Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
Kim Byung-Joo shares something with many South Koreans in his generation: he has family in North Korea that he’s never met. During the Korean War, his parents fled the chaos in the North to settle in the South, leaving behind one life and taking on another.
But despite these far-away ties to the North, Kim says he doesn’t share much kinship with North Korea. He sees it as a clear threat to the security and safety of South Koreans.
“As a South Korean living here,” he says, “born here in the southern part of this Korean peninsula, it was kind of a mystique presence to me which always has posed a threat to our survival as well as our prosperity, continuously in fact.”
Kim’s story isn’t unique. He and hundreds of thousands of others here belong to a generation of South Koreans generally thought to be more wary of their neighbor to the North. It’s a typical sentiment amongst those South Koreans in their late 50s to 60s, according to Professor Lee Su-hoon of Seoul’s North Korean Graduate University.
“My generation, late 50s, early 60s and those who come from the southern parts of the southeastern parts of the country tend to be very conservative domestically. In terms of North Korea, they are conservative.” In terms of their views toward North Korea, “they tend to be hostile towards chairman Kim Jong-Il and [Kim Jong-Un], they have very, very unfriendly and very hostile posture towards all this kind of behavior and the line of politics in North Korea. This is the case, perhaps, 8 out of 10 of my age.”
But there’s an almost contradictory aspect to this older generation’s relationship with the reclusive North. Even though they’re cautious and hostile towards Pyongyang, a majority of them still wish for reunification. In a study conducted last October, the Asian Institute for Policy Studies found that only 5.5% of South Koreans in their 50s were against reunification with the North.
The same can’t be said for the generation behind them. In a Gallup poll conducted in December, shortly after the death of former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, 25% of respondents said they are against unification. It’s a reflection of a larger shift in sentiment between older and younger generations.
Professor Lee says the younger citizens of South Korea are looking at the future of the peninsula not in terms of family ties or reconciliation but in terms of economics. Young South Koreans, he says, tend “to have more interest in what kind of economic cost or economic price that they have to pay when it comes to unification and expenses that unify two Koreas or to maintain and peacefully manage the status quo.”
35-year-old Ahn Jae-Woo could be classified as member of that younger generation with no direct ties or direct experience with the often provocative North Korea. Though he shares a sense of kinship with North Koreans, he’s says that economically, politically and socially, reunification would not be feasible in the near future.
“Do I feel this blood nature of brothership [sic] with North Korea? Yes I do. But does that mean that I’ll have my arms wide open for their social status, for their communist nature? Of course not. If there’s no balance, it’s going be huge chaos for both countries. I don’t think that helps the two Koreas at all.”
There also seems to be an increasing sense of apathy towards North Korea amongst younger South Koreans here – a byproduct of their lack of first-hand experience with the North.
Yang Chan-Wook is a half Korean, half African-American, 36 year old and has lived in South Korea for 10 years. He’s acclimated to his and younger generations’ apathetic attitude towards the North. Even after the Yeonpyeong Island bombing incident in November of 2010, when North Korea shelled a South Korean border island in the Yellow Sea, Chan-wook says, “I still don’t really see South Korea really worried. And you know, you don’t walk around Seoul or anywhere feeling like ‘Oh we’re going to be in danger.’”
– Reported by Daniel Shin for America Abroad