Generation Gap

Young South Koreans Prefer North Koreans to Americans

January 20, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea -- A generation ago, South Korean school children were taught that North Koreans were so aggressive and treacherous, they were like wolves.

Today, 90 percent of Korean youth say they would welcome a North Korean as a close friend or neighbor, and more would like to be friends with a North Korean than with an American, according to a recent survey.

When the Korean War ended 50 years ago, South Korea was one of the world's poorest countries. For decades it was ruled by one military dictator after another.

But this country of 47 million has undergone a striking transformation. It now enjoys a vibrant democracy and a powerhouse economy. It is the world's 11th largest trading nation and the most wired place on the planet, with broadband Internet access in one out of every four homes.

Ready to re-think their relationship to the world, South Koreans found their opportunity last summer in an unlikely place: the World Cup. A co-host of the quadrennial soccer tournament and an underdog who performed far beyond anyone's expectations, the country exploded in new-found patriotism and self-confidence. That momentum carried through to December's presidential elections, when Roh Moo-hyun's victory -- captured largely due to the youth vote -- stunned the old guard.

"Last year South Korea made a quantum leap," said Yoon Dae-kyu, a law professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies. "It was beneath the surface for a long time. All of a sudden, there was a rupture, with the World Cup, the elections."

South Koreans, especially the younger generations, have a new sense of identity, says Han Wan-sang, a former minister of unification. He calls it a radical change.

"In the last 10 years, we've come to see ourselves as a country of maturity, politically and economically," said Han, now president of Hansung University. "I think the Bush administration is not taking into account this change in people's mood."

The changes are most noticeable in attitudes towards North Korea and the United States.

"Ten years ago, we used to think of ourselves as the little brother of the United States," Han said.

Now, many South Koreans have become more critical of American policy. And the younger generations especially don't feel the burden of 54,000 American soldiers who died in the 1950-53 Korean War.

"They don't feel any debts consciousness towards Japan and United States," said Yoo Kun-il, editor-in-chief of the influential conservative daily, Chosun Ilbo. "They want an equal partnership."

Some 37,000 American troops are stationed in South Korea. A series of demonstrations and candlelight vigils held last year for two Korean girls killed by a U.S. army tank on an exercise were branded anti-American by the local media.

But Kwon Young-jun, an economics professor at Kyunghee University, said most Koreans are not against American troops or American people or culture but only against what they perceive as the arrogance of Bush administration foreign policy.

"The demonstrations were a reflection of Korean pride," he said. "They want to have an equitable relationship between the United States and Korea. I think the United States should express themselves more diplomatically and politely. Then the relationship between the two will ease."

Part of the sentiment stems from frustration with their own government for being too acquiescent to Washington.

"Whenever America asks the South Korean government for something, the South Korean government never turns them down," said Son Min-jung, 22, a student at Yonsei University.

Roh rode to victory partly on promises to stand up to Washington. But his triumph was also a blow to the mainstream political establishment that has ruled for 50 years. (Although outgoing President Kim Dae-jung is a former dissident, he is a political giant, having led the opposition for years and run for president three times.)

Roh's victory was a watershed for Korean politics. The son of poor farmers, Roh never went to college. He passed the bar exam and became a lawyer through self-study. Much of the campaigning for Roh was conducted via Internet and cell phones.

He said Saturday that he would push for revisions in military pacts with the United States, including possibly the mutual defense treaty and the agreement on the legal code governing conduct of U.S. soldiers, but did not elaborate.

As for views toward North Korea, the changes have been even more radical.

"Ten years ago, people thought anything good for North Korea was bad for South Korea," said Han. "It was a zero-sum game. Now, what is good for North Korea is good for South Korea."

Conversely, what North Korea doesn't like, including Bush's harsh rhetoric towards Pyongyang -- calling it part of the "axis of evil" -- South Koreans don't much appreciate either.

"Korean people are very aware of the condescending, hostile policy of the Bush administration to North Korea and relate it to themselves, as an indirect attack on us," Han said.

More and more, South Koreans consider North Koreans as part of the family.

In a survey of 1,125 high school and college students published this month by the Ministry of Unification's research institute, North Koreans were chosen as the most preferred friend, followed by Americans, Chinese, Russians and Japanese.

The generational shift is due in part, analysts say, to the fact that younger people do not remember the bitterness of the war. Nor were they indoctrinated with Cold War ideology, which taught them that North Koreans were their enemy, ready to invade again given any opportunity.

And it's not just people in their 20s and 30s, whom the media here have dubbed "Generation 2030," who have a changed view of North Korea.

"The older generation thinks Korea was divided because of domestic problems, but the younger generations think Korea was divided by outside problems, because of Soviet and American ideology," said Jung Tae-sung, a 44-year-old businessman, counting himself among the young.

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