Unified Korea is a desperate, dystopian country, beset by police tyranny, ravaged by organized crime and roamed by a growing underclass of destitute northerners.
Lee Eung-jun paints a chilling portrait of 2016 for readers in prosperous, ordered South Korea. However, perhaps the most striking aspect of his novel The Private Life of a Nation is its rarity: Portrayals of a unified Korea are unusual enough — never mind such a bleak challenge to the rosy official image of the future.
Periodic crises and North Korean saber-rattling frequently fix the world’s attention on the divided peninsula, yet scant consideration is given to what might one day emerge from such tensions — an oversight, Lee said, that impelled him to write the book.
“The North Korean nuclear weapons [program] is a scary problem, but it is a one-time issue; the more frightening problem is what would happen afterward,” he said.
The peaceful pursuit of unification is inscribed in South Korea’s constitution. Questioning it would be political suicide for public figures, analysts say, because ethnic nationalism is a key element of political belief across the spectrum.
However, there is growing indifference, doubt and even opposition among ordinary citizens who fear the cultural, social and economic impact could crush their society.
“It’s still strong as an ideal,” said Stephen Epstein, an expert on South Korean society and its images of the North at the University of Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand.
“If you ask them: ‘How about tomorrow?’ Everyone backs off... When confronted with it as something that might happen, people are a lot less sanguine,” he said.
In 1994, 92 percent of South Koreans considered unification “necessary”; by 2007 that had fallen to 64 percent, according to research by Seoul National University. Support is lowest among the young: A 2010 survey found that only 49 percent of twentysomethings judged it necessary, compared with 67 percent of over-50s.
For many, the peninsula’s crude division by foreign powers remains a traumatic historical anomaly.
“As a foreigner perhaps you can think of other options, but unification is so natural to me,” said Kim Seok-hyang, a professor at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul.
“No one really asked any Koreans, do you want to be divided and stay like that for over 60 years? With your family members separated?” she added.
In the early decades after the division, South Korea repeatedly fell under military rule and lagged behind the North economically. Now it is a technologically advanced democracy with cultural clout and powerful economic ties across the region.
“I think young Koreans these days feel they have more in common with an American or European student than with North Koreans,” said Kim So-young, a 21-year-old student in Seoul.
She grew up at the height of the “sunshine era” of engagement with the North, when unification was more easily imaginable.
“I thought it would come by the time we were in high school or university... I imagined running around with [North Korean] children in their uniforms,” said her friend, 22-year-old Park Min-jin.
Kim has moved from indifference to opposition.
“There will be a lot of costs and problems. What should we do to help North Korea with cultural and economic issues? It’s not just the cost. They have had such a different education,” Kim said.