Familiarity Breeds South Korean Indifference to the North's Threats

Younger South Koreans do not see unification with destitute North as the only future outcome.

South Korean activists display banners lampooning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as police block the launch of anti-North Korea balloons across the border on the birthday of the North's founding leader Kim Il Sung, April 15, 2016.

If you read the North Korean media over the last few weeks, you would have been surprised at how often the North Koreans have threatened an (allegedly preemptive) attack against South Korea and the United States.

In March, the North Korean authorities promised to hit the continental United States with nuclear weapons. Later that month, Pyongyang said its military was training to attack the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential residence. Official media even showed footage of such a simulated attack.

All these Gothic threats have a clear reason behind them: For many decades, North Korean diplomacy has successfully employed the same trick. The North Koreans create a sense of tension before they move to extract political concessions for their willingness to calm the situation that they themselves first created deliberately. However, this time this strategy has not worked. The reason is simple: nobody listens to Pyongyang’s threats anymore.

Indeed, in the early 1990s, when North Korea’s official representatives promised to turn Seoul into a ‘sea of fire’, this statement was enough to result in panic buying amongst some older Koreans. Now, much stronger statements than this are either completely ignored, briefly mentioned in passing on the evening news as if they were bad jokes, or buried somewhere on page 25 of Seoul’s daily newspapers.

The reaction of the international community, though slower to catch on, has become similar. As recently as 2013, such outbursts of bellicosity from Pyongyang created an acute sense of crisis. Back then, dozens of top-tier journalists from network TV and the print media from across the Western world descended on Seoul. This time around though, similarly dramatic, picturesque and scary sounding words have fallen on deaf ears.

The reason for the change is clear. North Korea has cried ‘preemptive nuclear strike’ just one too many times, and the wolf of disinterested apathy has eaten their news cycle. The a leader in this regard is the attitude of South Korea, which stopped caring about North Korean rhetoric quite a while ago.

Before the late 1980s, the South Korean people saw the North as a serious threat to be feared and taken seriously. Many still remembered the crushing defeats of 1950 when advancing North Korean forces nearly annihilated the South Korean army in just a few days.

Indifferent about North Korea

Things began to change after democratization, partially due to the rise of a younger generation that had been strongly influenced by left-wing Korean nationalism. For a couple of decades, the South Koreans had seen Pyongyang as both something to be afraid of, but also the object of pity, worthy of sympathy and assistance. This was the era of Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, when South Korea provided significant aid and preferential trade to the North.

In the last five years or so, things have again shifted. The young generation of today, and even their parents, who were the young back in the 1990s, are indifferent about the North. The former do not really see the North as a part of their national community, though they remain reluctant to admit this. Public opinion polls consistently indicate that the younger a South Korean is, the more likely he or she is to be anxious or even hostile to the idea of unification. People in the twenties are now usually skeptical rather than optimistic about unification.

North Korea is seen as an irrelevant, desperately poor foreign country whose population just happens to speak a dialect of the same language. South Koreans correctly assume that unification is going to be expensive and will require a lot of sacrifices. The older generation was, in the past at least, ready to pay, but the young are not prepared to do so.

Of course, this does not mean that South Koreans directly and openly oppose the idea of unification.  This is psychologically and politically impossible because paeans to unification have been a part of mainstream education and ideology for decades. However, there is an increasingly widespread belief that there is certainly no rush to unify, or to be blunt: Unification should be put off for as long as practicable. It remains to be seen, though, how much such changes will come to influence politics in South Korea going forward. As time goes by, there is a growing suspicion towards the idea that the eventual unification of South and North should be seen as the only possible solution to the present-day situation.