SEOUL, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- South Koreans in their 20s and 30s are skeptical about unification and its benefits, despite the symbolic summits between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a student activist said Tuesday.
Lee Seo-ra, a student representative with the center-right Bareun Mirae Party, a minor political opposition in parliament, said members of her generation do not feel connected to their North Korean counterparts.
"Among [South Korean] youth, perception is strong the North is a different country that is right next to us, but is also dangerous," Lee said at the Global Peace Youth Forum at Hotel President in Seoul.
Perceptions of danger come from the international and local media.
"When I conducted an image search for North Korea [on South Korean Internet] the first image was that of a missile overlapping with a [Photoshopped] North Korean flag," Lee said, pointing out reasons why young South Koreans distance themselves from North Korea.
The student activist also said South Koreans of her generation are more hesitant to say they and North Koreans are "the same people," unlike older South Koreans who believe unification is obvious and necessary.
A recent survey of youth in South Korea illustrates the cautious approach young people take toward the North. According to data collected by the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, 52 percent of Koreans in their 20s and 30s said unification is necessary, but their numbers are roughly equal to the number of respondents who either said unification is not necessary, or that they are strongly opposed to unification.
Those numbers, collected in December 2018, may indicate young South Koreans, while supportive of the government's pro-engagement policies, are still not convinced of the benefits of unifying with the impoverished North. Domestic economic concerns may also be a higher priority, which is why successive South Korean administrations have promoted unification policies with promises of windfall gains.
Public opinion matters
The hesitation of young South Koreans that prevents them from immediately embracing the North should be a concern, said a defector who resettled in the South in the early 2000s.
Joo Seung-hyeon, 38, now a visiting professor at School of Northeast Asian Studies at Incheon National University, said South Koreans should think more about their "current divided state" before addressing the issue of unification.
Popular sentiment and grass roots-level action are important and decisive factors in overcoming national division, Joo said.
"If public sentiment does not follow [government policy], the process of overcoming division will slow down," he added.
The defector added he knows what it's like to overcome obstacles; nearly 20 years ago, he escaped the North and managed to reach the South through the demilitarized zone -- a dangerous route filled with explosive landmines.
But Joo also realized through his firsthand experience of walking across the border how close the two Koreas are to each other; the entire trip took about 25 minutes by foot.
The analyst, who was working in North Korean psychological operations at the border for six years before he defected, said Kim Jong Un is also on a transformative journey as he prepares to meet again with U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam on Wednesday.
"After the second summit, the Korean Peninsula will be walking an unprecedented path in history," regardless of the outcome, Joo said.
He also said more needs to be done to involve the 10,000 defectors, who are in their 20s and 30s, in unification dialogue.
There are about 32,000 North Korean defectors in the South. Their number has risen since 2017 and after Kim's summits with various world leaders.
The Global Peace Youth Forum of the Global Peace Foundation is affiliated with the ultimate holding company that owns United Press International.