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World View: NY Times Publishes a Generational Analysis of South Korea

This morning’s key headlines from GenerationalDynamics.com

  • NY Times publishes a generational analysis of South Korea
  • North Korea cancels joint cultural event because of ‘insulting’ media reports
  • Brief generational history of South Korea since World War II

NY Times publishes a generational analysis of South Korea


The Korean women’s hockey team is planned to include players from both countries (AP)

Mainstream journalists, analysts and economists are generally incapable of grasping even the simplest generational concepts, so on the extremely rare occasion when a major publication publishes an actual generational analysis, it is worth noting.

An article in the NY Times by Choe Sang-Hunjan titled “Olympic Dreams of a United Korea? Many in South Say, ‘No, Thanks’” gives a generational analysis of South Korea as the Winter Olympics games approach and the changing attitudes to reunification of different South Korean generations.

The article quotes surveys that show a big gap in attitudes between younger and older South Koreans:

  • Across the population, support for reunification has fallen to 57.8 percent, down from 69.3 percent just four years ago.
  • However, 71.2 percent of South Koreans in their 20s oppose reunification, while more than 47 percent of those 60 and older said the two Koreas must reunify “because they belong to the same nation.”
  • A “historic agreement” for the North and the South to form a joint women’s hockey team has been called an “unprecedented breakthrough” in relations between the two countries. However, more than 72 percent of South Korean adults overall, and 82 percent of those in their 20s and 30s, oppose it, with many expressing anger that some South Korean players would cede their positions to North Koreans.
  • According to one researcher, “Especially men in their 20s, about half of them, consider North Korea an outright enemy. To young South Koreans, North Korea is someone they don’t want anything to do with.”

The article quotes a former South Korean foreign minister: “I am taken aback. Young people seem to think of North Korea as strangers who barge into their party bringing with them nothing but empty spoons.”

The current left-wing South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has long supported unification, driven by his personal desire to see his birthplace in the North.

According to the article:

Key members of Mr. Moon’s presidential office and governing party are progressives in their 50s, who went to college in the 1980s. Then, campuses were rife with anti-American activism, partly driven by resentment over the division of the Korean Peninsula after World War II. Students defied the authorities by sending a “unification envoy” to the World Festival of Youth and Students, alternative games that North Korea held in Pyongyang in 1989 to counter the previous year’s Summer Olympics in Seoul.

Progressives in that era believed in a peaceful process of reunification, built on the expansion of economic and social exchanges. Today, many of that generation see the North’s nuclear weapons program as a desperate attempt to protect itself from the United States and the South, with which it is still technically at war.

These paragraphs need a bit of interpretation. As I’ll explain in detail below, what the article calls 1980s “progressives” are known as the “386 Generation” of the 1980s – affluent, highly pro-Leninist-Marxist and highly anti-American, since they had no memory of their parents’ extreme poverty and destitution, nor of how an American military intervention saved South Korea from the North in 1950.

However it is true, as the article points out, that the 386er generation strongly believed that the communist government of North Korea was superior to Western democracies and that the South and the North could be unified peacefully if only the South could adopt that same kind of government. Events since then, especially “the fiasco of the 386 generation” (described below), and North Korea’s unstoppable nuclear missile development, have forced the 386ers to abandon those extreme radical views, and look for opportunities for peaceful negotiations. The 2018 Winter Olympics games are the best opportunity so far. NY Times (or Open version)

North Korea cancels joint cultural event because of ‘insulting’ media reports

On Monday, North Korea abruptly canceled a joint cultural event to be held on February 4 in the North Korean territory of Mount Kumgang. The plan had been for skiers from both sides to train in North Korea’s Masikryong Ski Resort.

The North blamed the South Korean media for encouraging “insulting” public sentiment regarding the North. There were no specifics given, but South Korea has a free press, and there has been a lot of criticism of North Korea. There have also been individual protests, including burning a picture of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, which would be a capital offense if done in North Korea. However, it is not known whether those were the problem.

It is suspected that the North is angry about media coverage of North Korean plans to stage a large military parade in Pyongyang on February 8, just before the start of the Olympics. Some media reports say that some 50,000 North Korean soldiers will march in the parade, which will feature the latest in North Korean weapons, including ballistic missiles. These reports may be the reason why they canceled the cultural event.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry issued a statement:

It is very regrettable that an event agreed by the South and the North will not be held due to North Korea’s unilateral notification (decision). What has been agreed must be implemented under the spirit of mutual respect and understanding as the South and the North have only taken a hard-earned first step toward improving the South-North relationship.

