The reality, Song said, “is frustrating.”
Today, Kaesong is a grid of gray factories. Ninety percent of the master plan is undeveloped, and investment was frozen when North Korea launched a pair of attacks on the South in 2010. Business executives there say they are at the whims of North Korea’s 30-year-old ruler, Kim Jong Un, who on Wednesday barred South Koreans from entering the plant, perhaps as a political show of force.
The barricade has potentially fatal implications for the companies at the plant, who are prevented from distributing products to customers.
“Even if North Korea reopens Kaesong, they’ve already lost credibility,” said Song, a professor at Kyungmin University in northern Seoul. “People would be concerned about investing in North Korea again, because they’ve seen the risk.”
The failed rapprochement with North Korea could also hasten a shift in the South’s national mind-set.
Unification has for decades stood as an unquestioned national goal — taught in school textbooks and promoted in government-funded advertisement campaigns — but younger generations increasingly worry that a union with the North would do more harm than good. Only about one in five teenagers thinks unification is essential, compared with three in five adults nationwide.
Older generations remember the Korean War and in some cases have relatives in the North. Younger South Koreans remember their neighbor only as it exists now: remote, economically backward and figuring into their lives as a low-level threat.
“I don’t think we’re at a point where the hope of unification could be completely swept aside,” said Abraham Kim, vice president of the Korea Economic Institute. “But if we go on this path [of tension] for another couple generations, the idea of it will certainly erode.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.