Divided since the end of the Korean conflict in 1953, North and South have gone their separate ways socially and politically.
South Korea’s youngest generation was born well after the bloody 1950s conflict that separated the two into North Korea and South Korea. South Koreans are looking to the future – and often to the West – rather than concentrating on what many might consider ancient history on the peninsula.
The nation of 50 million residents is one of the world’s most-wired societies with more than 99% of those younger than 40 regularly using the Internet. While the North has languished under Kim’s totalitarian regime, the South has barely taken time to catch its breath: Capitalizing on a building boom that began in the 1970s, South Korea is now the world’s 10th largest economy and a major manufacturer of automobiles and computer technology.
South Korea boasts a bustling middle class with an average annual income of $20,000 and an elite wealthy sector whose buying power knows no bounds. In contrast, many North Koreans are starving. The Northerner’s average income is estimated at $200 a year.
While it’s not known how many Northerners would abandon their homes in a unified country, many Southerners prefer a gradual thawing during which most Northerners would stay in place during a slow managed transition.
According to 2011 estimates by Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, a unified Korean peninsula would come at a price tag of between $1 and $2.5 trillion.
“South Koreans want unification, it’s just a question of whether they’re willing to pay the cost, which would wreak havoc on the South’s economy,” said Jasper Kim, a visiting scholar of international relations at Harvard University and author of the book “Crisis and Change: South Korea in a Post-1997 New Era.”
Experts say the social cost of unification would also be steep. “It would create a caste system of one language and two cultures,” said Kim. “Southerners are notoriously elitist. Seoul residents look down on rural residents. The North Koreans would be regarded with suspicion as undereducated and in the way.”
Kim predicted that as Germany did after reunification, South Korea’s government would issue vouchers to Northerners for use in their hometowns. “It would be a payoff to stay where they are,” he said, “and cheaper than having them come to Seoul looking for work.”
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: People in Imjingak, South Korea, look toward North Korea on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011. Credit: Lee Jin-man/Associated Press