In another development, South Korea’s Defense Minister Song Young-moo said:

The North Korean regime will probably be removed from the map if it uses developed nuclear weapons against South Korea or the United States.

It’s an anachronistic idea that North Korea will use nuclear weapons for the unification (of the two Koreas).

It is certain that there will continue to be some hostile media coverage, and it is certain that there will be anti-North protesters before and during the games. This media coverage will be interpreted by the North as threatening their new strategy of using the Olympics to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US. Whether they become so infuriated that they start canceling other events, or even their entire participation in the games, remains to be seen. Yonhap News (Seoul) and Reuters and UPI and The Hankyoreh (Seoul) and Yonhap News (Seoul)

Brief generational history of South Korea since World War II

In an article that I wrote in 2007 ( “South Korean politicians are ‘euphoric’ over North Korea nuclear deal”), I included a brief generational history of South Korea. The following is an update.

Korea is one of the oldest nations on earth, with some 4000 years of history. Here we can only give a brief summary of its extremely tumultuous history in the 1900s:

  • Japanese occupation. Japan invaded and colonized Korea in 1905, and was only expelled when Japan was defeated in World War II. Korea’s attitude toward Japan remains bitter to this day, especially because of the use of Korean “comfort women” by the Japanese army during World War II.
  • Korean War. South Korea’s last generational crisis war was World War II, but the country’s Recovery era was delayed because it was followed soon after by a non-crisis war ignited by the Communist Soviets. Known to us as the Korean War, it became a proxy war between United States/United Nations forces in the south versus Russian and Korean forces, and eventually Chinese forces as well in the north. The fighting ended in a 1953 armistice, but the war never ended, and the border between North and South Korea is heavily guarded to this day, with both sides having orders to kill on sight. People who lived through the Korean War mostly tend to be highly pro-American and value the American forces still in South Korea as protection from North Korean forces.
  • April 19 Revolution (1960). The U.S. military ruled S. Korea from 1945-48, when the First Republic of South Korea was established. Like subsequent governments, this government was extremely repressive and used violence against demonstrators and jailing of dissidents freely to maintain control. As the country entered its generational Awakening era in 1960, student demonstrations protested what it claimed was a corrupt election on March 15. This is known as the “April Revolution.” Police started shooting at rock-throwing students. On April 11, a student’s body was found on the beach. The skull had been penetrated by a tear gas grenade. On April 19, students at Korea University began protesting against police violence and called for new elections. The massive student demonstrations brought down the government, forcing the resignation of Rhee Syng-man, and the suicide of the Prime Minister and his family.
  • President Park Chung-hee (1961-79) President Park dominated South Korea for almost 20 years, through the Second, Third and Fourth Republics of South Korea, several constitutional changes, and several assassination attempts. Park’s detractors refer to his oppressive government, while his champions credit him with the modernization of South Korea, greatly raising the standard of living, and turning it into one of the most powerful economies in the world. Park was assassinated on October 26, 1979, by the chief of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency; the KCIA had been established by Park himself in 1961 in his fight against Communist and North Korean infiltration.
  • 12/12 coup d’état (1979) and Kwangju massacre (1980). Following Park’s assassination, violence within the government led to a coup d’état on December 12, 1979. This aroused massive student demonstrations against the government in the city of Kwangju (Gwangju) on May 18, 1980. The demonstrations were brutally suppressed through a declaration of martial law. Later investigations found that hundreds of students were killed, and there were unproved allegations of involvement of U.S. forces on behalf of the government.
  • “Kwangju generation” defeats “April 19” generation (1987). In American terms, this is Generation-X versus the Boomers. But in Korea, it was a new, but minor coup d’état. The Kwangju massacre had galvanized the college-age generation (like America’s Generation-X), and massive riots beginning on June 10, 1987, forced the previous generation’s military regime to resign, in favor of new elections, leading to the formation of the Sixth Republic of South Korea. This generation was affluent, highly pro-Leninist-Marxist and highly anti-American, since they had no memory of their parents’ extreme poverty and destitution, nor of how an American military intervention saved South Korea from the North in 1950.
  • The 386 Generation (1990-2008). The generation that we have been calling the “Kwangju generation” gave itself a new name in the 1990s: the “386 Generation” or the “386ers”. This name was chosen because they were all in their 30s (at that time), they had been activists in the 1980s, and they had been born in the 1960s. The name “386 Generation” fell out of favor the disastrous failure of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, which ended in 2008.
  • Kim Dae-jung and the “Sunshine Policy” (1997). 1997 saw the first transfer of the government between parties by peaceful means, as Kim Dae-jung won the Presidential election. His policies reflected the new-found power of the 386 generation and, in particular, brought a fundamental change of policy towards North Korea known as the “Sunshine Policy.” Kim attempted to reconcile with the North and held a summit meeting with Kim Jong-il, for which Kim Dae-jung received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.
  • Roh Moo-hyun and far-left government(2003-2008). Roh Moo-hyun, born in 1946, was not strictly a 386er, but he supported their policies and was considered one of their own. The 386ers got Roh elected President in 2002, and forced a far-left radicalization of the government in 2003, with some 20 386ers in high positions of power in the government. The administration was strongly pro-unification with North Korea, despite the North’s nuclear weapons development. However, a major financial scandal late in 2006 threw the government into a crisis from which it couldn’t extricate itself. This was described as “the fiasco of the 386 generation,” causing the “386” name, which had previously evoked strong feelings of pride, to fall into disuse.
  • Lee Myung-bak, Park Geun-hye and center-right government (2008-2017) Just as the 386ers rejected the pro-Western values of their parents’ generation, the children of the 386ers rejected the far-left values of the 386ers. Disillusionment with the Roh administration led to a movement to the right by the population, led by the younger voters, and an improved relationship with the US and West. Lee Myung-bak was elected in 2008, and Park Geun-hye was elected in 2013.
  • North Koreans torpedo Cheonan warship and shell Yeonpyeong Island (2010) South Korean attitudes took a sharp turn to the right in 2010. In May, North Korea torpedoed and sank the warship Cheonan, killing dozens of South Korean crew members, and in November, North Korea killed South Korean civilians by shelling Yeonpyeong Island. The North Koreans correctly calculated that the South would be too politically weak to respond, but these acts of war caused a reversal of pro-unification sentiment and a big increase in distrust of North Korea. These acts are a big reason why young South Koreans are distrustful of and hostile to North Koreans today.
  • Moon Jae-in and the return of the 386 Generation (2017-) Although the phrase “386 Generation” is no longer used, the election of Moon Jae-in in May 2017 was the return of a center-left administration populated by 386ers. Moon won on a pro-unification platform, promising to resolve the North Korean nuclear missile threat peacefully through negotiations, and also to develop closer relations with China. However, when North Korea made a major new ballistic missile launch on July 29, Moon was forced to respond by approving further deployment of the American THAAD anti-missile and advanced radar systems in South Korea – something that was bitterly opposed by both China and South Korea.
  • North Korea changes strategy as PyeongChang 2018 Olympics games approach (2018) In anticipation of the Winter Olympics, to be held in South Korea from February 9-25, North Korea adopted a major change of strategy. North Korea offered to send a team of athletes to the South Korea Olympics, in return for postponing the annual US-South Korea military drills normally held around the same time. President Moon strongly supported this move as an opening for possible future reunification. However, the move was widely criticized by South Koreans, young Koreans, as a political stunt designed to give the North more time to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

