A growing number of South Korean teenagers see inter-Korean relations as far from peaceful in a phenomenon that might embarrass President Moon Jae-in’s administration, which has been preoccupied with reconciliation with Pyongyang since it assumed office in May 2017.
According to a survey conducted in November by the Education and Unification ministries on 68,750 students enrolled in elementary, middle and high schools nationwide, 35.2 percent of the students said relations between the two Korea were not peaceful. That marked a sharp increase from the 15.5 percent who gave the same answer in a similar poll in 2018.
By contrast, the proportion of teenage students who said inter-Korean ties remained peaceful halved from 36.6 percent to 17.6 percent over the cited period.
The euphoric mood forged through three rounds of summits between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018 has been eclipsed by stalled progress in denuclearizing the North.
Pyongyang has stopped all talks and exchanges with Seoul, in a show of disappointment at the Moon administration’s inability to help ease US-led international sanctions against the impoverished regime in exchange for scaling back its nuclear arsenal. It demolished a joint inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the truce village Panmunjom in June in anger at anti-Kim leaflets being flown across the border into the totalitarian state by North Korean defectors here. In September, the North’s troops killed a South Korean fisheries official who had drifted into its waters across the western maritime border.
Despite Pyongyang’s antagonistic moves, the Moon administration has continued to pander to the Kim regime to push ahead with its peace agenda for the peninsula. It enacted a controversial ban on the anti-Pyongyang leafleting campaign and stopped short of demanding that Pyongyang punish those responsible for the murder of the South Korean civil servant.
Seoul has also tried in vain to circumvent the international sanctions regime against Pyongyang in a bid to resume cross-border projects.
In the eyes of many South Korean teenagers, not to mention adult citizens and experts, the Moon administration’s blind pursuit of its peace agenda has not led to a more peaceful relationship between the two Koreas.
What is particularly worrisome is its poor judgment, or wishful thinking, on the subject of Pyongyang’s plans for its nuclear arsenal.
In his parliamentary confirmation hearing last week, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said he believed Kim still intended to denuclearize his country. As a reason for his belief, Chung, a former top security adviser to Moon, cited the suspension in recent years of nuclear weapons tests and long-range ballistic missile tests, as well as Kim’s promise in 2018 to close the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon.
But the North has continued to acquire nuclear warheads and make its nuclear arsenal more sophisticated. In his report to the eighth congress of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party last month, Kim repeatedly emphasized the importance of strengthening his regime’s nuclear capabilities to counter threats from adversaries and bring about unification with the South. In particular, he pledged to develop a nuclear-powered submarine and tactical nuclear weapons, which could be used to strike US bases and other targets in the South.
A former top North Korean diplomat said in a recent interview with US news network CNN that Kim would not give up his nuclear weapons because he believed they were key to the survival of his regime. Ryu Hyun-woo, who defected to the South in September 2019 while serving as the North’s acting ambassador to Kuwait, said Pyongyang might be willing to negotiate a reduction in its nuclear arms but was unlikely to ever abandon them entirely.
In a webinar hosted by Georgetown University early this month, a US intelligence official said North Korea might not discard its nuclear weapons because it needed them to deter outside powers from stepping in if internal pressure for change got out of control. Sydney Seiler, the officer for North Korea at the National Intelligence Council, noted that a guarantee for the security of the regime could be really difficult to address without the North itself changing in a way that can provide a better future for its people.
To lead it in that direction in the long term, international sanctions need to be tightened and its dire human rights situation should be brought to light. The Moon administration can hardly be expected to walk this path.
Whatever reconciliatory events might be repeated, like the 2018 inter-Korean summits, the proportion of South Korean teenagers seeing cross-border ties as peaceful will continue to dwindle as long as they are made to face a nuclear-armed North.