- Decades later, the scars from the Cold War still shape life and politics on the Korean Peninsula.
- The majority of South Koreans, particularly of the younger generations, seem more concerned by the economy than by security threats from the North.
- Despite the ambivalence of many, the fate of the people in North and South Korea remain intertwined.
There is perhaps no place on earth that packs more geopolitical dynamism per square kilometer than the Korean Peninsula. Less than one-third the size of Texas at just under 218,000 square kilometers (84,000 square miles), the peninsula sits between some of the world's largest and most powerful countries, with China to the west, Japan to the east and Russia to the north. This small landmass contains both one of the world's largest and most technologically advanced economies, South Korea's, and one of the most reclusive and rogue states, North Korea.
The dichotomy originated in the Cold War, when the Korean War of 1950-53 served as one of the era's first and most important flashpoints. The war solidified the peninsula's division into two distinct political entities, with the Soviet and China-backed Democratic People's Republic of Korea to the north, and the U.S.-backed Republic of Korea to the south. As the dust settled, South Korea embraced capitalism and aligned itself with the United States, while North Korea developed a state-dominated system guided by the principle of Juche, or self-reliance.
Now, long after the Cold War's end, the differences between the two states are starker than ever. Their respective governments, social norms and foreign policy alignments have only continued to diverge. While South Korea has developed into an industrialized, globally competitive economy, North Korea's government has pinned its survival on the development of a nuclear weapons program. The divergence now runs so deep, that on a recent visit to the peninsula I discovered that many South Koreans — especially those of the younger generation — now care little about North Korea.
In Seoul, South Korea's capital city, the attitudes of young people I spoke with ranged from ambivalence to outright apathy toward North Korea. One Seoul native in her late 20s told me that she had become used to the frequent missile testing and was not scared. Rather, she saw the tests as intended for foreign consumption and considered them overhyped by Western media.
She was more concerned about her own day-to-day issues presented by the economy and by her career at a medical supply company. South Korea's work culture often requires long hours at the office, and she was currently doing the job of two people. Though married, she was unsure whether she would ever have children given the demands of her job that she felt forced to accept if she wanted to advance. And she is clearly not the only person with such concerns in South Korea, where the fertility rate is currently the lowest in the world.
Another Seoul resident I spoke to, a man in his early thirties who had recently moved from Suwon for his career, seemed too consumed with adapting to the city's corporate work culture to worry about politics. Two years of military service is mandatory for South Korean men, but his previous enlistment did not appear to increase his concern over North Korea. He described it as "an alien place, no different than China, Japan or Russia."
A professor from Incheon National University, just west of Seoul, told me his students showed much less concern over North Korea than they did the pressure to succeed academically and economically. Education is a key facet of South Korean society, and one which the country's elites have touted as a primary cause of their nation's success. The focus on education and competition has helped propel South Korea to its place among the world's 12 largest economies. However, it has also helped spawn the familiar characteristics associated with developed capitalist societies such as long working hours, high stress levels and low birth-rates.
The Scar Between
Despite the apparent indifference toward North Korea from young people in and around Seoul, the North's presence still looms large in the South Korean capital. The geographic reality, for one thing, cannot be ignored. The border between north and south, formalized on the 38th parallel formed after the Korean war and known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), lies just 35 miles from Seoul. Traveling by bus as part of a tour, it took me less than one hour to reach the DMZ from the capital.
Despite its name, the DMZ contains the largest concentration of military forces on any border in the world. Driving along the Han River, I saw numerous small military patrol posts. Hundreds of thousands of troops — including 24,000 from the United States — are stationed on or near the strip of land that divides the Korean Peninsula.
But only at the Joint Security Area do forces from North Korea, South Korea and the United States stand face to face. At the time of my visit, the small blue U.N. houses that sit between the two countries were flanked by half a dozen South Korean soldiers, though there were no North Korean counterparts for them to stare down. One U.S. soldier told me their absence was likely caused by the cold January weather, but that North Korean troops could appear at any time and were doubtless watching from within the various North Korean buildings that surround the little blue houses.
During the tour, I asked one of my guides for her perspective on the conflict. A native of Seoul in her early thirties, she showed little concern over the recent spate of missile testing from the North. Rather, she compared them to the terrorist attacks in the West that, after a time, citizens learn to live with and eventually no longer bother to discuss with friends in casual conversation.
Among her family, however, North Korea was still an important and divisive issue. Though her grandparents lived through the war and hated the North, her parents were born after its conclusion and wanted peace. Like her parents, my guide supported peace and reunification with North Korea — at least in theory. In practice, she was concerned by the high economic and financial toll that reunification would take. But such concerns were not pressing, as she doubted that reunification would happen within her lifetime.
The Growth Together
Though many young South Koreans I spoke to were less concerned with North Korea than they were with their own economic or educational challenges, that does not mean the North did not factor into their lives at all. Whether through family ties, military service or sheer geographic proximity, the fate of North and South can never truly be separated. And recent developments suggest their diverging paths may not diverge forever.
Despite the growing tension between the United States and North Korea over the North's nuclear weapons program, there has been some progress in relations on the Korean Peninsula in recent months. Officials from North and South Korea resumed working-level talks in January, and athletes from both countries have competed and marched together in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Such positive developments are not unprecedented, however. Peace talks have begun before only to fall apart, and recent steps toward unity don't signal a looming reconciliation. Indeed, many South Koreans — particularly younger ones — have come to view initiatives for cooperation with North Korea skeptically. Nevertheless, such steps are a reminder that the potential remains to increase cooperation and bridge the expanding divide. As the attitudes of young Koreans continue to evolve as they grow into maturity, the thoughts and opinions that emerge will shape the future of the Korean Peninsula for decades to come.