North and South Korea are drifting further apart every day.

When North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel in June 1950 and the Korean War began, lasting three years, my grandfather, Kang Kyu-hyun, was a teenage student on summer vacation.

He got lucky. The rural village on the southeastern tip of the peninsula where my grandfather lived had been remote from the beginning of the war. Millions of people flocked to the region in search of safety. One of my neighbors in Busan evacuated with the family cattle. My grandfather, who turned 90 this year, survived the war. After millions were killed and thousands of families were torn apart, an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. But in reality, the Korean War never ended. The same was true for the division of the Korean people.

Decades after Vietnam and Germany reunified and ended their post-war division, the rift in Korea has only grown deeper. One of the last symbols of the Cold War, the rift between the modern, democratic South and the backward, repressive North can seem permanent to outside observers.

But a strange longing for reunification persists across generations and borders, and the mix of personal and collective narratives about nation and identity reveals the complexity of how South Koreans perceive division.

My parents’ generation in South Korea lived in poverty during the post-war decades under military dictatorship and the Red Scare, when terrorist attacks, military aggression, and espionage by North Korea felt visceral. My parents painted anti-communist posters at school.

I grew up in the democratic and prosperous South Korea that was born out of it. In the early 2000s, at the height of the so-called “sunshine era,” when a mood of political reconciliation between North and South Korea was building and reunification seemed possible, if still far off, my high school art project was about reuniting separated families and optimism for a unified Korea. I was 11 years old when athletes from North and South Korea entered the stadium together at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. I watched the scene on television with tears of joy in my eyes. For a while after that, my professional dream was to become the head of the South Korean Ministry of Unification, which deals with North-South issues.

The first time I met a North Korean was in Vienna in 2010. I went to see an exhibit at a museum three times. On my last visit, I was approached by a man who identified himself as a North Korean Ministry of Culture official. We introduced ourselves and said we were from a certain part of Korea. There was no need for an interpreter, and coincidentally, his surname was Kang from the same ancestor. The conversation was short and there was no big talk about national unity. But the memory of crossing the dividing line, even if only briefly, remains a powerful one for me.

South Koreans are taught that North Koreans are still “our people” and part of “our country. We are taught to long for unity. At the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, ice hockey players from North and South Korea competed as a team, with South Korean spectators waving unification flags and chanting, “We are one!”

But our dreams of reunification have always clashed with the contradictory and divisive messages about North Korea that we have internalized since childhood. North Korea is an enemy and an existential threat. Showing excessive sympathy for North Korea can be considered a violation of South Korea’s national security laws. The South Korean government blocks many North Korean websites.

North Korea’s missile launches and nuclear tests make headlines around the world, but South Koreans, used to these constant provocations, can only shrug their shoulders (North Korea tested a missile? It’s just another Thursday in Seoul). This is a stark example of the genuine and widespread apathy that many South Koreans have toward their northern neighbor.

The isolated North Korean regime has resumed nuclear and long-range missile tests after a brief moment of unity on the ice at the Pyeongchang Olympics. South Korea’s current president, Yoon Seok-yul, a conservative politician, has hardened his stance on North Korea. North-South relations are frozen again. The threat of a new war is always there.

At a time when unification seems more illusory than ever, how can we bridge this huge gap? According to one comparison, its gross domestic product could be 57 times that of North Korea. We are a strong and healthy democracy: U.S. NGO Freedom House gave South Korea a score of 83 out of 100 for political rights and civil liberties; North Korea, ruled with an iron fist by the Kimdynasty, received a score of 3.

Despite the fact that we Koreans have been taught to desire reunification, the desire for reunification is waning, especially among the younger generation. According to a major annual survey, only 46% of respondents last year said unification was “very” or “somewhat” necessary, the second-lowest figure since the survey began in 2007. Nearly 27% felt that unification was not necessary. Personally, my support for unification (should we, can we?) is still alive and well, but I’m becoming increasingly skeptical.

There are still compelling arguments in favor of reunification, including a common history and language, the immeasurable value of securing freedom for the North Korean people, and peace. If unified, the country would be able to enjoy the benefits of peace as a single economic zone, reducing its dependence on powers like the United States and China, and turning swords into plowshares.

But there is also the challenge of reconciling the vast differences in culture, ideology, and political structure, the high economic costs, and the need to focus on the basic issues on our side of the border.

What is often missing from the debate is the perspective of North Koreans. An survey found that 90.8% of recently defected North Koreans said they felt reunification was “very necessary” before leaving the country (partly due to North Korea’s pro-unification propaganda).

I still dream of all South Koreans meeting each other freely, of separated families being reunited, and of North Koreans returning home safely if they so choose. But those things still seem far away.

In 2018, the most recent period of relative détente, musicians from the South visited Pyongyang. At the end of their performance, the peace concert performeda unification song. “Our wish is unification,” the South Korean performers emphasized, “unification to save our nation.” Hundreds of North Koreans in the audience joined in the chorus, singing and waving their arms in unison.

As I watched that scene on television, I reverted to the 11-year-old girl I used to be and cried. The passage of time desensitizes us to the pain and trauma of breakups that are passed down from generation to generation. But for a moment, something remained.

Hae-Ryun Kang is a South Korean journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Seoul. We’re currently working on our first feature-length documentary, Naro’s Space Expedition, about the Koreanspace program.

– This post was adapted from를.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top