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(Yonhap Feature) Young S. Koreans indifferent to N.K. despite summits, missiles

09:00 March 14, 2019

By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, March 14 (Yonhap) -- For Kim Na-yeon, a 26-year-old college student, North Korea's nuclear weapons program is a timeworn issue that has dragged on for as long as she has been alive, and that she has little interest in.

That's why, when the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made international headlines last month, she was paying closer attention to other stories, particularly the sex-for-favors scandal involving BIGBANG member Seungri and the unprecedented onslaught of fine dust air pollution.

"Nobody around me really came and talked about it," Kim said, referring to the Feb. 27-28 summit in Hanoi. "But this one about Seungri, I just couldn't miss because my friends were sending endless messages about it."

She was not the only one who showed scant interest in the Trump-Kim showdown.

South Korean news outlets dispatched hundreds of reporters to Hanoi to cover the event, with broadcasters running special features, but the scandal-ridden K-pop idol remained the top story on the country's largest search engine.

The division in attention highlights the attitude many young South Koreans have when it comes to the North Korea issue: indifference.

"It was quite impressive when the two Korean leaders first met in Panmunjom, but I don't feel like there has been much progress made since then that affects my life," Kim said.

Inter-Korean relations made big strides last year, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North's Kim holding three summits. Their first meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom in April was the third inter-Korean summit ever held, following those in 2000 and 2007.

Kim also held the historic first summit with Trump in Singapore last June followed by the second meeting in Hanoi last month.

While the highly anticipated second meeting ended without a deal, many people in their 20s and 30s seemed apathetic to the summit results.

"Talks are important to reduce tensions on the peninsula, but I never thought any significant deal would be easily made to change our lives," a 30-year-old researcher said, asking to be identified only by her surname, Lee.

Indifference often leads younger people to question why South Korea should bother trying to unify with the North.

According to a survey conducted by the state-run Korean Institute for National Unification, 45 percent and 40 percent of people in their 20s and 30s, respectively, think that unification is not necessary. The figures are higher than the comparable numbers for those aged 60 or older and those in their 50s which stood at 19 percent and 22 percent, respectively.

The poll was conducted in April last year on 1,002 people aged 19 or older. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points with a 95 percent confidence level.

"There has been a deepening gap per gender and generation over the view on North Korea and unification," the report said. "The younger, rather than the older, and women, rather than men, are more likely to have a negative perception of North Korea and unification."

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump hold talks at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi on Feb. 28, 2019, in this photo carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency the next day. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

In another report, the institute said that people in their 20s showed lower support for the government's North Korea policy -- whether it be ramping up pressure on the North or engaging with it -- compared with other age groups.

Such tendency reflects younger people's overall indifference to unification and North Korea issues, it said.

Experts cite decades of division on the peninsula, including a series of military provocations, and shifts in domestic socio-economic circumstances, as key factors that shaped the current perspective of the younger generation.

"Whatever North Korea policy the government carries out in the long term, it will be the young people who will have to live through it. Getting their attention is an urgent challenge that policymakers should address," said Moon A-young, representative of a Seoul-based civic group Peacemomo which specializes in peace education.

The South Korean government also acknowledges the importance of gaining more support from the younger generation to push for reconciliation with the North.

In a three-year plan for unification education unveiled last week, the Institute for Unification Education put forth "forming a consensus among the future generation on the need for unification" as a major task.

Measures proposed by the institute include nurturing younger unification experts to better communicate with people in their 20s and 30s, and using social media to create more platforms for related discussions.

The average age of an instructor for unification education stood at 54 as of 2017, it said.

"While such efforts are meaningful in that they demonstrate that the government is at least aware of the current situation, they should also know that such phenomenon is a result of decades of education and one that will not be immediately resolved with some magical solution," Moon, the activist, said.

Two weeks after the collapse of the summit, a series of reports came out about increased nuclear and missile activities in North Korea.

While the purpose of the moves has not yet been confirmed, such developments have sparked a sense of deja vu for many young South Koreans.

"We grew up witnessing this kind of stand-off going on and off, basically for our entire life. I can't make a fuss every time the situation changes," Kim said. "I guess for many of our generation, fine dust is more threatening than North Korea."

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump take a stroll at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi on Feb. 28, 2019, in this photo carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency the next day. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

scaaet@yna.co.kr
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