On the college campus where I teach, one side of the main building is completely covered with a painting of a female student, smiling brightly, in traditional Korean dress, among a group of fellow South Koreans. Her name is Im Su Kyung, a former student of the university and well known for her illegal visit to North Korea to participate in the 1989 Pyongyang Youth and Student Festival. At the time, visiting the North was unthinkable for most ordinary South Koreans. When she came back to the South after her 45-day visit, some Koreans acclaimed her as "the flower of reunification," while many others considered her a naive youth who had thrown away her own future. Having breached the National Security Law, she was imprisoned for about 31/2 years before being pardoned and set free.
For the many students and professors who pass by the painting every day, Im stands for a variety of hopes and agonies today's Koreans have to live with. The painting was probably a collaboration by amateur artists, perhaps by a group of talented and eager, yet untrained, student activists. And with time, some of the paint has peeled off, and the otherwise delicate and beautiful face of Im now looks mottled. But the students want it to remain, and the administration is not making an issue over why a painting of Im, the only outdoor mural on the whole campus, should be there at all.
The iconography of Im says a lot about why South Korea, directly in North Korea's line of fire and protected since 1953 by an American security umbrella, has lately seemed deeply ambivalent about the United States and oddly committed to diplomacy with a belligerent North whose Stalinist political and economic system is diametrically opposite to that of the South.
That the North is just another part of Korea that one would visit freely and that the two Koreas should be reunited someday are not debatable issues in South Korea. Concerns about the economic costs and political difficulties accompanying reunification have not caused South Koreans to question whether or not to pursue the possibility, but have only prompted them to search for the most workable method of rejoining the divided peninsula.
There are reasons for this sacrosanctity of reunification in Korean society. Besides the ethnic homogeneity and cultural similarity between the two Koreas, many Koreans have close family members who have been on the other side of the DMZ (demilitarized zone) since the war ended half a century ago. Many of them do not even know whether their loved ones on the other side are still alive. Many are known to have already passed away with the deepest pain and regret imaginable. Many newlywed couples were separated during the war and many of those have not remarried since, hoping that they would be reunited with their spouses someday. For these and other South Koreans, the issue of famine in North Korea is not only a cause for honorable and humane concern, but a reason to worry about whether their parents, children or grandchildren have enough to survive.
Of course, we do have evidence of romantic sympathy toward the North, coupled with blind disregard for the tragic reality inflicted by the regime there on its own people. When I asked a student activist what he would like to do upon meeting North Koreans some day, his answer was that he would embrace them and cry. "Because we share the same blood," he said, "any problems that might have existed between us will evaporate the moment we embrace each other and cry together." Crying may come rather easily, as we witnessed on several recent occasions when delegates of the North and South met in Pyongyang. The North Koreans, including many small children who may not understand the complex ramifications of division and reunification between the two Koreas, burst into tears during the official farewell ceremonies for the departing South Korean delegates. Some romantics go as far as believing that North Korea will not use a nuclear bomb to attack South Korea even if it develops one because the people of North and South are compatriots.
This sentiment is more readily shared among younger South Koreans who did not experience the Korean War. Many of these South Koreans spent their youth fathoming the painful fact that their own army, allegedly with the American military's acquiescence, killed innocent civilians during the Kwangju Democratic Movement in 1980.
The North Korean regime seems eager to cultivate these feelings and divide the South from its longtime ally, the United States. The North Korean consul general in Beijing recently remarked that the North would not invade the South even if his country were attacked by the United States. Given the fact that the North Korean army and its artillery are heavily deployed along the DMZ, and that only last year the North's navy launched an unprovoked attack on the South's naval vessels, this is hardly believable. Yet for the young South Koreans who organized fan groups for the North Korean National Team during the Asian Games in 2002, or for the tens of thousands who thronged downtown Seoul at night to hold candlelight vigils for the two teenage girls who were hit and killed by an armored vehicle driven by two American servicemen (both of whom were later acquitted by an U.S. military court and sent home, thereby angering many Koreans), it may be a little difficult to accept that the North is their primary enemy while the United States is on the same side.
