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Is South Korea still interested in unification?

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A South Korean soldier stands guard at a checkpoint on the Grand Unification Bridge, South Korea, February 11, 2016. (Photo: Reuters).

In Brief

It is not easy being a young person in globalised South Korea. The intense competition that defines South Korea’s education system and the irregular employment market that awaits graduates has led to rising inequality, falling birth rates, insecure employment and high numbers of youth suicide.


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Beyond South Korea’s domestic wellbeing, globalisation and its accompanying economic insecurity also have implications for foreign affairs, particularly attitudes towards North Korea.

The national identity of South Korean youth is being transformed by globalisation. The traditional assertion that ethnicity forms the basis for the Korean nation and nationalism is being challenged head on. Young South Koreans are still proud of their South Korean nation and identity, but the importance of ethnicity to their national identity is diminishing — and that has implications for North Korea and Korean unification.

Survey data in South Korea consistently shows increased levels of antipathy and antagonism towards North Korea and unification. Young people who support unification do so with provisos that demand a net political and economic benefit for the South. They show little interest in the North. And growing numbers of young people actively and openly oppose unification.

The uncertainties surrounding unification compound the challenges and fears faced by young South Koreans in an already insecure economic and social environment. In this context, it is not unreasonable for South Korea’s youth to reject the North and unification in an attempt to mitigate what is certainly the greatest risk facing South Korea’s future generations. Instead, they embrace their proud South Korean national identity.

And it is a proud South Korean identity. For all its problems, South Korea is a success. Young South Koreans are sophisticated, well-travelled, highly educated, multilingual, tech-savvy and global. Their life stories have little in common with their North Korean or Korean-Chinese brethren. As one young person told me, ‘to be honest, South and North are almost different countries. Americans or Europeans are more similar to us in their way of thinking than North Koreans’.

The implications of this are already evident in South Korea. Many young South Koreans see North Koreans and Korean-Chinese as different, untrustworthy, frightening or pitiful — not part of uri nara (‘our nation’). Yet it is possible for some foreigners — who are sophisticated, educated and willing to adopt South Korean language and its (globalised and modern) norms — to be imagined as part of the South Korean national community. That, of course, doesn’t mean all foreigners are accepted or all new ethnic Korean arrivals are rejected. But there is an interesting cross-over between economic success, middle-class norms and acceptance into the South Korean national community.

None of this precludes unification. But as new generations of South Koreans become more antagonistic to unification, and further estranged from ideas of ethnic homogeneity and the history of a unified Korea, the South Korean identity will become more distinct and assertive. The implications for North and South Korea of this transformation will be profound indeed.

Emma Campbell is a Visiting Fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University and was previously the ANU Korea Institute Postdoctoral Fellow.

6 responses to “Is South Korea still interested in unification?”

  1. Am wondering why did academic assessment of this important question come so late.

    Serving as a diplomat in South Korea during 1989 – 1992 I had an unmistakable impression that the South Koreans did not want re-unification, due to many of the reasons which the the author has correctly listed in her commentary. As German re-unification was fresh in those days, the South was not ready to bear the costs, which they felt were heavier per capita than the Germans had to bear.

    The South Korean military did not want it because they did not want any ideological contamination if they had to accommodate part of the North Korean military within its systems. The military was and remains too indoctrinated with the American narrative of the situation. And, above all the US did not want it – and perhaps this is still so today, because the unification eliminates the need for US military presence on the Korean peninsula.

    All in all, this is an excellent expose of the situation, which most people have avoided writing about.

    • The USA’s military resources have been stretched very thin in recent years because of its involvement in the so called ‘war on terror’ in the Middle East. Thus, I doubt that it would be opposed to the removal of its forces on the Korean peninsula if/when that might be possible post reunification of the Koreas. One should remember that the USA has a significant troop presence on Okinawa and Guam, both of which are relatively close to the Korean peninsula.

      Besides if/when unification were to take place I would bet that the new Korean government, largely occupied with members from the South, would not be eager for the US military to leave. Tensions with ‘a rising China,’ the island disputes in the East China Sea, etc would probably lead the Korean politicians and military to want the US to remain in place for a few years at least.

      From what I have read, China is anxious about unification of the Koreas because it would not want S Korean and US troops so close to its border.

  2. Thanks for an informative analysis of an aspect of some of the issues related to unification of the Koreas which I had not encountered anywhere else.

    I wonder if the attitudes of the youth in S Korea are a reflection, as well as a result, of some of the underlying assumptions of globalization. Eg, the focus on, if not obsession with, short term economic profitability. Or the extent to which people are treated as tiny and barely significant cogs in a much larger economic wheel.

    In this world view longer term, admittedly more complex and difficult to achieve (let alone sustain) social cohesion is of secondary importance at best. Given that the young are treated with such little compassion by corporate and government leaders why should one be surprised that they have similar attitudes about their ‘brothers and sisters’ in the North?

    Economic insecurity fueled by globalization is affecting other societies as well. In Europe and the USA it is getting expressed via anti-immigrant and nationalistic, populist sentiments. The Marie LePenns and Donald Trumps of the world are a mouthpiece for these kinds of reactions.

    Unification is very hard to predict. As I recall, it took the world by surprise when E and W Germany unified. Only with hindsight could one see that the East was that close to collapse. Is N Korea anywhere near that at this time? It does not appear to be.

  3. There are some parallels with Germany. I notice many Germans who express sentiments like re-erecting a wall (between East & West); no doubt this is mostly hyperbole.
    I understand the ROK government has closely studied the experience of German reunification. I suspect that when the DPRK does collapse it will make German re-unification look like a cakewalk in comparison. Close cooperation from all regional powers will be critical to minimising the humanitarian disaster and security challenges that are likely to be associated.

  4. I presume also a large factor in young people feeling disconnected from the North is the lack of people-to-people exchanges. They have no opportunity to meet their counterparts.

    While a very different context, it’s also interesting to compare with Ireland where nearly a century of partition has meant that unification for most is no longer top of the agenda.

  5. South Korea may or may not be interested in unification, but unification is certainly interested in South Korea.

    Unification will add 25 million low income cheap labor, more land, more minerals, more water and more military power.

    Koreans will never give up on this dream and desire for power parity with Japan. Even in a million years.

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