Five South Korean university students filed into a small conference room in downtown Seoul to discuss North Korea and related issues. Each of them casually placed a smartphone on the table. Two pulled earbuds out as they entered the room. And then, with no hesitation at all, they made plain their view that they had no use for the United States troops who have been based in their country for more than half a century.
As Seungwon Choi, a political science major, put it: “After all these years, we are still under the US. We can’t make decisions ourselves. We have to reassume operational control and sovereignty.”
South Korea is undergoing a transformative generational change—one that has strong implications for the US. The younger generation, living a comfortable life in a first-world state, cares little about the threat posed by North Korea, which has been the dominant theme of South Korean life since statehood in 1948. The North is a dilemma of their grandparents’ generation that, to them, is no longer relevant.
As Park Ji-Eun, an undergraduate at Yonsei University in Seoul, said about North Korea, “We’re just not affected by it.”
Given that Park’s view is widespread among the under-thirty set, which makes up at least one-quarter of the population, the South Korean government is clearly concerned.
“Young people in Korea are not really interested in North Korea,” a senior minister in the Ministry of Unification (who declined to be further identified) acknowledged. “They have their IT devices, their cars and comfortable lives. They believe in the old policy, co-existence. But then the North developed nuclear weapons, so we have to educate them now that co-existence won’t work. We have to inspire them” to care.
For this minister and other Korean officials, the problem is that South Korea has grown into a prosperous, modern, successful state whose largest exports are semiconductors, cell phones, and automobiles. Annual per capita income is about $32,000, eighteen times higher than in the North.
Drive down any street in Seoul, and you’ll see a Starbucks on most every corner, across the street from a Krispy Kreme, next door to a Calvin Klein Underwear store. Buses carry placards advertising a hot new show: Korea’s Top Models 3. Traffic in Seoul is often so congested that vendors set up food stands on ramps along the highway.
“We don’t want reunification” with the North, said Jisu Choi, a junior studying Korea’s relationship with India. “We think of them as a different people in a different country. We don’t really share anything with them anymore.”
To many members of this new, inward-looking generation, the Unification Ministry is an irrelevant artifact. Their scorn for national security is disturbing to many of their elders because it comes at a time of increasing danger. As the senior ministry official quoted above says, “Now we are in a standoff with the North. After all that has happened, we have stopped all dialogue with them for several years now. There’s no channel for talking. No exchanges at all. Tensions are escalating. The relationship has broken down.”
This official says his ministry collects and analyzes government intelligence about North Korea but admits that his country knows little more about North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, than anyone else—though in his personal opinion, “Kim is not really qualified to control the country.”
Despite the vacuum in which it works, the Unification Ministry promotes its motto everywhere: “Building healthy inter-Korean relations and preparing for national unification based on public consensus.” But, as the minister acknowledges, at present there is no such consensus. Far from it. Over the summer, when North Korea issued another of its bellicose threats, claiming it would soon take “special actions” to reduce South Korea’s government to ashes, one cheerful twenty-seven-year-old recalled, with a lackadaisical smile: “I put it on my Facebook so my friends could see.”
US Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, visiting American troops in Korea this summer, made remarks to his men that seemed intended for young Koreans. “Security is like oxygen,” he said. “When you have it, you don’t pay any attention to it. But when you don’t have it, it’s all you think about.”
The American military and older Koreans realize that the 28,500 US troops stationed there are all that stand between South Korea and another war with the North. They worry that all this will change when the younger generation comes of age. They want to make sure the young take seriously the threat that the country has faced for the last sixty-four years.
The South Korean government is working hard to sharpen the awareness of its young people. It has preserved and reconstructed sites marking recent attacks by the North as visceral reminders of the enemy’s perfidy.
Just down the hill from a South Korean Air Force helipad on Yeonpyeong Island, for instance, sits the air base’s barbershop, encased in glass. The front wall is floor-to-ceiling windows displaying shattered toilets in the men’s room and a gaping hole in the ceiling, wires and rebar still dangling. The shop is one of about thirty buildings damaged or destroyed in a North Korean rocket and artillery attack in November 2010. Now it’s a museum of sorts. Near the barbershop ruins, a North Korean artillery shell that didn’t explode sits in a glass-top display case.
