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.
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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.
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“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.”
‘Quite a show’
Over coffee with a reporter from The Washington Times, Mr. Lee said the gap between the North and the South is so wide and so inexplicable that he has devised his own wry way of making sense of it all.
“North Korea right now is a like a kid going through puberty,” he said. “It’s like a kid threatening to ‘run away from home or I’m going shoot you in your sleep.’”
“To be honest, it’s funny,” he said. “They’re putting on quite a show.”
But the spectacle of threats from the government of Kim Jong-un is also privately unnerving. It’s a show that underscores just how far the prospects of a reunification have sunk since 2000, when President Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize months after meeting with Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, during a historic inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang.
Ryu Ye-na, who also studies at Hankuk University, was 10 years old when the summit occurred. But she knows through her parents longtime dreamers of a reunified Korea that the summit was an “amazing and very emotional moment for both of our countries.”
How the prospects have since crumbled, and been followed by the current escalation tensions “doesn’t feel real to me,” said Ms. Ryu, who added that she “feels bad” for the people of North Korea.
“They are manipulated,” she said. “It makes me sad to think about it.”
The 23-year-old added, however, that she quietly holds out hope of reunification one day. “I want to witness it before I die,” she said.
Some offer starker memories of the brief warming of North-South relations fostered by Kim Dae-jung.
“I think 10 years ago it appeared peaceful from the outside, but secretly, the South was giving a lot of aid and supplies to the North,” said Hong Soo-kyong, a 39-year-old resident of Seoul.
“We’re never going to reunite with the North if we do that,” she said, adding that she thinks the South’s posture of intolerance toward Pyongyang’s provocations bodes better for long-term reunification prospects.
Skepticism of U.S. motive
Despite her belief that Seoul should stand firm in its policy toward the North, Ms. Soo-kyong said public opinion about the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea a military presence that stretches back to the United Nations force that repulsed the North’s 1950 invasion have begun to shift in recent years.
“I think a lot of younger people think the U.S. Army should leave it to the North and South Koreans to figure it out for themselves,” she said. “But I think older people because they experienced the war in person hold to the view that the U.S. military should stay here because they remember how bad the civil war was.”
“People from my father’s generation say the reason there isn’t a war right now is because the U.S. military is here,” she said.
Others are more outwardly skeptical. They said the escalation of tensions has them questioning the presence of so many U.S. troops in South Korea after so many years.
“In general, people think the U.S. military is trying to keep us safe,” said Ji Yong-lim, a 37-year-old who works at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club. “But I’m sometimes dubious of their agenda and wonder if the reason they’re here is to take advantage of the situation.”
Ms. Ji suggested that it may even benefit Washington to keep tensions high on the Korean Peninsula. Doing so, she said, justifies the ongoing need for a heavy U.S. troop presence while bolstering the market for American-made weapons.
“Maybe their agenda is to sell weapons to South Korea,” she said, adding that if North and South Korea were to “become allies and have a stable relationship, I don’t think it will benefit the United States.”
• Hana Jang contributed to this report.