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Korean Clashes

Young South Koreans are more focused on economic advancement than on nationalism.

SEOUL, South Korea -- Walking down the streets of this city, you would never guess that just 120 miles away in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, leader Kim Jong-il is threatening all-out war. On the surface, everything seems so normal. Indeed, tour buses still take visitors within 2 miles of the Demilitarized Zone. In recent weeks, though, trips (for foreigners; no Koreans allowed) into the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom -- where soldiers from the Republic of Korea, the South, tensely stand just feet apart, face to face with troops of the North's Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- have been canceled.

In the wake of the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, a 1,200-ton South Korean warship, relations between the North and South have fallen to a new low since major hostilities ceased in 1953. Recently, a panel of experts from South Korea, Australia, Britain, Sweden, and the United States released the findings of a six-week examination of the recovered parts of the torpedo that hit the Cheonan. The evidence matched a North Korean torpedo obtained by the South seven years ago, the experts determined, confirming North Korea's responsibility for the sinking, which killed 46 sailors.


In this post-Cold War era (this year is the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War), the stalemate on the Korean Peninsula is clearly an anachronism. Either nation's conventional artillery is capable of wiping out the other's capital, and both sides have access to nuclear weapons.

The vast majority of South Koreans want to see their country reunified with the North, but the younger ones aren't eager to pay a steep price for it.

In this city of 10 million, however, just 25 miles from the North Korean border, life continues seemingly unaffected, until you ask people about the sinking. Yet Seoul's residents are more fearful that one side will miscalculate the intentions of the other than that one side will intentionally start a war. The idea of mutually assured destruction seems to reassure most that war will never occur.


But it is the split in South Koreans' reaction to the sinking of the Cheonan that is most curious. People who are 60 and older are angry and tend to want harsh retaliation. Over the years, North Korea has committed several acts of violence against the South. In 1968, 31 North Korean commandos attacked the Blue House, the presidential palace in Seoul; in 1987, two North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air passenger jet, killing all 115 people on board. In each case, South Korea appeared to turn the other cheek. Now, older South Koreans seem to have had enough and want their country to take a tougher line. They applaud President Lee Myung-bak for turning away from the "sunshine policy" of predecessors who had sought to secure friendlier relations with the North.

Younger South Koreans are more fearful of tough rhetoric, however, and they worry that escalation could trigger something horrific. They do not approve of North Korea's hostilities, but they were born into this state of affairs and accept it as a cost of living. Life is dramatically improving in their country. Almost 90 percent of high school graduates go to college, and South Korea has become an economic powerhouse. The young don't want to rock the boat.

Young people are largely focused on personal economic advancement. And older folks are annoyed at the younger generation's lack of nationalism and outrage at the all-too-often-lethal antics of Kim Jong-il. Complicating matters even more is that the 68-year-old North Korean leader is reportedly very ill and is planning to hand over power to his third son, Kim Jong-un, 27, who may want to demonstrate his toughness.

The generation gap in South Korea comes to a head over the question of reunification. With an attitude not unlike St. Augustine's "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet," the vast majority of South Koreans want to see their country reunified with the North, but the younger ones aren't eager to pay a steep price for it.


One Seoul-based American official reported going to a town meeting where young people said they support reunification but when pressed on a timeline many wanted it to happen after their lifetime. They want their country to be put back together. Yet knowing how much reunification cost the West Germans, they aren't eager to realize that dream. Older and more nationalistic South Koreans badly want to see their country made whole. The catch is that when the North Korean regime eventually collapses, it won't be on anyone's timetable. It will just happen.

This article appears in the June 5, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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