Domestic politics explains at least part of South Korea’s frostiness. South Korea’s conservatives, whose approval ratings have plummeted since the impeachment of their former president Park Geun Hye, have rediscovered their favorite accusation against the liberals: that they are soft on North Korea. Na Gyeong Won, a legislator and member of the conservative opposition, has called the upcoming games the “Pyongyang Olympics,” a derisive label that conservative newspapers—including Dong-A Ilbo, which wrote so glowingly of the unified ping pong team in 1991—have gleefully echoed. That South Korea’s conservatives are trying to denigrate the first Winter Olympics in their country in an effort to score political points is an extraordinary display of cynical partisanship. Their efforts are also more than a little hypocritical. As recently as December 2014, South Korea’s conservative party was urging the government to consider splitting hosting duties with North Korea.
Partisanship alone, however, does not explain South Korea’s stance on the North Korean athletes. In a poll conducted immediately after Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address, in which he announced North Korea would be willing to participate in the Winter Olympics, 65 percent of South Koreans said they believed such conciliatory gestures did not mean his attitude towards them had changed in any way; 90 percent believed North Korea would never give up its nuclear weapons. Support for the unified Korean team is lukewarm: 44.1 percent in favor versus 42.6 percent against, according to a recent poll.
The same poll found that the strongest opposition to the unified Korean team comes from younger South Koreans. Fifty percent of South Koreans in their 30s opposed the formation of the unified team. Rather than feeling some surge of inter-Korean nationalism, younger South Koreans seem to view the North Korean athletes as free riders leeching off a South Korean team that worked hard to qualify for the Olympics. (In this rendering, the fact that South Korea’s women’s hockey team, ranked 22nd in the world, qualified automatically by virtue of being from the host country is casually forgotten.)
Justified or not, the younger generation’s feelings about the joint team offer a window into its broader attitude toward North Korea. Unlike their parents, they have little reason to feel kinship with North Koreans: A South Korean in her 30s was born a full generation after the end of the Korean War and came of age in the mid-90s. By then, Seoul had already grown into a glittering metropolis, while hundreds of thousands of North Koreans were starving to death during the March of Struggles from 1994 to 1998.
Although South Korea’s public education system emphasizes that all Koreans belong to the same minjok (“people”), young South Koreans can hardly identify with North Koreans. Young South Koreans tend to be wealthy, global-minded and well-traveled; those to the north are destitute and steeped in the Kim regime’s propaganda. In a hypothetical, reunified Korea, the burden of taking care of the North Koreans would fall on the South Koreans, and especially on the younger generation.