A spokesman for the military base says: “We bring many young soldiers here. We make them understand the reality that North Korea really is the enemy. Most of them didn’t know that, and they are surprised.” Then he took a group of reporters down the street to see Kim Yoo Sung, an eighty-five-year-old Korean War veteran, who was home when the North attacked in 2010.
“I was watching TV, and then I heard shelling,” the old man said. “I thought it was our marines. But it was too much. Then they advised us to go to the shelters.”
The shelling broke several windows of his house. Eventually the government replaced them, but some other victims whose homes were more extensively damaged were moved to prefab houses so their former homes could be put on display.
Back at a military base just outside Seoul, the navy carefully built a display of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship that a North Korean submarine torpedoed and sank in March 2010. The ruins now stand on iron legs 20 feet off the ground. The ship’s two halves, torn apart by the torpedo, are separated, displaying the tangled innards.
“This is to raise the awareness for the Korean people of the security issues,” explained Second Lieutenant Eunji Jang. Another officer said the primary audience is “thousands of students and young soldiers” bused there to see the ruins.
In the past, the sense of urgency that South Koreans felt about threats from the North made them excuse the drawbacks of the American presence, but that forgiveness is in short supply today. Late last year, Sergeant Major Raymond F. Chandler III, the US Army’s top noncommissioned officer, returned to South Korea more than eleven years after serving there. At the time of his visit, American troops were under curfew. They weren’t allowed to leave their bases. The reason: Earlier that spring, a court in Seoul sentenced an American soldier, Private Kevin Robinson, to six years in prison for raping a seventeen-year-old Korean girl. And a week before Chandler’s visit, Private Kevin Lee Flippin was sentenced to ten years for brutally raping another Korean teenager.
Chandler was there to speak with Korean reporters and American servicemen about “the importance of cultural awareness,” but the problem he was there to address was far more daunting than is suggested by this anodyne phrase. If younger South Koreans already see no political or military reason to maintain a large American military presence in the nation, the crimes American soldiers commit make the problem infinitely worse.
And these rapes were just the latest in a long string of crimes by US personnel—one every two or three weeks for the past ten years, according to Korean police reports. The Korean media play each and every one of these incidents on the front pages of newspapers or at the top of TV news shows. Each one stirs broad popular anger. That has been so ever since a US armored personnel carrier accidently ran over two Korean schoolgirls in 2002, prompting widespread riots nationwide—particularly after an American court acquitted the soldiers who drove the APC of any wrongdoing in a reviled decision that stirred up old grudges.
As Park Ji-Eun, the college student, put it: “During the generation of our parents, there was a lot of prostitution of Korean women” to American soldiers, “and the South Korean government was supportive. It was seen as patriotism” to support the American troops. “But my generation is different. I don’t think we need the Americans here anymore.”
In recent months, US military personnel have been publicly accused of or charged with forging checks, smuggling drugs, handcuffing several Koreans after a parking dispute, and burning down a brothel, among various sordid incidents. Given that more than twenty-eight thousand young American men and women are stationed there, the military contends, the crime rate is probably lower than you might see among a similar-sized group of young people in the United States. Not surprisingly, this argument doesn’t carry much water with the South Koreans.
Days before Chandler’s visit, the National Police Agency released statistics showing a rising number of rapes, robberies, thefts, and other criminal acts by US personnel—two hundred and twenty-five criminal acts in the last ten years. No wonder, as a recent Congressional Research Service report put it, “many South Koreans are resentful of the US and chafe when their leaders offer too many concessions to the United States.”
The state’s liberal parties, the ones most of the young people support, seem openly hostile to America. For example, when the Parliament put the US-Korea free-trade agreement up for a vote last year, opposition Democratic Party leader Sohn Hak-kyu called ratification of the deal the “death of democracy in Korea,” and one of his supporters set off a tear-gas grenade in the chamber.
Other leftists likened the proposed agreement to the Korea-Japan treaty of 1910, under which Korea agreed to be annexed by Imperial Japan. But the ruling party of conservative President Lee Myung-bak held a majority of seats, so the agreement passed. The conservative party does not hold a majority now, and its rule is threatened by presidential elections scheduled for December.
