NO one is probably happier than South Korea President Park Geun-hye with her Northern counterpart Kim Jong-un’s New Year speech.
His proposal for a “highest-level” talk with his neighbour on the Korean peninsula has boosted her own pledge for reunification to end the 70-year-long Cold War conflict between the two Koreas.
The dream may seem quixotic to the outsiders, but Park’s administration has been laying the groundwork for the reunification since she trumpeted it in her 2014 New Year message.
Her biggest obstacle, however, is not her 31-year-old counterpart’s volatile personality but the apathy of her younger electorate, who worry about their generation having to bear the burden.
Student KY Kwok feels the main reason for a reunification is to help the North Korean people who are starving and suffering under the regime’s rule.
“Sure, we will have some difficulties in the economy but we are one people living on the same peninsula.”
Twenty-year-old student Choi Yoon-jung from Gangnam, Seoul, however, believes it will be an obstacle in the economy.
“I want unification to happen but not in my generation, not when I’m alive.”
Choi admits she feels bad when she hears the news of North Korean children starving but worries that unification will worsen the situation.
“I want the unification to happen but only when we are completely prepared.”
Postgraduate student Derek Choi is equally unequivocal in his worries about reunification.
“I think reunification will happen but hopefully, not in my generation. It is not realistic and will take a toll on the economy. It will be us who have to sacrifice and pay the price,” says the 30-year-old Seoulite.
Derek feels the South can still help their Northern cousins without rushing into unification.
“We can still help the North Koreans by providing financial aid for them to use their natural resources to develop their own economy before we unify.”
Their worries are not unfounded. Last November, the South Korean Financial Services Commission revealed that it would cost US$500bil to develop North Korea and assimilate it into the South. As the republic’s central bank estimated, the South’s GDP (at over US$1.2tril or RM4.1tril) is over 40 times bigger than North Korea’s.
Park had tried to allay this fear by describing the reunification as a “jackpot” for the fourth biggest economy in Asia – North Korea is reportedly rich in natural resources, which combined with the South’s technological progress could make a united Korea the seventh largest economy in the world.
A combined population of 80 million will not only solve their labour shortage problems but also make them a solid force to reckon with.
Unification is a necessity in the changing world order, says Prof Lee Mi-kyung, one of the advisors at the Ministry of Unification.
“The world order is being reshaped. It’s a world of unlimited, political potential. We need to unify to prosper and survive.”
But for many young South Koreans who grew up without a first-hand experience of the Korean War – and for some, not even a first-hand knowledge of someone who had gone through the war – the national aspiration will not fit their individual aspiration in life.
“We have to think about our future too. I want to make money, marry and have children,” says a 27-year-old office worker in Seoul who only wants to be known as Yoon.
As the German experience has shown, support from young people is essential for any push towards reunification, but a poll by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies last year showed that 28% of South Korean youths regard North Korea as an enemy while 38% would not be willing to pay more than US$100 (RM349) in additional taxes towards the cost of reunification.
The young South Koreans – with their IT gadgets, branded goods and K-pop – also feel they have very little in common with their neighbours.
Says student Choi, “It feels like we have a cultural difference and we will not be able to integrate that well.”
Yoon concurs. “North Korea and South Korea have totally different lifestyles and cultures. If we reunite, we will be confused about our identity.”
According to former journalist Daniel Tudor in his book Korea, The Impossible Country, a survey by the Peace Research Institute showed 30% of Koreans agreeing with the statement “In the past they were our ethnic brethren, but now I’m beginning to feel they are foreigners”. Another 9% even said, “North Koreans are as foreign as Chinese.”
Senior Policy Cooperation Officer with the Ministry of Unification, Lee Duk-haeng believes reunification of the peninsula is inevitable.
“Unification is not a question of if, but when. North Korea is the most isolated country in the world and it cannot sustain itself without foreign aid. Our fear is that North Korea will collapse.”
The government estimates that a “sudden collapse” of the North Korean regime could be costly, and a gradual unification – after building trust between the two countries to secure peace on the peninsula and nurturing reform and cooperation between them – is the way to go.
The South Korean government is determined to prepare its people for the eventual unification and has committed a budget of US$200mil (RM700mil) and a staff of 600 for this aim, including conducting education programmes for the young.
Although Lee believes the North Korean nuclear policy is a way to blackmail other countries into feeding its people, the fear of a violent showdown is real.
Since 2006, North Korea has staged three nuclear tests, been involved in three firefights at sea, and the shelling of an island, killing four.
Many are not convinced the North will just withdraw their military threat.
“I think reunification should happen but not by absorption. It should happen peacefully but will North Korea accept our peaceful offer? I doubt that,” opines 20-year-old student Park Joo-eun.
To Christina Lee, who is doing her Masters at Ehwa Woman’s University in Seoul, if lasting peace is the outcome of the reunification, then it is worth the cost.
“When I was younger, I thought that it (the Cold War between the two countries) does not affect us. But when my little brother went for military service, it got me thinking about how we are all paying a price for the divide.”
As South Korea is still technically at war with North Korea after a peace treaty went unsigned following the 1950-53 Korean War, all South Korean men between 18 and 35 have to complete two years of mandatory military service.
“The two years the young men have to serve in military service – many go at the age of 20-21 – is a waste of money and energy.
“It also affect the girls – their girlfriends and family – as it takes an emotional toll on them. If we unify, we will not need military service as we don’t have to be on alert all the time,” she says.
> The writer was in South Korea on a study tour with Arirang TV.