A friend once told me that the thought of reunification with North Korea (to put it mildly because he used some other colorful metaphors) was, “stupid because it would ruin the economy that South Korea had worked so hard to achieve. Why would I want that?” This was five years ago at an international school in Seoul. My friend, also Korean, was livid at the thought of possible reunification. His understanding of and opinions on the matter were based purely upon the economic turmoil that would come with the rejoining of the two nations. When talking to the elder members of my family, I find a slightly different opinion. Most, but not all, believe that there should be at least an attempt at reconciliation, even if the costs are high. The divide between these two opinions is at the root of the reactions towards the joint participation of the two countries in the upcoming Olympics. The generational gap and increasing Westernization in South Korea has influenced the sympathies of much of the younger generation. However, it is in the best interest of the younger generation to regain some of the older generation’s perspective.
The joint venture with North Korea in the 2018 Winter Games serves multiple purposes. First, it is a step towards a personal goal of reunification for South Korean President Moon Jae-In. President Moon’s parents are originally from North Korea, and his personal connection with the land is strong. Second, it serves as a détente for both the North Koreans and the Americans. The suspension of military exercises by the South Koreans and Americans is an acute victory for the easing of tensions. There is also a slight easing of nuclear tensions from North Korea. Third, it brings together both nations in a feeling of unity, which many hope will bring the two countries closer to negotiating some of the tensions that continue to plague the Peninsula. All three purposes share a common thread that is highlighted by the divisive attitudes detailed above: it is all about time.
President Moon’s personal goal caters to the elders. Many in the younger generation in South Korea are simply unable or unwilling to understand the deeply personal connections many of their parents and grandparents have with North Korea. They did not have their lives uprooted or suffer the tragic separation their family members had to experience. The fast-paced, fast-changing society that South Korea has become separates the younger generation from those feelings. Most South Koreans, at least those in the city, are perpetually caught up with making money, popular culture and social mobility. Reunification and reconciliation have become afterthoughts. Nobody knows for sure how far into the future the military détente is going to go. South Korea has been thrust into a position complicated by its desire to keep its relationship with the United States from going haywire, which in large part is due to the man in the White House and trying to re-form a relationship with North Korea.
The United States’ role in the tensions will remain unpredictable. President Trump has agreed to suspend the joint military drills in light of the Olympics. The continued suspension of these exercises will be dependent on North Korea’s actions after the conclusion of the games as well as the ability of negotiators to start a conversation with the North. If North Korea continues with its policy of nuclear posturing, the United States will no doubt match the “aggression” with more military exercises and quite possibly actual military action. For this reason, it is imperative that negotiators make every effort to start dialogues with North Korean officials. The Olympics will not last forever and may be the only jumping-off point towards more peaceful relations.
Reunification, at this point, is not a viable option. Not only is reunification seen as an undesirable course of action—something that was not the case even ten years ago—but also too much time has passed between the two nations. Young people do not want to be a part of joint Korea. There would be too much economic pain and too much difficulty in reconciliation. In addition, under what leadership would a joint Korea operate? It is highly unlikely that Kim Jong-Un would give up his power and political control and South Koreans would, conversely, never allow themselves to be ruled under anything other than a democracy.
That being said, the Winter Games in Pyeongchang are an opportunity towards greater peace for the future. Embracing the Games as a possible end towards the tension, which most South Koreans simply choose to ignore because it has become part of their day-to-day for the last 65 years, could be the solution moving forward. If begrudged South Koreans could support and embrace reconciliation with their Northern counterparts negotiations might be able to bloom. This is a big “if.” Most continue to oppose the opportunity and time is running out.
William Park is a member of the Class of 2019.