Korean delegations heading south for officially sanctioned sporting and cultural exchanges, have been greeted with emotions ranging from trepidation to apathy.

When the North and South Korean national soccer teams faced off last month in a friendly match at Seoul's World Cup stadium, tickets went begging. The lack of interest led the city to scrap plans to broadcast the game on outdoor screens, as it had when millions of fans took to the streets three months earlier for the World Cup.

"People my age are not that interested in North Korea. Why create problems for ourselves?" said Park Ji Sung, a 26-year-old fashion-industry worker who was drinking a cup of Starbucks coffee recently in a busy Seoul shopping district.

When pollsters query South Koreans about reunification, a large majority of respondents--about 70%--say they are in favor. For many people, to answer otherwise would be akin to saying they are opposed to peace or democracy. But when they are asked--as the newspaper Joong Ang Ilbo did in a poll published last month--if they would be willing to pay higher taxes for reunification, the number skids down to 53%. And even most of those who favor reunification say it shouldn't happen for another 20 years or so.

"I'm shocked by the rapidity with which we have abandoned unification although we go on with the rhetoric. We've become a bunch of hypocrites," said Kim Kyung Won, a former South Korean ambassador to the U.S. and president of the Social Science Institute in Seoul. "There is a lot of romantic nonsense about wanting unification, but when you come right down to it, people don't want to pay the bills. And if they want unification, they want it in the future--the more distant, the better."

Political analysts here trace the decline of reunification fervor to the 1997 financial crisis that sent unemployment skyrocketing and forced South Korea to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

South Koreans were also sobered by watching the costly German reunification process. Until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the very concept of a reunified Korea remained abstract. Afterward, Koreans realized that it really could happen--but that it would not be free.

Jo Dong Ho, an economist who heads the North Korea section at the Korea Development Institute, a government-funded think tank, said the German experience prompted many economists, including at his own institute, to churn out reports estimating the cost of reunifying the Koreas.

They ranged from $300 billion to $1.8 trillion, averaging around $600 billion over a 10-year period, according to Jo.

"It was a stupid exercise," Jo said. "They were only looking at the costs, not taking into account the benefits tangible and intangible. We will have a bigger market. We will have economies of scale. We will have better access to Russia and to China."

Along with the sticker shock, Jo said, South Korean television aired a number of programs featuring East and West Germans complaining about their resulting economy.

"People got scared. They thought, 'Better to be in South Korea with my own friends and leave the North Koreans up there with their friends,' " Jo said.

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