|South and North Korean athletes enter together at the opening ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, in the Olympic stadium, Pyeongchang, Feb. 9. The two Koreas formed a joint women's ice hockey team, bringing strong criticism among the young generation. / Yonhap|
This is a summary of a research by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies on South Korean young people's perceptions of North Korea and unification. The study was conducted by senior fellow Kim Ji-yoon, senior associate Kang Chung-ku and research associate Kim Kil-dong.― ED.
By Kim Ji-yoon, Kang Chung-ku, Kim Kil-dong
However, the reaction of South Koreans to the decision was completely different from what the administration expected. While many welcomed North Korea's participation in the Olympics, the unified hockey team triggered a strong backlash here.
Criticism against the decision was particularly strong among the younger generation and has raised significant interest in the perceptions of North Korea and unification among them.
Perceptions of North Korean threat
South Koreans' perception of the North Korean threat directly affects their perceptions of North Korea and unification. In order to examine the perceptions of the North Korean threat, we analyzed South Koreans' evaluations of the possibility of a war breaking out on the Korean Peninsula.
Compared to other age groups, a much higher percentage among those in their 20s and the elderly believed a war between the two Koreas could break out. Each year, those in their 20s consistently recorded the highest rates, followed by those 60 and over, with an exception in 2017, when they recorded the highest percentage.
Throughout 2011 to 2017, at least 55.5 percent of South Koreans in their 20s believed another war could break out on the Korean Peninsula. These results throughout the years confirmed the two age groups perceived the North Korean threat much more seriously than other age groups and also explain their conservative tendencies regarding security issues.
Attitudes on aid
The vast majority of South Koreans have continuously opposed providing economic aid to North Korea during the past seven years. In 2012, 68.5 percent stated South Korea should not provide economic assistance unless there is a significant change in "attitude" by North Korea. That number jumped to a record high of 78 percent in 2017.
In the same year, only 22 percent of the respondents answered that South Korea should provide economic assistance regardless of inter-Korean relations. Even in 2012, when the rates were at their highest, only 31.5 percent said so.
Generally, negative opinions prevailed in all ages but were significantly stronger among those in their 20s and the elderly (70 percent to 80 percent) than those of other age groups (50 percent to 70 percent). The most recent data in 2017 shows just how much more those in their 20s (88.5 percent) strongly felt about not providing aid to North Korea compared to those in their 30s (73.9 percent) and 40s (66.9 percent).
Another important point is that the number of respondents in their 20s who oppose providing economic aid to North Korea has risen continuously since 2011. The ratio of people in their 20s who negatively view providing economic aid increased by 10.1 percentage points.
Perceptions of North Korea
South Koreans' perceptions of North Korea have not shown significant change over the past eight years. Despite the numerous provocations of North Korea throughout the past decade, a majority of South Koreans still view North Korea as either "one of us" or a "neighbor." On the other hand, the number of South Koreans who view North Korea in a negative light has been consistent around 30 percent since 2012.
Interestingly, despite the consistent headlines North Korea made in 2017, those who said they are not interested in North Korea nearly doubled from the previous year, from 5.4 percent in 2016 to 9.5 percent in 2017. It seems the South Korean public is going through "North Korea fatigue" caused by the constant provocations in 2017.
Another noteworthy point is that although both the young and the elderly shared similar views on North Korea's threat and economic aid, the two had very different perceptions of North Korea.
The breakdown by age groups shows that those in their 20s are the most hostile and indifferent toward North Korea. In 2017, almost half of the respondents in their 20s (49.3 percent) considered North Korea either a "stranger" or "enemy."
Only 30 percent responded as such in all other age groups. Additionally, while only 32 percent of those in their 20s considered North Korea as either "one of us" or a "neighbor," the elderly response was almost double (61.7 percent).
Attitudes toward unification
Since 2010, a growing number of South Koreans have expressed an interest in unification. While the number was steeply down in 2010 due to the sinking of the South Korean Navy frigate Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island (52.6 percent), it quickly increased to 70 percent the very next year.
Since 2012, the rate has remained over 80 percent. However, age cohort breakdowns show a very different story. The lower the age group, the more indifferent they are to unification. From 2011 to 2017, about 25 percent of those in their 20s admitted they were not interested in unification.
On the other hand, around 10 percent of South Koreans in their 60s and over showed indifference, with the exception in 2011 (31.4 percent).
Preferred pace of unification
A majority selected that the pace of unification should depend on the circumstances (54.6 percent). Twenty-two percent answered there was no need to rush unification, and another 16.2 percent answered that it should happen as soon as possible.
Among all age groups, the highest preference was "depends on the circumstances." Analysis by age groups reveals those in their 20s and 60s and over had very different opinions on the urgency of unification. While 12 percent of people in their 20s opined that unification is unnecessary, only around half that (6.4 percent) shared the same sentiment among the elderly.
As a matter of fact, a little over one-fifth (21 percent) of respondents in their 60s said the two Koreas should unify as soon as possible, while only 7.2 percent of those in their 20s answered so. It is evident the elderly have a greater sense of urgency and duty in terms of unification than respondents in their 20s.
Expected benefits of unification
According to the 2017 survey, when asked what would be the greatest benefit of unification, most respondents answered it would bring a lower risk of war (27.4 percent).
Another 22 percent selected accelerated growth created through the combination of South Korea's advanced technology and North Korea's labor force, 14.6 percent chose alleviating the suffering of separated families, and 12.3 percent replied restoring the unity and identity of the Korean people.
Age cohort breakdown shows the elderly and younger generations have completely different views on what the greatest benefit of unification would be.
Compared to other age groups, many South Koreans in their 60s and over demonstrated high expectations for accelerated economic growth and restoration of national identity, while youths had high hopes the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula would significantly decrease.
Particularly, the ratio of those expecting the restoration of national identity was highest among the elderly at 17.6 percent, trailed by those in their 40s (15.3 percent) and 50s (13.9 percent). Only 4.8 percent in their 20s and 6.6 percent in their 30s expected it.
The ratio of those expecting the elimination of the threat of war was especially high among the younger generation: 36 percent of those in their 30s and 30.6 percent of people in their 20s believed the decreased risk of war was the biggest benefit of unification. Only 19 percent of those in their 60s and over agreed.
The data suggests restoring national identity through unification is not important to the younger generation. Rather, it would be accurate to say the younger generation views North Korea as a nation threatening South Korea's security rather than as a people sharing the same ethnic background.
The survey results suggest a unification policy emphasizing "oneness" and homogeneity would not be well-received by the younger generation. Rather, the government should focus on explaining the necessity of unification in realistic terms, not with nationalistic sentiment. In other words, it would be more effective to emphasize the benefits of unification in terms of reducing national security risks rather than relying on nationalism that emphasizes the restoration of a "Korean" identity.
Sixty-eight years of division has created an identity gap among the two Koreas. It is natural that the South Korean youths cannot connect with North Korea _ a country with a completely different political system, social values and culture. In order to fill this gap, the South Korean government should start social and cultural exchanges to remedy the estranged sentiment toward North Korea.
Considering that social and cultural integration can be time-consuming, inter-Korean exchanges should not end as mere political stunts but become a consistent policy maintained from a long-term perspective. The task of the government is to convince the younger generation that unification would be beneficial for both Koreas with realistic benefits and logic rather than emphasizing nationalism.