SEOUL — It’s just 35 miles from the over-caffeinated, overworked metropolis of Seoul to the tense and eerie demilitarized zone (DMZ) where soldiers from either half of a divided peninsula stand off against one another, every moment of every day.
The immediate concerns of a thriving city of 10 million people are almost loud enough to drown out the threats of nuclear war from Kim Jong-un. But not quite. And in this hypercompetitive society, young South Koreans may often prioritize their own futures over what’s happening to the north. But not always.
So as news of a planned sit-down between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hit the front pages of newspapers here Saturday morning, Hojeong Shin was setting up a booth for a festival promoting peace between the divided countries.
The 22-year-old university student placed stacks of translucent neon tiles on the table in front of her, inviting the public to write their hopes for reconciliation in permanent marker and clasp them to a makeshift monument just steps from the Blue House, where South Korean President Moon Jae-in lives and works.
Shin is studying to become a grade school teacher, and volunteers on behalf of defectors from the North trying to make new lives in Seoul. An estimated 30,000 defectors now live in South Korea.
“They’re minorities in our society so we really need to help them,” she said, adding that she believes a reunification of the two countries is possible, even if young South Koreans are far less likely than their elders to see it as important.
The Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) found that while 71 percent of South Koreans age 60 and older believe “unification is necessary,” just 38.9 percent of those between 20 and 29 believe the same.
Asked if they have a “positive attitude to a one-nation state,” 21 percent of the twentysomethings said yes, versus 47 percent of the older respondents.
Shin said she researches social studies curricula in elementary schools, and has found that the concept of unification with North Korea — the Koreas were divided in the aftermath of World War II, after negotiations between the U.S. and Soviet Union failed to keep the peninsula together — is being taught less widely than when she went to school.
Shin said President Moon is handling “Olympic diplomacy” with his counterpart in the North as well as possible, and that the announced summit with President Trump is a good sign.
Just down the road from the peace booth, there were reminders of the close and long standing relationship between South Korea and the U.S. as thousands of protesters marched through downtown in support of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Park was ousted a year ago after allegedly taking millions of dollars in bribes.
The marchers carried banners featuring her face alongside President Trump’s, waving thousands of South Korean and American flags side by side.
Trump is actually not very popular here, but 75 percent of South Koreans continue to hold high opinions of the U.S., even as support has waned globally in the Trump era.
The relationship between the two countries is very close, building upon a military alliance that dates back to 1950, when the U.S. stepped in to defend the South against an invasion from the North — the Korean War.
The decades since the 1953 armistice have seen South Korea enjoy immense prosperity and North Korea earn its reputation as the “Hermit Kingdom.” But what had been an unbridgeable divide may finally be closing.
Peter Daley, an advocate for North Korean activists and an English professor at Sookmyung Women’s University, said that any talks geared toward de-escalation of military hostilities on the peninsula and in the region need to acknowledge the egregious human rights abuses in the North.
The Kim regime operates a system of almost absolute control of the population including forced labor camps that have been likened to Nazi concentration camps.
“When we say peace, what do we mean? Do we mean forgetting these crimes? It’s nice that [Trump and Kim are] talking, but have there been any concrete steps toward human rights?” he asked.
Daley offered a warning about the North Korean delegation to PyeongChang led by Kim Jong Un’s 27-year old sister Kim Yo-jong and including as squad of smiling, singing cheerleaders.
“The contingent that came here, they weren’t free,” Daley said. “Even their presence here was a reminder of the totalitarian regime. It may be a first step, but I don’t really think much has changed. I don’t see the Korean president mentioning these issues.”
As U.S. officials rush to plan the Trump-Kim meeting for May, most North Korea experts remained stunned about what would be an historic conversation between two men who just weeks ago were openly threatening nuclear annihilation.
Though it takes a lot to get the attention of Seoul residents, a de-escalation of hostilities seemed worthy of at least a sigh of relief.
GroundTruth executive editor Kevin Grant is reporting from Seoul as part of a team of journalists from University of Southern California’s Annenberg School covering religion and politics in South Korea.