South Korea making a case for reunification to kids
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s government, worried about growing apathy toward the prospect of reunification with North Korea, has taken its campaign to the elementary level — literally.
Three-day, government-run, summer camps for kids, where the North’s dark side and the challenges of reunification are glossed over or are omitted entirely, are aimed at revitalizing support for a concept that remains vital mostly for older citizens who either lived through the war and the privations of its aftermath or heard vivid stories of relatives lost to the peninsula’s division 70 years ago.
As the country has prospered, younger generations have grown up amid skyscrapers, video games and Starbucks. Periodic threats of attack from North Korea are so routine that they barely draw a shrug, and polls show shrinking support for reunification as a necessity.
So the president, who has made reunification a priority, has tried to drum up enthusiasm for the concept, even among the youngest — and most impressionable — of its citizens.
At a recent summer camp held just south of the heavily mined Demilitarized Zone, schoolchildren made unification-themed crafts and even got a field trip to a military base where they peered across the border into isolated North Korea.
“Disinterest (among children) in unification is a big deal,” said Lee Jung Hee, an official at the Center for Unified Korean Future, which ran the camp. “We’ve been working on things to create positive images about a future, unified Korea.”
Students at the camp are told that the two Koreas share the same language, that unification will provide practical benefits to the South, such as access to the North’s natural resources, and that together, the two Koreas will be a rich country.
But there was no mention of reunification’s potential downsides, from the astronomical price tag for the developed South to pull up its poverty-wracked North to the difficulties of integrating two ideologically opposite nations that began growing apart at the end of the Korean War and now are separated by a chasm.
While the South has embraced the outside world and prospered, the reclusive North has stumbled along a dangerous path that has made it a feared pariah.
Teachers also avoided discussing other thorny topics, from the always-tense political situation between the two Koreas, to the unpredictable North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, to why the peninsula is divided. They even skirted mentioning capitalism or communism, simply telling students that “the North and South have different thoughts,” one teacher said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
“We tell students, ‘It’s been 70 years since the two Koreas were divided. We don’t know why we are now divided like this,’ ” the teacher said.
Decades after Korea was split along the 38th Parallel in 1945 by the victors of World War II, the eventual reunification of the communist North and the democratic South remains a given for many South Koreans, despite the dramatic cultural and political differences.
President Park Geun-hye has made laying the groundwork for unification through “trust-building” measures with the North a key plank of her foreign policy.
Under her direction, the Unification Ministry has proposed a series of measures to increase communication with the North, from building a World Peace Park in the DMZ — the world’s most militarized border — to restoring a railway line that runs across both countries.
Park’s heightened focus on what her administration describes as “eventual” unification is tied to the 70th anniversary of the separation of the two Koreas, not to any real hope they will unify in the near future. Even though North Korea’s regime sometimes appears shaky and analysts believe Kim is still consolidating his authority after nearly four years in power, he also seems firmly in control, with little chance of a sudden regime collapse that could lead to a quick joining of the two countries.
Both sides talk about reunification; the North vowed last year to make it happen without elaborating on how. But the real prospects are dim, as neither side is going to willingly accede power to the other.
Park, who has offered few details of her plans but appears to favor reunification by absorption, has built support by arguing it would be an economic “bonanza” for the South. Her administration maintains that combining trust-building measures with the threat of a strong military response to provocations will deter the North from misbehavior, even though Pyongyang continues to be provocative.
Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo told reporters recently that “instead of being preoccupied with near-term achievement, the government is committed to inter-Korean ties with a longer-term perspective” and wants a North Korean policy that “does not belong to one particular administration, but can be sustained consistently.”
Previous administrations have carried out widely differing approaches, ranging from the “Sunshine Policy,” which attempted to embrace the North despite its thorns, to more confrontational reactions to the North’s repeated threats and brinksmanship.
The push for unification taps into deep emotions for many South Koreans, particularly the elderly, many of whom were separated from family members when the peninsula was divided. Their children and grandchildren have grown up hearing stories of lost parents and siblings.
Lee Soon-ja, 69, a housewife born a year after the division, lives on a remote, windswept island within sight of North Korea’s shoreline. She said she would die happy if she could see the two Koreas unite.
“I go to church every morning and pray for my country’s reunification,” said Lee, who lives on Baeknyeong Island, where a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship in 2010, killing 46 sailors on board.
But without the resonance of first-hand experiences, the younger generations are more focused on school and career. They shrug off the North’s most recent threats.
Lee Yewon, 20, a university student in Seoul, believes a single Korea ultimately would be stronger and wealthier than the separate Koreas, but is skeptical that reunification can be smooth. She worries that it might come only via a war that could involve Chinese and U.S. forces.
Some of her friends believe it’s important; others feel the two Koreas have changed too much to reunify and that responsibilities of developing the North will fall too heavily on the economically vibrant South. But the longer the separation continues, Lee worries that reunification will become even more difficult.
“If it isn’t done in my generation, my descendants will have to deal with it,” she said.
A survey conducted by the institute in July, before the latest round of tensions between the two Koreas, found that 51 percent of South Koreans believe unification is necessary, down from 55.8 percent a year earlier and 63.8 percent in 2007. The percentage who said unification was necessary dropped among all age groups, and most sharply among respondents in their 20s and 30s.
However, some 57.4 percent said this year that unification was in the South’s best interest. That’s up only 1.5 percent from the previous year.
Hence the government is trying unification education programs, like the summer camps. Approximately 25,000 students, ranging from elementary to high school age, have taken part in activities run by the Center for Unified Korea since it began operations in January. Interest appears to be growing, with 50 schools, representing some 50,000 students, making inquiries about enrollment next year.
One teacher said if students ask whether North Korea is poor, teachers respond that some in the North live well and some don’t. Skepticism about reunification is met by “Let’s keep trying.”
“We tell them, ‘The North Koreans are our family and we’re going to need to live together with them someday. Let’s get ready for it.’ ”