While a reconciliatory mood has bloomed across the 38th parallel ahead of the third inter-Korean summit, for many South Korean millennials tomorrow’s meeting might not be any different from a regular high-level encounter between their president and the leader of ‘another country’.
Constant speculation about any substantive progress that could be reached in Panmunjeom regarding Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearize has crowded out attention on what the summit might hold for the development of sustainable North-South relations. The South Korean government is in fact officially committed to simultaneously tackling the issues of the North Korean nuclear threat and the inter-Korean reconciliation through resolving “disagreements within [our] society regarding unification and the government’s North Korea policy”. As a matter of fact, building a broader national consensus is crucial for Seoul when establishing its North Korea policy. In the case of the former Sunshine Policy, despite many fruitful achievements resulting from almost a decade of its active implementation, the initiative fell short of reaching that goal and its failure to help Seoul secure strong leverage on Pyongyang, notwithstanding the considerable provision of material aid to the North, deepened the fracture between the progressives and the conservatives.
At the time of the second inter-Korean summit in 2007, Moon Jae-in was chief of staff for President Roh Moo-hyun. Therefore, the current head of state has had sufficient time to evaluate the limits and the strengths of that approach before getting his chance to “be remembered as the President who built a peaceful relation between the North and South” as he said during an interview with the CNN last year. In an effort to build national support for his policy toward Pyongyang, President Moon could not ignore the fast deteriorating security environment, and the changing attitudes among South Korean constitutes toward North Korea. For most people in their teens and early 20s, shared ancestry and geographical proximity mean very little given that there has not been daily contact with the Northern neighbour for seventy years. Against the backdrop of different domestic and international circumstances, Moon took some distance from his political mentors, President Kim (1998-2003) and Roh (2003-2008), by adopting a more cautious and pragmatic approach in engaging with Pyongyang. Since his early days in office, President Moon had to reassure the public that, in spite of his liberal credentials, he would not be weak on national defense. After having accepted the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system (THAAD), he opted for conservative figures to occupy three key positions (the Minister of National Defense, the National Security Adviser and the Intelligence Chief, with the last two acting as special envoy to Pyongyang) and proved that under his leadership the US-Korea alliance would continue to be “ironclad” by choosing Washington as his first official state visit. Above all, Moon has strongly supported UN sanctions against North Korea and he never forgets to credit President Trump with making a “huge” contribution to bringing the two Koreas together for landmark talks.
When compared with the legacy of his liberal forebears, Moon’s policy with regard to national security reflects the prevalent conservative attitude among South Koreans. While welcoming the renewed peace efforts of the current administration, the majority of South Koreans have become weary of excessively compromising policies in favour of Pyongyang, therefore thinking that any concession to the regime should not be made prior to tangible steps toward freezing or dismantling its weapons of mass destruction. While conservatism in the field of national defense has long characterized South Korean political culture, the worsening of inter-Korean relations after the armed provocations of 2010 led to the embrace of a more confrontational attitude toward North Korea, not only at the governmental level, but also at the societal level. Surprisingly, many young Koreans in their 20s have leaned toward the position held by older generations. As a recent Asan Institute’s survey indicates, the 20s and over-60s cohorts share the perception that North Korea is a serious national security threat and currently oppose the provision of economic aid. However, the reasons for aligning are likely very different as well as their sentiments toward the North Koreans or the issue of unification. While older generations still nurture a sense of national identity with the North Koreans, a sentiment of pan-Korean nationalism is extremely hard to find in youngsters who have become politically conscious at a time when South Korea is the world's 13th-largest economy, therefore for them, being South Korean citizens represents a distinctive trait.
Recently, the hawkish trend among young South Koreans ignited one of the most controversial moments in the run up to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Unexpectedly, the decision to form an inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team, seen by the Moon administration as the perfect opportunity to deescalate tension on the Peninsula, triggered a strong backlash among the South Korean youngsters. The episode has thus raised significant interest in the perception of North Korea of those who have been raised in the post-Sunshine policy era. Numerous opinion polls have confirmed this tendency, interpreting that Pyongyang military provocations have had a major impact in shaping their attitudes in respect to other age groups. This is more obvious when we consider that every South Korean male, with very few exceptions, has to serve for almost twenty months in the military, which is still justified by the existential military threat posed by North Korea. However, the prevailing conservative attitude of the younger generations toward the North could be better explained as the result of years of indifference, which is a complex phenomenon to understand. The legacy of the climate of anxiety over the perceived threat posed by Communists – the so-called ‘red scare’ of the authoritarian years – is deeply rooted in the society. Thirty years have passed since the democratic transition but anti-communism is still a necessary element of South Korean politics, constantly featuring electoral campaigns and political discourse where hard-line conservatives try to exploit it in order to discredit their liberal opponents, labelling them as communists ‘pro-North’ (i.e. during its entire term, from 2013 to 2017, the administration of Park Geun-hye resorted to the ‘red menace’ to manipulate public opinion). Since South Koreans mostly define their ideological identity based on their views of North Korea rather than on the parties’ agendas, the North Korea issue remains inevitably hard to separate from political or ideological frames of reference. Furthermore, it does not help that access to information on and from North Korea is limited for regular South Korean people and local journalists: North Korean websites are blocked and Seoul’s only North Korean library forbids visitors to share its materials outside the building, including on social media platforms, because most of them are indeed banned under the controversial National Security Law enforced since 1948.
Creating national consensus is essential in the process toward more constructive relations with North Korea. However, it has not been an easy task to accomplish for the previous South Korean pro-engagement governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun due to the political framings inherited from the Cold War-era. Likewise, it is hard for young South Koreans to make their own views with regard to North Korea without becoming hostage to the ideological constraints of a very polarized political spectrum. President Moon has invested almost all of his political and reputational capital in the inter-Korean rapprochement. In light of his efforts, it will be equally important for the longevity of any inter-Korean agreement eventually reached, that the South Korean government works at the societal level in partnership with grassroots organizations, particularly in the education field, to encourage an inclusive and transparent debate on North Korea, fostering a constructive narrative that would finally overcome the ambivalence within the public opinion toward peaceful coexistence on the Korean Peninsula.