That 2007 article was written in response to conciliatory policy changes by the George Bush administration, resulting in euphoria on the part of South Koreans. In that article, I quoted a BBC correspondent, Charles Scanlon in Seoul, who described the euphoria as unrealistic:

We are seeing something approaching euphoria, from at least among some members of the South Korean government, in reaction to this agreement that was signed in Beijing.

The Unification Minister who’s responsible for relations with the North said this could be a turning point in the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean peninsula.

And certainly the South Koreans do feel to some extent vindicated by what has been in effect a major change in U.S. policy toward North Korea.

They’ve been urging a more conciliatory approach from the very beginning, and they’re certainly very relieved that the Americans now do seem serious about getting a negotiated settlement with the North Koreans, and they’ve softened some of their pressure tactics.

The president, Roh Moo-hyun, said he’s expecting a very easy implementation of this accord.

I think there we are seeing really wishful thinking on the President’s part, because after all any agreement with the North Koreans is not going to come easy.

I don’t know whether the current president Moon Jae-in personally feels euphoria about the new Winter Olympics détente, but as we have described, the young generation of South Koreans feel little but anger. The controversy has sent South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s overall approval rating below 60 percent for the first time since he took office in May last year, dropping more than 6 percentage points in one week. Korea Times (5-Feb-2008) and Meng News (3-Jun-2014)

Related Articles

KEYS: Generational Dynamics, NY Times, Choe Sang-Hunjan, South Korea, North Korea, Moon Jae-in, Kim Jong-un, 386 Generation, Mount Kumgang, Song Young-moo, April 19 Revolution, Park Chung-hee, Kwangju massacre, Gwangju massacre, Kim Dae-jung, Sunshine Policy, Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak, Park Geun-hye, Cheonan warship, Yeonpyeong Island, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, THAAD, Charles Scanlon
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