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.
South Korea since 1987 has developed into a robust democracy with a largely free media and a vibrant cultural scene.
“More and more South Korean young people are asking: ‘Why should we make sacrifices to merge with the country that always threatens to kill us?’” said Kim Tae-hyun, professor of politics at Chung-Ang University.
“For them, the two Koreas have been separate countries as far back as they remember. So it’s important to help them imagine how powerful a unified country could be economically and politically in the long term,” he added.
Seoul’s government is struggling to sell the idea of unification via various campaigns, including mandatory classes for schoolchildren. It defends the huge cost of a merger as an “investment” for a better future in the long run.
“We want to teach the young generation born after the war that the current division is not as quite normal as they may think,” said Park Soo-iin, a Unification Ministry spokeswoman.
Unification is a national mandate enshrined in the constitution, she said, stressing that a unified peninsula would dramatically cut defense costs and help jumpstart the South’s economy as it faces slower growth.
Officials say it could also alleviate a future labor shortage arising from the rapid aging of the South’s population.
The ministry this year designated the last week of May as “Unification Education Week.” During the week, all primary, middle and high schools must spend several hours teaching the potential upside of unification, as well as the stark reality of the North including its dire human rights record.
For this year’s event, top officials including the unification minister rushed to primary schools to give special lectures. Hundreds of pupils were sent on “unification field trips” to tense border areas with the North.
Forums were held across the nation, inviting North Korean defectors to talk about the reality of the isolated communist state. German experts were asked to speak about their nation’s experiences since unification in 1990.
“We will remind people that unification is not an option, but an eventual future we all should be prepared for by all means,” Park said.