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Fewer S. Koreans view reunification as ‘essential’

While a growing number of South Koreans are empathetic toward North Koreans, fewer view reunification as essential, a local study showed Tuesday.

Some 12 percent of people here currently view reunifying with communist North Korea as an “essential national goal,” a sharp decline from the 58 percent of people who felt this way in 1995, according to analysis released by a North Korea expert here.

On the other hand, up to 70 percent of South Koreans said they would root for North Korea over a U.S. team in a soccer match, indicating a growing sense of kinship with those living across the heavily fortified border.

In 1980, only 21 percent had said they would support the Pyongyang team instead of the longstanding ally Washington, according to the study by Prof. Eun Ki-soo of Seoul National University.

Studying surveys taken by the Research Institute for Peace and Reunification of Korea in Seoul from 1985 through last year, Eun found that South Koreans were softening in their opinions of North Korea, but becoming less interested in reunification due to the prolonged division.

At the end of World War II, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel into the Soviet-backed North and pro-U.S. South, a separation cemented after the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce rather than a permanent peace treaty.

Up to 45 percent of those surveyed answered that reunification was “unnecessary,” also a sharp increase from the 18 percent who gave such an answer in 1998, Prof. Eun’s study showed.

“People are either losing interest or becoming negative toward reunification due to the increasing costs to reunite with North Korea,” Eun said. “But the soccer match survey shows the perception of North Korea here has changed greatly since the 1980s with people now seeing kinship with North Koreans.

“The issue of reunification remains very important in (South) Korean society,” the scholar said.

Many recent surveys here have shown that a decreasing number of South Koreans are willing to shoulder the expense of reunifying with the impoverished North, an issue that could grow into a serious problem in the near future.

South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy, would have to shoulder extensive costs to improve the communist North’s poor living conditions and infrastructure should the two Koreas be rejoined, analysts say.

The conservative Lee Myung-bak government in Seoul proposed last year to introduce the so-called unification tax to start preparing for the estimated $1.3 trillion cost Seoul would shoulder to reunite with Pyongyang.

Analysts believe the Lee government proposed an early activation of the tax system to better prepare for a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime, which could lead to an immediate reunification of the two Koreas.

Pyongyang has reportedly been speeding up the power transfer from its ailing leader Kim Jong-il to his youngest and inexperienced son Jong-un in recent months, apparently concerned about the senior Kim’s health.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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