But with more young South Koreans growing dubious about reunification, the government is trying to force an attitude adjustment. In recent weeks, it has launched an online-only sitcom and sponsored a network reality show with pro-unification themes.
If the message proves persuasive, South Korea can prevent a 60-year-old consensus from devolving into an argument. Unification, the government’s reasoning goes, would reunite families, stabilize the peninsula and — eventually — generate new economic potential in a country whose population would be 73 million instead of the current 49 million. Likelier, though, is that the taxpayer-funded campaign will do little to change minds, leaving the South with new questions about whether its quarrelsome neighbor should be viewed like any other foreign country, albeit one that shares the same language and poses a security threat.
Since a 1953 armistice agreement divided the peninsula and split thousands of families, South Korea has never treated the North like just another country. Even now, at a time when Pyongyang appears stable, the pro-unification stance serves as a guiding ideology for South Korean policymakers. Left-wingers and right-wingers have different strategies, but both want North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program and open up its economy. In short, they want it to become more like the South as a starting point for a peaceful integration.
In the 1990s, more than 80 percent of South Korea thought unification was essential, according to government polls. But that number has dropped to 56 percent. About 41 percent of those in their 20s feel that way. Among teens, the figure drops closer to 20 percent.
Young people see little to connect with in North Korea, with its authoritarian government and isolated economy. If the two economies were ever to join, the shock could derail the South’s rapid rise from poverty to prosperity, costing up to $1 trillion. Lee last year proposed a “unification tax” to help Seoul brace for the price of integration.
“Young people think the financial sacrifice will be huge,” Lee said in a recent interview. “That’s why they may have negative emotions toward unification.”
Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles North Korea policy, began a serious new-media push last year and ramped up those efforts this year. The ministry has always had a firm hand in the school curriculum, particularly at the elementary level. Fifth-graders, in their ethics class, receive a government-issued textbook titled “We Are One” that tells stories about North Korean life. “Sometime in the future,” the book says, North and South Koreans will live together.