SEOUL, South Korea — Derided as self-absorbed, dismissed as a “lost generation,” young South Koreans have defied their skeptics this year by spearheading the election of a new president and helping to oust the previous one.
Now, as both Seoul and Washington confront North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, a big question here is the depth of the commitment among millennials to a U.S. alliance that began more than six decades ago, during the Korean War.
Older South Koreans often refer to the U.S. strategic partnership as an “alliance forged in blood,” Noh Myung Woo, a sociologist at Ajou University in Seoul, said. Younger generations have only read about the Korean War in history books, and do not have the same emotional attachment to the alliance as their parents and grandparents.
Overall, South Korea’s 51 million people continue to view the United States positively, both as an essential ally and a promoter of democracy. But surveys show that South Koreans in their 20s and 30s do not view North Korea as an existential threat the same way that many Americans — and many older South Koreans —do. Many want their government to avoid provocative steps against the north and have concerns the Trump administration could inadvertently drag them into a conflict.
In a March survey of 1,000 South Koreans, the Asan Institute found that support for the United States had slipped among those in their 20s, who had previously been staunch U.S. supporters.
In March, a South Korean court impeached President Park Geun-hye on corruption charges following months of street protests made up largely of younger demonstrators. Two months later, voters in their 20s and 30s were instrumental in electing Moon Jae-in, a liberal, as the country’s next president, according to exit polling.
For older South Koreans, the massive street protests seemed like a prelude to anarchy and a setback for the “alliance forged in blood.” But younger Koreans shook off those concerns and seem to have renewed their confidence in electoral politics.
“After the impeachment, we started to think, this is not a bad place,” said Keon Ho Seo, a 28-year-old software engineer, who was part of the protests. “This can be a better place, with a new president and society.”
South Korean millennials share many similarities with Americans in their 20s and 30s. Unlike their grandparents, they were born during an era of peace and prosperity, with technology changing how they communicate and spend much of their free time. They tend to be less culturally conservative, helping to drive campaigns against gender discrimination and for gay and lesbian rights.
“Younger Koreans share more in common with Americans than they did a generation earlier,” said Steven Denney, a University of Toronto political scientist who specializes in South Korea. But their young people differ from Americans in one big respect, he said — South Koreans live 35 miles below the demilitarized zone, one of the most heavily armed borders in the world.
Unlike in the United States, all men in South Korea — ages 18 to 35 — are required to perform roughly two years of military duty. During that time, they train to counter a North Korean attack. Throughout downtown Seoul, bomb shelters are clearly marked, a daily reminder of the threat.
Despite those realities, many young South Koreans say they doubt that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un would launch an attack, since it would provoke a response from U.S. and South Korean forces that would devastate the north and end Kim’s rule.
“My parents and I talk about this. We think it would be like a suicide wish if [North Korean leaders] did this,” said Kim Suk Han, a Pilates instructor who lives in Seoul. “It means they would kill themselves, I think.”
Keon, who has served his two years of military duty, agrees.
“Everyone knows the North Korean government is kind of crazy,” he said. “But we trust that they do not want to abandon their way of life.”
In South Korea, the older generations continue to be highly nationalistic, looking forward to the eventual unification of the Korean peninsula. But millennials tend to be wary of unification, fearing their employment prospects will diminish if the affluent South needed to absorb millions of impoverished North Koreans.World