Just this February, a little more than 100 South Koreans were given the chance to meet their relatives in the North. Their trip to the Mount Kumkang resort, where the reunions were held, was long, but their allotted meeting time was all too short. Yet these people are the lucky ones; about 72,000 South Koreans are wait-listed for the chance to attend a family reunion event. Nearly half of them are over 80 years old, having waited longingly but vainly for reunification all their lives.
It is time to face the cold hard facts—the awareness for the necessity of reunification is low in Korea. And it’s weakening by the day. An Institute for Unification Education survey showed that over the past decade, the number of teens who were interested in the topic of reunification had fallen from 71 percent to 57 percent, while the number of those who agreed with the need for reunification fell from 85 percent to 66 percent.
Seo Han-kyo (36), an administrative official at the Education Coordination Division at the Institute for Unification Education, attributes this in part to the sub-par education on unification that takes place in public schools. Lessons concerning unification are usually placed at the end of the school curriculum schedule, and are thus often skipped over when teachers run out of time toward the end of the school semester.
▲ Seo Han-kyo, administrative official at the Education Coordination Division at the Institute for Unification Education. Photographed by Yoo Seung Joo.
Moreover, in Korea’s current entrance-examination-centered learning environment, students are sadly more often than not indifferent to the topic in general, as the politically sensitive issue rarely comes up in the Korean College Scholastic Aptitude Test. “There is already enough material to cram for as it is— so what with the pressure, teachers and students alike tend to focus less on things that have a small chance of being on the exam,” said Hong Boseok (’14, International Studies).
Seo also said that events over the past few years, such as the ROKS Cheonan sinking, or the November 23, 2010, attack on Yeonpyeong island—events that occurred just when those then- teenagers were beginning to develop a perspective on societal issues—probably acted as stimuli to fuel their current antipathy toward the North.
“After almost 70 years spent cut off from the North, South Koreans just seem to have grown used to the current separated state,” said Seo. And such resulting indifference concerning the issue of reunification is what the Institute for Unification Education hopes to tackle.
The Institute provides differentiated educational programs depending on the learner’s age and educational capacity. For elementary to high school students, the Institute sends visiting instructors. They use materials such as animated and music videos to make learning about unification more approachable and entertaining than simply reading about it from a textbook.
Adults, on the other hand, can sign up for both online and offline courses including “Understanding North Korea,” “The Economy and Culture of North Korea,” and “Understanding the Obstacles toward Reunification.” The number of people seeking education from the Institute has risen drastically since its founding in 1972. Two years ago, about 150,000 people received education from the Institute, but just last year the number doubled to 300,000.
▲ A variety of activities organized by the Institute of Unification and the Institute for Unification Education, to raise awareness and interest in the issue of reunification. Provided by unikorea.go.kr
Of course, of the 45 million people consisting of our country, this number is still but the tip of the iceberg. But it is a start. The Institute is recruiting and educating lecturers who can spread their message, hoping to create a ripple effect.
At the moment, the Institute’s greatest goal is to grow citizens’ general support for reunification. “Despite our best efforts, approval ratings for the issue keep dropping, which is causing us to question whether our approach toward unification education was necessarily the best one,”Seo said.
Moreover, times are changing. The number of people with a direct interest in reunification—such as separated families with brothers or mothers at the other end of the 38th Parallel—is decreasing. The coming generation has a different set of interests and values through which they perceive the North, which calls for a change of approach.
The Institute thus plans to go back to the very basics, to strip away all extraneous information, with the purpose of hitting home one single message to its students—that reunification is crucial. “Even if the two Koreas do have the economic and political capacity to achieve unification, in the end everything depends on whether the people of the two Koreas truly want it to happen,” said Seo.
When asked for pointers on how college students should consider unification, the administrative official pointed out the need to take some time to think about the issue in earnest. “Reunification is not merely a vague concept, but something that directly influences our everyday lives,” he said. From having to serve mandatory military service to paying higher taxes, the issue is one that connects directly to everyday citizens' interests.
University students have but a few years left until they become individual actors in the real world. It is thus important that they take the time and effort to read unification-related books, listen to unification-related lectures, and interact with people with unification-related experience. The Institute for Unification Education is certainly the go-to place to seek such help.
▲ The gates toward the Institute of Unification Education. Provided by blog.unikorea.go.kr.