By Kiki Sideris
Red crowned and white naped cranes glide over the lush green valley of rice paddies that constitute the demilitarized zone that has separated the two Koreas for more than 70 years. But they are the only living creatures that can bridge this divide, which is armed to the teeth. Hidden among the jagged green peaks that tower over the lush valley on the North Korean side, are enough artillery to level Seoul, 35 miles south of the DMZ, in minutes–and there’s nothing that either the Korean or the U.S. military could do to stop such an attack. Nothing in the ongoing peace talks have lessened that threat so far.
Despite this continual threat, many in the two Koreas yearn to reunite. Says a sign on the southern side of the DMZ, “I don’t want to see North Korea through binoculars anymore.”
As North Korea’s mountainous artillery suggests, the question of reunification is complicated. While some South Koreans say that reunification will lead to an economic boom, others say that taking on North Korea will result in a heavy economic burden.
“The younger generation has little support of reunification due to the economic burden South Korea would take on,” said Dr. Bo-hyuk Suh, a professor at the Institute of Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. “Basically all of the older generation in South Korea supports reunification.”
Recent polls prove the apparent divide. Survey Billy, a South Korean survey platform, asked 578 adults over the age of 19 in May if they wanted reunification. The survey found that 24 percent believe reunification is necessary, 48 percent think reunification should happen if possible, 11 percent think reunification should not happen if it can be avoided, and 15 percent said they do not have an opinion on the matter. The remaining 2 percent believe that the North and South should never reunite.
South Korea and its volatile neighbour have never officially ended the Korean War, which was prompted at the end of World War II in 1945 by the division of Korea. Since then, North and South Korea have been gripped in a conflict, which exploded into open warfare in 1950. The conflict ended three years later. Each side agreed to an armistice to move their troops back 2,200 yards from the front line, creating a buffer zone known as the DMZ.
In 2018, the North and South’s relationship saw a major diplomatic breakthrough. North Korea participated in the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February. In April, the two countries agreed to work together to end the Korean War and the Korean conflict when they signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula.
“Unification is the most positive opportunity to develop the Korean economy. It’s a perfect combination,” said Dr. Young-Dall Lee, a professor of entrepreneurship at Dongguk University in Seoul. “North Korea has a great size and a bunch of raw materials like steel, coal, etc. In South Korea, we have very skillful manufacturing plants and technological infrastructure.”
Dr. Lee added that information, communication, and technology (ICP) companies strongly favor unification because they want to expand their consumer market. “North Korea has no telecommunication infrastructure,” he said. “So when we can be unified, we’d get big size market demands for infrastructure development and consumer consumption as well.”
But the people remain divided.
Dr. Suh explained that South Korean people have two images of North Korea. Some view North and South Korea as family or friends. They believe in reunification and a common future of prosperity. Others view the North Koreans as enemies and do not wish to reunite.
“Reunification is something that we must do,” said Haedoh Lee, 76, a former elementary school principal from Seoul. Although he has no relatives in North Korea, he believes “we are family and we share the same blood.”
Katie Park, a DMZ tour guide, said that she did not want reunification until she met a North Korean defector. “After I met some defectors, I really wanted reunification for the people of Korea. I really think it’s necessary,” she said. “We have some political differences. Even though we have some chaos, I think it’s necessary.”
Seung Hyun Kim, a 24-year-old student at Dongguk University in Seoul, said that he prefers to keep his political stance private, noting that expressing one’s political opinion is not common in Korean culture. Regardless of political opinion, though, he said that South Koreans can all agree on one thing: “There’s a huge economic gap between North and South Korea. If they reunify, we’d have to help the North. That’s a huge cost of reunification,” he said. “We’d have to help them industrialize. How will we pay for this cost? The older and younger generation are both concerned with that.”
Dr. Lee said that those who oppose reunification are concerned with how government expenditure might influence their personal lives. “Most of the older generation have already invested big-sized pension funds,” he explained. “They wouldn’t want to be unified because the governmental expenditure level is going to [increase] when we get unification.”
Kim also questions North Korea’s motives. “Now is the right time to think about why Kim Jong-un is starting to meet with South Korea and the United States,” he mentioned.
Dr. Suh said that reunification depends on North Korea. “The inter-Korean relationship could be developed, but the scope could be influenced by the speed of the denuclearization process.”
As talks of reunification persist, Panmunjom, a truce village in the Joint Security Area of the DMZ, shows hope. A new chapel is up for construction in front of its Visitor Center. The facility is located as close to North Korea as possible, where it will act as a “chapel of peace.” There, Koreans can pray for a peaceful reunification.