In an election last year that was seen as a bellwether, voters chose a left-wing activist, Park Won-soon, to be mayor of Seoul. Some election polls showed that seventy percent of those younger than forty voted for Park. And then in parliamentary elections last spring, the ruling party lost thirteen seats while liberal opposition parties gained thirty-nine. Many Koreans believe that, in the coming election, the young will get their way. And that would bring to power a government not nearly as friendly toward Washington as the administration in office now. Liberal South Korean governments are inclined to appease the North.
On Jeju Island, just off the southern Korean coast, the Korean Navy says it, too, is concerned about Korean youth. “Our young just aren’t aware of the North and South Korea situation,” Lieutenant Park Isung said. “We have to instill the proper mentality” in new military recruits. But in truth, North Korea does not appear to be the Navy’s primary concern either right now. It’s building a large naval base on Jeju, the nation’s southernmost point in the Yellow Sea, suggesting that, in the south, China is the primary threat (and in the minds of some Koreans, its historical enemy, Japan). Navy Captain Sing Yon Hwa asserts that the base “is not targeting any particular country” and adds that its primary mission is “protecting the sea lanes for trade”—the same language the United States uses to describe its concern about the caustic debate between China and its neighbors over who controls the South China Sea. That area of conflict is hundreds of miles south. But South Korea has its own maritime conflicts with China almost every day. And China remains North Korea’s patron state. For that, many South Koreans resent, even despise, China.
As I stood on a high bluff above the Yellow Sea, I saw a small enactment of what many believe is a coming strategic collision. Two dozen Chinese fishing boats, each one flying the big red national flag, were steaming into South Korean waters, in search of the sea’s bountiful blue crabs, anchovies, and croakers. They hadn’t made it very far when two South Korean coast guard battle cruisers, with big guns on deck, came into view, powering toward the fishing boats at full speed. Suddenly the lead ship’s captain leaned on his horn, a clarion so loud it could be heard for miles around.
The Chinese fishermen certainly heard it. Every one of them immediately turned their vessels north, speeding away from South Korean waters. The cruisers kept coming until finally they coasted to a stop in the fishing vessels’ wakes.
Another Korean maritime confrontation with China was over, this time with no violence. That hasn’t always been the case. When coast guard officers boarded a Chinese fishing boat early this year, the Chinese, wielding knives, scythes, and hooks, killed one and wounded several others. South Korea says it has repelled more than five hundred Chinese boats since the beginning of 2011. Violent incidents are not unusual.
Facing unremitting hostility from North Korea, with China’s direct assistance, South Korea has still managed in just one generation to turn from tyranny to democracy while developing into one of world’s most productive states.
Relations between Seoul and Washington now are warm, but if the youth of South Korea have their way that may change. That wouldn’t be the first time. Remember Koreagate, in the early 1970s? Korean intelligence agents tried to bribe members of Congress so they would not support President Richard Nixon’s plan to withdraw troops from South Korea. In 1975, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter vowed to pull out all American combat troops. As president, Carter did in fact withdraw some troops, but Ronald Reagan stopped the withdrawals once he took office.
In 1988, South Korea held its first democratic elections, and a few years later the nation adopted what it called the “sunshine policy”—peaceful co-existence with North Korea, the policy the Unification Ministry argues against now. When conservative President Lee Myung-bak came to office in 2008, he spoke about economic cooperation with the North. But then came the Yeonpyeong Island and Cheonan attacks, and all cooperation with the North ended.
Today, Washington remains steadfast in its military support of South Korea—even in the face of large possible military budget cuts at year’s end. It’s one part of Washington’s so-called military “pivot,” away from the Middle East and toward Asia. As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta put it a few months ago: “We maintain those forces not only for help and protection of South Korea but also as a force to indicate that the United States is going to always maintain a military presence in the Pacific.”
Depending on whom you ask in South Korea right now, that’s either a convenient alignment of interests or a lamentable continuation of an unwanted “occupation.” But what’s clear now is that unforeseen moves by Pyongyang, Beijing or, more likely, the coming generation of South Koreans, could inalterably change the status quo.
Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize–winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.
Photo Credit: Ziggymaster