After a year marked by increased hostilities and rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, a thawing of relations between North Korea and South Korea is prompting some to view the issue of reunification with renewed optimism.
In February, North Korea sent a delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, where North Korean leader Kim Jong-un‘s sister Kim Yo-jong became the first member of the ruling family to set foot on South Korean soil since the end of fighting in the Korean War in 1953.
She came with an invitation for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang. A meeting between the two leaders has been scheduled for later this month, prompting analysts to speculate that the isolated country is suffering from increased sanctions.
As the South Koreans who remember life in a united Korea get older, many in the generations that follow do not share strong familial ties with North Korea and have mixed feelings about both the likelihood and the benefit of reunification.
Here, three South Koreans share their hopes and fears surrounding the possibility of reunification.
Yon Irae: North Korea needs to denuclearise
Yon is a priest and activist. She supports recently convicted President Park Geun-hye and is sceptical about a reunification with North Korea.
|“I don’t think Kim Jong-un’s talk of peace and reconciliation is genuine” [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]|
“I was born in Gangwon province [which borders North Korea]. There, people are brought up to be a bit more aware of national security compared to other provinces.
“During my childhood, when we heard that a wooden vessel had arrived with North Korean people and families on it, we ran out to check.
“When we went out, we saw a North Korean family, about five or six people, crawling out of the vessel. Even at a young age, when I saw that, I felt sorry for them. They looked so shabby and gaunt.
“So even then I had the impression that North Korea was a scary country. Now, I believe we’re still at war with North Korea.
“I joined the protest two years ago when I realised our country was in a bad situation. I have been coming out to join the Taegukgi Revolution Peoples’ Movement Corps protest every Saturday since then.
Now, I believe we’re still at war with North Korea.
“I don’t think Kim Jong-un’s talk of peace and reconciliation is genuine. If he wants to talk, North Korea needs to denuclearise. But the current government is begging for a dialogue and giving whatever they [North Koreans] ask.
“For unification, denuclearisation should happen before anything else. If North Korea denuclearises and the UN and the 50 million South Korean people can accept it, and if we are talking about unification without nuclear weapons and with liberal democracy, we will welcome it. We will put our hands up and clap out of joy.
“The people of this country have become stronger after experiencing the Korean War and our people are extremely strong. We have experienced countless wars in our 5,000-year history. We have survived every tough war and I think this history makes our people strong, we have a strong will to survive.”
Min Hyeonjong: I don’t have any personal ties with North Koreans
A young graduate student, Min has never known life without the North Korean threat. He says his time in the military made him more empathetic towards his neighbours.
|“We have had more experience with provocations than with talks and dialogues” [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]|
“My parents were very sympathetic to North Korea, more so than my peers. So when I found out that my peers were thinking negatively about North Korea, it was surprising to know.
“When you contrast between the opinion about North Korea and political issues that people in their 20s have, as opposed to those in their 30s and 40s, you find that lots of young people are more conservative than adults.
“We have had more experience with North Korean provocations than with talks and dialogues and I think this still has a big impact on perspectives.
When I was in the military, I was taught that North Korean people are not the enemies. The enemies are the North Korean regime and the North Korean military.
“Although some people my age are opposed to the idea of reunification, I think there is a consensus among South Korean society about reunification and it’s in the constitution too that the peaceful reunification must be pursued by the South Korean government.
“When I was in the military, I was taught that North Korean people are not the enemies. The enemies are the North Korean regime and the North Korean military.
“I think that distinction is important because the North Korean people could be part of South Korean families, which was true for my grandpa.
“My grandpa has moved from North Korea to South Korea because he was personally opposed to communism and his relatives were fighting against the North Korean regime in North Korea. Our grandparents’ generations had lots of familial ties with North Korean people.
“It has been 70 years since we have been separated and I don’t have any personal ties with North Korean people so I think that that will definitely impact the South Korean view of North Korean people and North Korea itself.”
Hyun Namhoon: Unification should happen no matter what
Hyun is the CEO of a newspaper that serves families separated from their loved ones in North Korea. The newspaper was founded by his father, a refugee from the North.
|“I feel responsible to print the paper as long as members of the [refugee] community are still alive”[Screengrab/Al Jazeera]|
“My father came down to South Korea as a refugee during the Korean War. He had to do all sorts of hard labour jobs but one day, he became a journalist at a South Korean daily newspaper called Hankook Ilbo.
“He also had a business and ultimately he launched Odo Newspaper, which catered to the North Korean refugee community.
“My father started his newspaper because he wanted to inform the community with news from their home and news about unification. It became a specialised newspaper for the refugee community.
“At first, the community welcomed our paper. It was delivered by post and was so popular that some readers would keep the copy until the next one arrived.
“But, with the development of the internet and TV, and because many of the refugees of my father’s generation have passed away, the size of our paper has become smaller.
I think unification should happen no matter what. But we need to have a well-prepared unification. The two countries have a gap in everything, including education and culture.
“I feel responsible to print the paper as long as members of that community are alive.
“It must have been very lonely and difficult for my father, but he doesn’t talk about it. He is a typical North Korean refugee type, who doesn’t share such matters with his family.
“There wasn’t any prejudice [against our family]. The reason why South Korea could become a wealthy nation in a very short period of time is because both North Koreans and South Koreans all became one in a tough time and they worked really hard. I think this is very impressive.
“I think unification should happen no matter what. But we need to have a well-prepared unification. The two countries have a gap in everything, including education and culture.
“Experts will make the calculation, but if we want to prevent conflicts between North Koreans and South Koreans, then we need to be on some kind of similar level for education and ideology. After that, unification should happen.”
Editor’s note: These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.