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‘They’re very apart from us’: South Koreans sense unification with North is an increasingly distant prospect

The government plans to downsize Seoul’s unification ministry and a poll in June found just 28.5 per cent of South Koreans wanted a single Korean state

On the roof of an observation post at Korea’s demilitarised zone (DMZ) lines of tourists peered through binoculars across the most heavily guarded border in the world. They were fixed on a North Korean watchtower in the distance, hoping to spot one of the guards inside or, better still, to catch a soldier stepping outside for a smoke.

If they turned their binoculars to the right, they could see the cluster of blue-roofed buildings at the centre of the Joint Security Area where guards from North and South Korea face each other directly. But if they looked left they would see a complex of empty factories and office buildings with a railway line on which nothing moves.

This is the Kaesong Industrial Park, opened in 2004 to promote economic co-operation between North and South but closed in 2016 after a North Korean rocket launch. When Yoon Suk-yeol became South Korea’s president last year, he ruled out any further economic links with Pyongyang until it stops developing its nuclear programme and starts denuclearising.

“Under the previous government of Moon Jae-in, peaceful engagement between South and North was the main focus,” says Choi Eun-ju, director of the Centre of North Korean Studies at Sejong University.


“Under the Yoon Suk-yeol government, the policy towards North Korea has completely changed. So basically the government is saying that North Korea’s position towards its nuclear policy has to change before negotiations start.”

Yoon claims that the policy of engaging with North Korea achieved nothing and served instead to enrich Pyongyang, enabling its leader Kim Jong-un to invest more in his missile programme. The South Korean president last year proposed an “audacious initiative” promising huge financial support for North Korea if Kim agreed to denuclearise.

In the meantime, Yoon is building his country’s military power and this year agreed a trilateral defence pact with Japan and the United States. This week, the three countries conducted their first-ever joint aerial exercise near the Korean peninsula with B-52 bombers from the US and fighter jets from South Korea and Japan.

“Our government’s position can be summarised in the slogan ‘peace through power’. The important message is that the power balance has to be maintained in order to maintain a state of peace. And the main focus must be on military power,” Choi says.

Yoon’s government announced in September that it would downsize Seoul’s unification ministry, cutting staff and merging a number of its divisions. Since 1998, the ministry has co-ordinated policy towards North Korea and implemented long-term policies towards unification of the peninsula.

It is responsible for communicating with Pyongyang on everything from economic issues to human rights, settling North Korean defectors and reuniting separated families. It is also tasked with educating the public about unification of the two parts of Korea, which have been divided for 77 years.

“Because the relationship between North and South is quite different from the relationship with other countries, the ministry of foreign affairs alone cannot deal with it. We need the unification ministry,” Choi says.

“For example, the ministry of foreign affairs can deal with free-trade agreements between South Korea and other countries. But the trade relationship between South Korea and North Korea has to be dealt within the ministry of unification because there are special regulations that relating to the goods exported from North Korea. Another thing is the human rights issue in North Korea. Because in South Korea we value universal human rights, we need the unification ministry to deal not only with universal human rights, but specifically the human rights of North Korean citizens.”

A poll conducted last June by the National University Advisory Council found that 73.4 per cent said they wanted the two Koreas to unite. But 52 per cent said keeping the two Koreas separate while allowing freedom of movement was the best form of unity, while just 28.5 per cent said they wanted a single Korean state.

Choi worries about the impact of the government’s decision to make engagement with North Korea conditional on denuclearisation and regrets the scaling back of the unification ministry. And she thinks that before Koreans can properly consider unification, they must revive social and cultural exchanges between the two countries.

“The solution isn’t just an economic one. It’s on a deeper emotional level so you can’t just solve it with money, I think. Because we were separated for more 70 years, we don’t know much about our cultures and society. Our languages are different to begin with. That’s why I highlight social and cultural engagement. That has to be done first before the discussion of unification,” she says.

Lee Hyun (29), who runs a chain of fish restaurants in Seoul’s fashionable Gangnam district, seldom thinks about unification but approves of Yoon’s approach.

“If I could see it coming, I’d want to see it but I think the probability of it coming to reality is extremely low because it has been more than 70 years. And basically the people who live there have no free will, they are basically suffering under the dictatorship,” he says.

“It’s just painful to see them suffering because they’re not allowed any freedom. I think we need strong leadership to make the unification possible. We’re probably going to have to go through a war.”

Like all South Korean men (but not women) Lee had to spend two years in military service, an experience he initially viewed as pointless.

“I still remember the first day when I woke up in the barracks. I was staring at the ceiling, and the anger came to me. Why am I here serving my time here? I was playing computer games the other day, and then I’m dragged here and taking orders from people I don’t know. I’m being treated like garbage. And why there are no woman here? And why am I to be the only one serving for the country? They’re not even paying me. Yeah, I felt really bad about it,” he says.

After two months, he reconciled himself to his situation and grew to enjoy military life so much that he still occasionally puts on his army uniform. He approves of Yoon’s build-up of Seoul’s military power but rejects the idea that South Korea needs its own nuclear deterrent.

“There’s a famous line that goes, great power comes with great responsibility. In Korea, we’re not responsible enough to have the power of nuclear bomb, because if we had one, we would definitely be tempted to use it. And it would be very, very self-destructive for both countries, North and South. So it’s just best not to have it in the first place,” he says.

Bang Ju-Eun (25), a personal branding consultant, opposes unification partly because of what she learned in school about the reunification of Germany.

“I learned that the economic gap between the two countries was very difficult to narrow down even after 30 years. But not only the economic gap, but also the sociocultural gap between the two countries. Germany during their unification process, they had to go through the painful process of narrowing down the gaps. But in Korea’s case, we have a larger gap,” she says.

“I feel like they’re very apart from us. I feel like they’re very different people because we’re not talking about 20 or 30 years, we’re talking about more than 70 years. I don’t feel like they’re as different as Japanese or Chinese people, but I still feel like they’re different from us, South Koreans.”

Jeho Hahm (26) studied political science at Dartmouth College in the US before returning to Seoul, where he works at a political foundation. He would like to see the country united, not least because that would mean the downfall of the North Korean regime, but he thinks it feels less likely as more time passes.

“The German divide only lasted 45 years. So I feel like the desire for unification has faded much more from the national zeitgeist in Korea. Back in the ‘80s, there were these efforts for separated families to reunite and all that but we’re coming to the point where the majority of Koreans have no real memory of a formerly unified Korea. They’ve heard from their parents or their grandparents that, oh, we used to have family in North Korea, but contact has long since ended,” he says.

“I was trying to picture could what happened to the Soviet Union happen to North Korea, but then that involved a transfer of power between the various bureaucrats or high-ranking officials in the Communist Party, whereas North Korea has sort of transitioned into a hereditary regime. So having gotten to that point, I sort of threw out that line of thought. I feel like the regime has entrenched itself so deeply that military force might end up being the only thing that could change the situation.”