In a way, some young South Koreans' anti-American sentiment is an extension of their discontent with the new world order in which the United States acts as the only ultrapower. American domination of the age of globalization and the young Koreans' sense of alienation and frustration may partly explain their recent reactions. However, on my university campus, some of the most popular and crowded lectures are not given by the professors of the university, but by the invited instructors on TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), which every foreign student must pass in order to gain admission to a college or university in the United States. Studying in the United States and working for a U.S.-based multinational corporation are quite popular among young Koreans, and they are often considered ways to be competitive in the era of globalization. To explain this co-existence of anti-Americanism and the pursuit of the American dream, some young people differentiate a "political anti-Americanism" (their type) from an "emotional" one. The former is directed against some U.S. policies based on political judgment, while the latter means just hating anything American for no obvious or persuasive reason.
But even political anti-Americanism worries a significant number of South Koreans, especially those who are old enough to have gone through the pain and cruelty of the war. For these older South Koreans, the debate about the presence of the U.S. military in Korea is a luxury we cannot afford because of the absolute need for peace on the Korean peninsula. Kim Kwang Sik, a retired public servant in his late sixties, told me, "We've built this nation with the bloodshed by those who fought with the Americans against the communists from the North. Those who shout anti-American slogans are either naive or trying to overthrow the nation for which we have sacrificed so much." Others argue that South Koreans should not be so critical of the American military, and that we should simply be thankful for their role in preventing a communist takeover of South Korea.
Clearly there is a remarkable generation gap in South Koreans' attitudes toward North Korea and the United States, and that explains some of the mixed messages Americans are getting from here. During the South Korean presidential election last month, the gap between generations was clearly the most prominent division in the electorate. The force behind the victory of the more liberal presidential candidate, Roh Moo Hyun, were the younger South Koreans, who eagerly campaigned for a change. Some of the people who voted for the defeated Lee Hoi Chang, confessed that they had underestimated the power of the younger generation and were shocked by the result. In the midst of the slogans for change and new politics, some older voters felt irrelevant and frustrated. One said, "I feel as though I have been driven out of my own old house." Some of them are bitter about the sudden power shift between generations. A businessman in his fifties said, "My generation has been working hard and waiting patiently for our turn to take charge. But there was no such thing as our turn. Suddenly, the younger ones are in charge."
Whether there has been a real political power shift between generations will be proven in time. But there has been a significant development that may make such a shift more plausible -- the Internet. Ranked as third in the world in the use of the Internet per person, South Korea is highly up to date in information technology.
Yet access to information technology varies widely among different age groups. According to a recent survey, 58 percent of South Koreans use the Internet. Among these, more than 90 percent of 20-year-olds use the Internet, while only about 30 percent of 45-year-old South Koreans use it, and for those who are over 65, less than 5 percent use it. The generational gap in Internet use is much more pronounced in South Korea than in other similarly advanced societies such as the United States, where there is virtually no difference in Internet use between 20-year-olds and 45-year-olds. Even among Americans who are 65, about 30 percent use it. South Korea's Internet gap, and the sharply different sources of information used by different age groups, may explain why the extent of pro-North Korean and anti-American sentiments in South Korean society may have been underestimated until now.
The use of the Internet has also brought about significant changes in the way South Koreans communicate with each other -- and this, too, has political ramifications. Cyberspace liberates young Koreans from old hierarchies. To the dismay of many older (and some not-so-old) South Koreans, the honorifics system of Korean language is often ignored on the Web, and this allows communication between generations on a more equal basis. This has translated into greater political activism among the youth tuned into the Internet. To name three examples: The Red Devils (the supporters' group for the Korean National Team during the World Cup Games), the Rohsamo (literally, a group of people who love President-elect Roh) and the group that has organized the candlelight vigil to commemorate the two teenage girls all started in cyberspace. These groups have demonstrated explosive energy in taking their cyber communities off-line, and putting virtual communities into the streets. And they have left the technologically alienated members of the older generation frustrated and angry.
It is younger Koreans without the experience of the war who are becoming the mainstream of South Korean society. Rather than drawing upon historical background or a sense of indebtedness to the United States, the younger generation wants to find out why the United States and South Korea should maintain a collaborative and solid relationship. A sincere effort by the United States to recognize the dignity of Korea as a nation might be quite helpful in making the case. The main reason so many South Koreans were angry over the teenage girls' deaths was the reluctance of the United States to say it was sorry. Only after staging several large-scale demonstrations did Koreans hear what they had asked for.
But as Seoul and Washington struggle to figure out a way to deal with Pyongyang, the ties between South Korea and the United States remain strong, despite tensions. Many South Koreans, both young and old, still believe they can learn valuable things from what American society has achieved. The last I heard, even Im, the "flower of reunification," now in her mid-thirties, was pursuing "peace studies" in a doctoral program at none other than an American university.