Sixty years after the end of a war which killed millions and sealed the Korean Peninsula’s division into communist North and capitalist South, the dream of reunification is fading in South Korea.
After more than a thousand years as a united nation, the separate Koreas came into being in 1948, but went to war two years later when the North invaded. They have remained technically at war since the conflict ended on July 27, 1953, with an armistice, but no peace treaty.
Officially, at least, reunification remains the holy grail for both Seoul and Pyongyang.
However, sentiment in the prosperous South has continued to sour in recent years, as more people tire of regular threats from their impoverished neighbor and fret about the potentially huge cost of a merger.
A generational shift has played a role, with older Koreans who remember an undivided nation gradually dying. Younger generations show little enthusiasm for merging with a “family” member they never really knew.
Perennial tension across the border escalated into several major flare-ups in recent years, including the North’s shock shelling of a border island that killed four South Koreans in November 2010.
In the latest bout of hostility, the North made blistering threats of nuclear attack against Seoul and Washington, in an angry response to tougher UN sanctions sparked by its third nuclear test in February.
South Koreans have long proven surprisingly resilient — if not indifferent — to Pyongyang’s belligerence that has been part of everyday life for six decades.
However, reunification sentiment has soured to a degree unseen for decades.
“Could we please continue to live separated forever? I don’t want to live with a childish gangster like the North,” said Grace Choi, a Seoul college student.
“Even if unification inevitably comes, I want it to happen after I die, like 100 years later,” Choi said, adding her main fear is the cost and the social turbulence it would cause.
Choi is not alone.
A state survey of South Korean teenagers showed 57 percent of them were interested in reunification as of 2010 — a sharp decline from 71 percent in 1997.
A recent survey by Dong-A Ilbo newspaper showed that 28 percent of South Koreans believe the two Koreas will never be able to reunify — an unimaginable idea a few decades ago. The percentage among those aged 20 to 29 was higher at 33.4 percent.
Another survey showed that only 25 percent of South Koreans firmly support unification, while 65 percent are supportive only if they can somehow avoid the huge costs and the social upheaval.
The remaining 10 percent firmly oppose reunification under any circumstances, according to the survey conducted last year.
Cost estimates vary hugely, but all the figures are eye-watering.
With the South’s economy — Asia’s fourth-largest and home to multinational giants like Samsung and Hyundai — nearly 40 times larger than that of the North, young South Koreans complain they will eventually have to shoulder most or all of the burden.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles cross-border ties, puts the figure at at least 55 trillion won (US$49 billion) — just to cover basic services for the first year after unification.
The social upheaval would also be dramatic. Food-scarce North Koreans have lived for decades in a tightly controlled authoritarian nation which demands devotion to its ruling dynasty, and restricts access to information about the outside world.