It is not easy being a young person in globalised South Korea. The intense competition that defines South Korea’s education system and the irregular employment market that awaits graduates has led to rising inequality, falling birth rates, insecure employment and high numbers of youth suicide.Beyond South Korea’s domestic wellbeing, globalisation and its accompanying economic insecurity also have implications for foreign affairs, particularly attitudes towards North Korea.
The national identity of South Korean youth is being transformed by globalisation. The traditional assertion that ethnicity forms the basis for the Korean nation and nationalism is being challenged head on. Young South Koreans are still proud of theirSouth Korean nation and identity, but the importance of ethnicity to their national identity is diminishing — and that has implications for North Korea and Korean unification.
Survey data in South Korea consistently shows increased levels of antipathy and antagonism towards North Korea and unification. Young people who support unification do so with provisos that demand a net political and economic benefit for the South. They show little interest in the North. And growing numbers of young people actively and openly oppose unification.
The uncertainties surrounding unification compound the challenges and fears faced by young South Koreans in an already insecure economic and social environment. In this context, it is not unreasonable for South Korea’s youth to reject the North and unification in an attempt to mitigate what is certainly the greatest risk facing South Korea’s future generations. Instead, they embrace their proud South Korean national identity.
And it is a proud South Korean identity. For all its problems, South Korea is a success. Young South Koreans are sophisticated, well-travelled, highly educated, multilingual, tech-savvy and global. Their life stories have little in common with their North Korean or Korean-Chinese brethren. As one young person told me, ‘to be honest, South and North are almost different countries. Americans or Europeans are more similar to us in their way of thinking than North Koreans’.
The implications of this are already evident in South Korea. Many young South Koreans see North Koreans and Korean-Chinese as different, untrustworthy, frightening or pitiful — not part of uri nara (‘our nation’). Yet it is possible for some foreigners — who are sophisticated, educated and willing to adopt South Korean language and its (globalised and modern) norms — to be imagined as part of the South Korean national community. That, of course, doesn’t mean all foreigners are accepted or all new ethnic Korean arrivals are rejected. But there is an interesting cross-over between economic success, middle-class norms and acceptance into the South Korean national community.
None of this precludes unification. But as new generations of South Koreans become more antagonistic to unification, and further estranged from ideas of ethnic homogeneity and the history of a unified Korea, the South Korean identity will become more distinct and assertive. The implications for North and South Korea of this transformation will be profound indeed.
Emma Campbell is a Visiting Fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University and was previously the ANU Korea Institute Postdoctoral Fellow. This article first appeared in East Asia Forum on 13 August 2016.