The 2-Minute Thought The Distance Between North and South Koreans

Every five years, the East Asia Institute surveys South Koreans on whether they view North Korea as “one of us,” “a brother,” “a neighbor,” “an enemy” or “other.” 

In 2005, 51% of South Koreans said they saw North Korea as “a brother” while only 15% selected “enemy.”  But by 2015, 41% of South Koreans said they saw North Korea as “an enemy.”   

The affinity that South Koreans once felt so strongly for their “brothers” to the North is fading.

A visitor to South Korea in the 1980s or 1990s would have been struck by how much South Koreans viewed North Koreans as part of the same family – largely because of an intense sense of shared ethnic identity and an optimistic expectancy around eventual reunification.  But that is no longer the case.

Last year a Ministry of Culture survey found that 32% of Koreans felt there was no particular reason to work toward reunification with the North.  While that’s only a third of respondents, it’s double the proportion who felt this way in 2006.

And there is a generational dynamic.  In a different survey, where respondents were asked if reunification with the North would be extremely positive, 61% of those in their 60s said yes.  But agreement levels fell to 51% for those in their 50s, 50% for those in their 40s, 38% for those in their 30s, and 32% for those in their 20s. 

Not surprisingly, it is 20-somethings who feel the greatest distance from North Koreans.  Only 5% of those in their 20s see themselves as sharing “bloodlines” with North Koreans.  Other surveys have shown that younger South Koreans are more likely to see North Koreans as “different,’ untrustworthy,” or “frightening.”

What has happened for younger Koreans?  For one thing, they came of age during South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy,” the decades-long strategy of attempted engagement with North Korea which inspired both debate and frustration.  And North Korea’s recent behavior -- including the 2010 torpedoing of the South Korean warship Cheonan in the Yellow Sea -- hasn’t helped. 

But more than anything, it is probably that young Koreans grew up in a globalized world – a vastly different experience from what older Koreans knew.  As Emma Campbell in East Asia Forum put it: “Young South Koreans are sophisticated, well-travelled, highly educated, multilingual, tech-savvy and global.  Their life stories have little in common with their North Korean or Korean-Chinese brethren.  As one young person told me, ‘to be honest, South and North are almost different countries.  Americans or Europeans are more similar to us in their way of thinking than North Koreans.”

Plus, it’s pretty hard to be a young person in South Korea today.  With fierce competition in schools and the job market creating social and economic insecurity, reunification with the North is hardly likely to be top of mind.