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South Korea’s latest re-unification education effort targets youth

By ASHLEY ROWLAND AND YOO KYONG CHANG | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 31, 2013

SEOUL — Threats of a North Korean attack have dominated headlines here for months.

But the South Korean government is worried about another enemy within its own borders: apathy — particularly among the young — about reunification.

Friday marked the end of the government’s first “Unification Education Week,” launched to generate support for a unified Korea.

“Interest about unification in South Korea is waning, and skepticism about unification exists,” said Park Su-jin, deputy spokesperson for the Unification Ministry, which is overseeing the effort.

“We planned this project to create passion and eagerness about unification.”

The end of Korean War hostilities six decades ago left families divided and most Koreans yearning for the two countries to become one again. The issue influenced almost every aspect of South Koreans’ lives. Differences in politicians’ views on how to make it happen won and lost elections.

But North Korea’s brainwashing of its people has left the two countries separated by an ideological gulf and, perhaps most importantly, an economic disparity that might overwhelm the South’s booming economy if the border suddenly vanished.

This week’s events in South Korea — with the motto “unification is our future and our hope” — were largely aimed at students, including classes about unification in elementary, middle and high schools; writing contests; forums at the university level; and workshops for teachers about how to discuss unification with students. Other events are being sponsored by local government offices and private organizations nationwide.

“First-graders were born after our division,” Park said. “So we would like to explain to them that this situation is not how it used to be, and the good things that would happen if we were reunited, such as no more concern about war.”

While Seoul remains politically committed to ending the division between the two Koreas, polls have shown growing indifference in the prosperous South about unification with the impoverished and isolated North.

Seoul National University surveys have found that the percentage of South Koreans who believe unification is “necessary” has dropped in recent years, from 64 percent in 2007 to 54 percent in 2011. The survey blamed the drop on increased military tensions between the two countries.

“During situations of disengaged inter-Korean relations, there is a growing tendency towards negative perceptions towards reunification,” said Song Young Hoon, a researcher at the university’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies.

Another poll by the Korea Institute for National Unification found that 92 percent of respondents thought unification was necessary in 1994.

If unification takes place during the next 20 years, the ministry has estimated that the costs would hit 55 trillion won -- nearly $49 billion -- during the first year alone.

Still, eventual reunification is a given for many South Koreans and their government, which has previously floated ideas of taxation to support unification and last year launched a “unification jar” campaign to collect donations that would be used to defray the costs.

This year has been a time of particularly strained relations: a successful rocket launch by the North in December was followed its third nuclear test in February. Pyongyang has withdrawn its workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, effectively shutting down the jointly run factory complex just north of the Demilitarized Zone that was the last remaining symbol of bilateral cooperation.

Park said events like the February test have caused children to worry about the possibility of renewed conflict with the North, and educating them about the South’s goal of reunification will ease their fears.

“We would like to get the horrors of war out of their minds and make them know that we need to bring about peaceful reunification,” she said.

Rowland.ashley@stripes.com

Chang.yookyong@stripes.com