HONOLULU – The woman from North Korea was following the standard party line. “All Koreans all over the world dream of and are working toward unification,” she told me as we chatted in Pyongyang three years ago. “Actually, I hate to tell you this,” I cautiously replied, “but I’ve spent some time in the Village Down There,” borrowing a euphemism Northerners use for South Korea. “Young people have largely lost interest in unification. They see the Koreas as two separate countries and don’t think it’s necessary to rejoin.”
It was, I think, the first time she’d heard such an idea. She stuttered and changed the subject.
The long-lasting effect of the Winter Olympics getting underway in South Korea may bring that message home to her compatriots in the North — and those on the South Korean left. Pyongyang’s charm offensives on the South will no longer work; younger South Koreans just don’t care that much about unification.
Pyongyang has long appealed to Southern sentiments about bringing together the “ethnic community” of Koreans as a way to try to earn support while undermining conservative South Koreans who support the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Targeting Southerners’ emotions about the nexus of race and family, particularly during Seoul’s Sunshine Policy of outreach in the 2000s, was in part a way to say, “Look, we want to work with you, our Southern brothers and sisters, but the Americans are standing in our way.”
The recent appeals to a cooperative spirit saw Pyongyang and the Moon Jae-in government rush into a number of exchanges and conciliatory measures in early January, centered on the Olympics. These include a joint North-South ice hockey team, a joint ski practice at North Korea’s Masikryong resort, a cheer squad and Northern exhibitions of taekwondo, as well as concerts by a Northern orchestra.
Let’s look at how Moon’s poll numbers have fared as his team put these events together. In the middle of January, Moon’s approval rating dropped to 67 percent, Gallup Korea reported, and was down to 64 percent by the end of the month. It had been at 73 percent at the beginning of the year.
The pollsters found the drop among young people was especially severe and that it was forcing the creation of the Joint Olympic team that engendered the most opprobrium.
This dip in popularity isn’t a catastrophe, of course, and some of President Moon’s slide in opinion polls is also tied to his robust attempts to bring crytopcurrency trading under state control too. And this again speaks to how young people — the country’s biggest demographic of bitcoin traders — are interested in the core promises he was elected on: clean governance and economic opportunity.
Nonetheless, at least some of the disapproval is clearly connected to Moon’s eagerness to offer North Koreans multiple seats at the Olympic banquet table. When 12 North Koreans were added to the South Korean women’s hockey squad, one poll showed 70 percent disapproval, while another showed a more even split, with 44.1 percent opposed and 42.5 percent in favor.
This is part of a trend in which younger South Koreans are either apathetic about or actively hostile toward North Korea. An Asan Institute study from 2015 found that “youth detachment from North Korea” was “perhaps the most important recurring theme in the public opinion data” during the preceding five years.
“While this cohort is clearly progressive on issues such as gay marriage, it also identifies as conservative on hard security issues,” the study found. Indeed, Moon’s numbers remained high when he agreed to deploy the THAAD anti-missile system in August 2017. That choice had 72 percent support among South Koreans.
There are always concerns about the reliability of polling on North Korea, but these findings align with other observations. We can infer that younger South Koreans are hawkish because their views of the North have been framed by coming of age during a period in which Seoul blamed Pyongyang for the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan warship that killed 46 sailors, the North’s shelling of the island of Yeonpyong-do that same year, and Pyongyang’s increasingly aggressive nuclear and missile-testing program.
Moreover, globalization and the battle to compete in difficult economic circumstances inform young South Koreans’ perceptions of themselves and their position in the world. It’s clear that in many ways life is tougher for those in their 20s than it was for their parents. Given their own economic struggles, young people are not in favor of blithely giving financial handouts to the North. Many are not even in favor of giving hard-earned roster spots on their national hockey team to North Koreans.
Liberal and progressive values are also a factor. More young people have studied or traveled abroad. They’ve consumed foreign media and seen mixed-race marriages normalized. Their attitudes toward bloodlines and purity of race and identity have changed. And, unlike their parents, they’ve never actually known anyone from the North. The division of the peninsula is a political, but not a personal, fact. Given the North’s dysfunctions, it is unsurprising they think unification is unattractive.
When North Korea called for “all Koreans” to promote cooperation and unification last month, young South Koreans heard it, but they’re unlikely to act on it. They’ll still be curious as they watch the Northerners visiting their country but won’t be rapt and full of hope the way audiences were during the outreach of the early 2000s.
Moon is a democratic, pragmatic politician. If he gets too far ahead of prevailing sentiments, he will adjust.
How Pyongyang will react is a different matter. Some of Pyongyang’s elite — global travelers and internet users — already know about the trend lines among younger South Koreans. Some, particularly older decision-makers, probably do not. If the charm offensive fails to have the impact it did in decades past, will they adjust their messaging?
It is possible to imagine Pyongyang dampening down unification rhetoric and shifting toward messages of coexistence for audiences outside their borders. But it is also possible that the North will double down on propaganda that no longer really works, in an attempt to mobilize sentiments that no longer really exist. Neither approach is likely to succeed if the North continues its cycle of weapons testing and provocation.
The opacity of elite decision-making in Pyongyang makes it hard to predict its responses. What we can already see the outline of, however, is that the Pyeongchang Olympics will be a watershed in how both Koreas understand each other.
Andray Abrahamian is a research fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu and the author of “North Korea and Myanmar: Divergent Paths.”