SEOUL — With the antagonistic rhetoric and nuclear threats from neighboring North Korea reaching unprecedented heights, it makes sense that South Koreans see the once-conceivable prospect of reunification on the peninsula as increasingly unrealistic.
What is surprising is how many particularly in the younger generations say it is not the level of threats or even the seeming madness of 28-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that makes them resistant to the notion of a reconciliation between Seoul and Pyongyang.
Rather, they say, it is a fear of a heavy economic burden on South Korea if the peninsula is reunified.
“If I think of my own children, I don’t want there to be reunification,” said Choi Wong-chul, a 36-year-old office worker in Seoul who, like many others of his generation, has all but given up on a longtime dream of their parents and grandparents.
“It would just create economic problems that will be too much for my own son’s generation too much of a burden,” said Mr. Choi, whose 4-year-old son is too young to know about the onslaught of threats that South Koreans have come to accept as a part of daily life during recent weeks.
Koreans who have adolescent memories of a united peninsula are at least 80 years old. Although Korea was united in 1945, it was effectively a Japanese colony.
As a result, Mr. Choi said, two Koreas probably would be better even if a lasting peace takes hold.
“Originally, we were one nation. But now that we’ve lived apart for so long, we in the South don’t really see the people in the North as the same,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t relate to the problems of the people of the North, or don’t care. In the South, we do really want to help the North Korean people. But we have our own economic crisis here. We have our own problems to solve.”
Many in Seoul are grappling with that sentiment as they struggle to take the measure of Pyongyang’s near-daily claims that war is imminent, all the while knowing that just a few hundred miles away some 20 million North Koreans people of the same ethnicity, language, clans and, until 60 years ago, history are living in a totalitarian economic basket case.
“I have no beef against the people of the North,” said Lee Seung-jae, a 23-year-old student at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. “I’m pretty sure I still have relatives up there.”
But his assessment of a reunification idea was mixed. Like others here, he was quick to compare the situation to the struggles and eventual triumphs that arose with the 1990 reunification of West Germany and East Germany.
“If it does ever occur, South Korea is going to go through massive inflation,” he said.
The problem, they said, is that economic and social differences that have developed between North and South Korea since the division of the peninsula after World War II and the end of Korean War hostilities in 1953 are far greater than those that developed between the two German states.
“Sure, reunifying could be better in the long run, but it would be about a century from now,” said Mr. Lee. “I won’t benefit from it before I die.”