Will young South Koreans watch 'unification TV'?

The sitcom cast
Image caption South Korea's new "unification channel" shows sitcoms as well as news

South Korea has launched an internet television channel to inform its young people about North Korea and the potential consequences of reunification.

For many South Koreans, especially those born long after the 1950-53 Korean War, the issue of reunification is the last thing on their minds.

"It's not easy to get kids in high school and college interested in North Korea," says Lee Sung Shin, from the South's Unification Ministry.

"South Korean life is very competitive and young people are busy with school or searching for jobs. They don't have time to think about unification."

But the government wants young people to find the time to consider these issues.

Image caption The "unification channel" shows news bulletins, press conferences and some light entertainment

Its new online TV channel, which the media has dubbed the "unification channel", features news reports and press briefings, but also entertainment programming that targets a younger audience.

For example, there is a 20-part sitcom about a South Korean family living near the demilitarised zone (that separates North and South Korea), who adopt a young North Korean refugee. There are also pop quizzes about reunification-related issues.

Some experts on South Korea's relations with the North say they support the government's initiative.

"North Korea is increasingly seen as a distant country, an irrelevant place," says Andrei Lankov from Seoul's Gookmin University. "Pretty much nobody among the younger generation is seriously interested in unification," he says.

The problem with that, says Mr Lankov, is that the political system in the North could collapse quickly, and everyone in the South needs to understand the implications for them.

"Unification will come and not as a result of negotiations between the two governments, but as a result of a revolution in North Korea," he says. "The current generation will have to deal with the consequences of this change."

Other experts agree that the fall-out from any collapse in the North would have a serious impact on all South Koreans and that the responsibility for navigating any resulting reunification may fall to young people.

"I think if I were a South Korean teenager, it would be reasonable to expect that North Korea, as we know it today, will cease to exist in my lifetime" says Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at Nottingham University in the UK.

Students at the Women's University in Seoul say they are engaged with the issue. Lindsey, 21, says the likely economic impact of reunification matters to her.

She says she doesn't know how the South Korean government could afford to help lift North Korea out of poverty. "Everyone in North Korea, almost everyone, is poor," she says, adding that South Korea has its own poor people to look after.

Andrei Lankov says Lindsey is right to focus on the financial impact. He says recent estimates by several think-tanks put the cost of reunification at around $100bn (£63bn).

Several students mention their government's proposal to create a so-called unification tax that would set aside money to help pay for integrating the two economies.

"The government's unification channel should explain how that money would be used," says 24-year-old Hwa Seung-hyun.

She is not sure she will actually watch the channel. But her classmate, 21-year-old Mirae, says she will take a look.

"I'm interested because I study history and I think reunification is most important in Korea. I think it's the duty of our generation," she says.

Mirae says she will try to persuade her friends to watch the channel - which is just what the South Korean government wants to hear.

'Very unhappy'

For older South Koreans, the picture tends to be a little different.

Many, says Prof Tsang, believe the Koreans are one people and that the division between North and South is both unnatural and temporary.

The current official effort to rally greater interest and discussion on these issues may be driven by other motives too, he says.

"China has been seen recently as throwing its weight about in the region. Among some South Koreans, there are lingering doubts as to whether the Chinese might have ambitions towards North Korea, should North Korea collapse."

Prof Tsang says he is referring in particular to China articulating in recent times a "new historical view" that a large swathe of territory in the North is more Chinese than it is Korean.

"South Koreans are very, very unhappy about that," he says. "You have some South Koreans who feel very strongly that this Chinese articulation might indicate, potentially, some Chinese ambition towards the northern part of the Korean peninsular in the future."

For its part, North Korea's ire is directed at Seoul.

Pyongyang has reacted angrily to South Korea's efforts to get more young people engaged in the issue of reunification. The North's official media has called the new online TV channel "psychological warfare" and declared its launch an "act of aggression".

You can hear a radio version of this piece, at PRI's The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, Public Radio International, and WGBH in Boston. The radio report was first broadcast on PRI's The World on October 26, 2011.