Generations at odds over reunified Korea

In South, youths eager, older citizens more wary

April 19, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KOSUNG, North Korea - When she is asked the question, Seo Min Hye, a 22-year-old South Korean, giggles, plays with her long, dyed-red hair, fidgets nervously in her trendy ripped blue jeans and stops to think.

It's a really tough one, she says: Given the choice of who should rule a reunified Korean Peninsula, would she prefer a pro-American candidate who nearly won the presidency of South Korea in December, or Kim Jong Il, the dictator in Pyongyang?

"If I had to pick one, it would be Kim Jong Il," said Seo, one of more than 150 college students from Seoul who took a boat to a North Korean mountain resort this week. "Kim Jong Il minimizes as much as possible reliance on foreign powers, and that's good for the country."

It is not exactly the choice that Huh Il Chan, a 67-year-old passenger on the same boat, would make. He already escaped the Kim dynasty's repressive rule once, as a teen-ager in 1948, and has no illusions about the North Korean regime.

"Young people say they want reunification under any conditions," Huh said. "But people who've been through the war, who've lived under the Communist government, never want to experience that again."

The totalitarian regime in the North has ruled its people through a rigid cult of personality, brutal repression and near-total isolation from the outside world. One of the most militarized societies in the world, it has diverted almost all its resources to the army, while possibly millions have starved. And, in 1950, the North launched a war against the South that left millions of Koreans dead.

Even as North Korea continues its nuclear provocations on the peninsula - including yesterday's announcement that it has begun efforts to produce plutonium - an increasing number of South Korea's youth are in the thrall of a powerful nationalist theology of reunification.

The zeal for reunification is an outgrowth of the "sunshine" policy of engagement with the North championed by former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae Jung. But this brand of populist pan-Korean ideology goes further than engagement, glossing over the brutal repression and near-starvation in the North in favor of the fierce independence and defiant racial pride they see in Kim Jong Il, even if not all adherents would vote for him to lead them.

Significant force

The youth movement is a significant enough force that it tipped the December presidential election in favor of Kim Dae Jung's chosen successor, Roh Moo Hyun, over conservative opponent Lee Hoi Chang, and galvanized anti-American sentiment in a country that has long considered the United States its strongest ally. It has divided the South Korean people, making an older generation nervous at a time when tensions are high.

"It's such a wide difference that you can't even communicate between generations," Huh said. "I worry a lot about the future of Korea."

A college professor, Huh made the same trip as Seo to Mount Kumgang, a resort area run by South Korea's Hyundai Group, one of the few places average South Korean tourists can travel in North Korea.

Mount Kumgang is in many ways the perfect setting to spotlight this generational rivalry over the future of the peninsula. Every few days, several hundred mostly South Korean tourists make the trek to the revered mountain. Because a quicker overland route is closed, many of them must travel for four hours by bus and four more by boat to a place not much more than 100 miles northeast of Seoul.

As the South's window to the North, it is a dreamy symbol of reunification with all its problematic real-world connotations: namely, that engagement with Pyongyang and nationalist fervor has come at the price of enriching Kim Jong Il's government and turning a blind eye to its human rights abuses.

The subsidies of the North add up to billions. Hyundai has paid Pyongyang hundreds of millions of dollars just for the right to develop at the resort and elsewhere, and has admitted to funneling $500 million to Kim Jong Il's government in what critics view as a payoff to secure a historic North-South summit in 2000. The South has also given more than $1 billion in food and humanitarian aid to the North in recent years.

The flow of money to the North, some critics say, has undermined efforts to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The Bush administration has sought the help of regional powers in applying pressure on Pyongyang, and is scheduled to begin talks next week with North Korea and China in Beijing.

Supporters of engagement argue that investing in the North will inevitably open up the country and break down its isolated mindset. North Korea would essentially melt into South Korea economically and, in time, politically, the theory goes. Critics counter that Kim Jong Il will never allow the country to open up, that he dreams fervently of reunifying Korea under his rule.

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