STORE

Generation gap: South Koreans fear, welcome and ignore the North

Lew Je-bong says South Korea should not trust Pyongyang
AFP

Seoul (AFP) – In the freewheeling democracy of South Korea, views of the authoritarian North, the prospects for reunification, and Friday’s summit between President Moon Jae-in and Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong Un vary widely.

Attitudes differ along both generational and political lines, and AFP spoke to three South Koreans with very different perceptions of the situation.

  

– The survivor – 

Retired English professor Lew Je-bong was a teenager during the Korean War and remembers walking miles across the war-ravaged country with his family in search of safety after Pyongyang invaded.

He is still wary about the North’s intentions and warns the South should not play into its hands. 

Pyongyang is the “world’s best liar”, he said angrily, and Seoul should learn from its history of broken promises. 

“My hope for the South-North summit on April 27 is that our president does not get tricked,” Lew said. 

“They will never give up nuclear weapons, and if they don’t, nothing should be negotiated.”

During the so-called Sunshine Policy under liberal president Kim Dae-jung, South Korea actively engaged the North economically and diplomatically and provided considerable humanitarian aid. 

Pyongyang went on to detonate its first nuclear device a few years later. 

“We gave them more than 10 trillion won ($9 billion),” the 84-year-old said. “But they used it to make nuclear weapons and are threatening us with them.” 

Like many in his generation, Lew places utmost priority on national security and firmly believes the United States — Seoul’s key military ally — will not allow another North Korean invasion.

“It won’t happen,” Lew said reassuringly. “Because America will not tolerate it.” 

Lew hopes the younger generation will never have to experience the pains of war, believes in a “peaceful reunification” — achieved on the South’s terms — and strongly opposes any role for Pyongyang.

Otherwise, Lew warned, “We will be swept over by communism.

“If so, we will all die,” he added. “You must remember that.”

– The businessman – 

Businessman Lee Jeong-jin almost cried with joy when he heard that the two Koreas will hold their first summit after a decade of tensions.

The 52-year-old is among the generation of South Koreans who attended college in the 1980s amid heightened pro-democracy and anti-US activism, partly fuelled by resentment over the division of the Koreas after World War II and Washington’s alliance with the military dictators of the time. 

He was once stationed at the now-shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North as the top on-site manager for the South’s Korea Telecom.

He worked with North Koreans every day, telling AFP: “I realised that we could quickly achieve harmony and become a prosperous nation.”

Lee is upbeat about the diplomatic developments and welcomes them as a promising step towards lasting peace on the peninsula.

“We are one people,” he said. “We’ve been divided for 70 years. The fact that both sides are willing to discuss peace and overcome differences is a big step forward.”

An avid supporter of reunification, Lee added that one Korea will be much stronger than two divided halves.

“If our population is around 100 million, we will have a strong domestic economy that can withstand any external changes,” Lee said.

After years of antagonism, Lee does not expect “immediate groundbreaking changes” in relations but dismissed scepticism over Pyongyang’s intentions.

“Their hope for peace could have accumulated over the years and now motivated them to come forward,” Lee said.

“I don’t know why we have to label it as a trick or deceit. If that is so, what’s the point of dialogue?”

– The youth – 

News of Friday’s summit has been making headlines for weeks in South Korea and around the world, but hip hop artist Choi Won-young does not care.

“I saw a headline once but I don’t know it well,” Choi said. “I don’t really know what they are doing.

“I think it’s just South Korea and North Korea meeting to talk but I’m not that interested,” he added.

With his hair dyed blond and wearing small hoop earrings, the musician was enjoying a weekday afternoon with his friends in Sinchon, a university district bustling with students.

Younger South Koreans like Choi tend to have less connection with the nuclear-armed North, having spent their adult lives in a culturally vibrant democracy regularly menaced and occasionally attacked by Pyongyang, which stands accused of widespread human rights abuses.

Some worry about the cost of reunification, others fear the prospect of low-cost competition for jobs.

A survey conducted by the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification found that more than seven out of 10 South Koreans in their 20s now oppose reunification.

“I don’t really feel the need for it,” Choi said of reunification. “It doesn’t matter if we do or don’t but I don’t know if we have to.

“North Korea’s image is not good in South Korea,” the 19-year-old added. “It’s widely known as a country that is very authoritarian.”

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