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Ahead of summit with North, South Koreans hope more for peace than unification

SEOUL (Reuters) — As North and South Korea gear up for their first summit in over a decade this Friday, many South Koreans have lowered their expectations since previous summits, hoping for peace rather than any swift reunification.

While often still couched in the rhetoric of eventual unification  —  especially by the North Koreans  —  this round of inter-Korean detente has seen South Korean President Moon Jae-in target peace and reconciliation as a more pragmatic goal.

Moon will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border village of Panmunjom in Friday’s summit. Previous summits between the two sides were held in 2000 and 2007.

To many South Koreans, the idea of unification has grown distant, if not far-fetched, over the 65 years since the war with North Korea ended in a truce. Legacies of the bloody Korean War, decades of military provocations and threats, and Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons have left deep divisions.

There’s no idea on how the autocratic Kim and his regime will fit into a unified Korea. At another level, the South has grown to become Asia’s fourth-largest economy, leaving many South Koreans feeling they may have more to lose than gain from any merger with the poverty-stricken North.

“South Korea now stands shoulder-to-shoulder with advanced countries after having climbed up from being one of the poorest countries in the world, thanks to the blood and sweat of our parents’ generation,” said Park Jung-ho, a 35-year-old office worker in Seoul.

“After unification, everything will go back to as it was when we were a developing country,” Park said.

It was not possible to gauge how people in secretive North Korea feel about the summit. But the North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said last week there was “steel-strong will for reunification” and described Kim as “the peerlessly great man taking the helm of the history and steering the trend of the world.”

In Seoul, office worker Suji Lee, 31, said unification would only bring about economic havoc in the South and suggested the two Koreas would be better off as separate countries.

“Remoteness and damage,” Lee said, when asked the first thing that came to mind when she thought of unification.

An annual report by the Seoul National University on how South Koreans perceive unification said South Koreans are roughly equally divided on whether unification is necessary, but the percentage of those who strongly support it has fallen steadily from when the report was first published in 2007.

Last year, 53.8 percent of respondents said they view unification as “necessary,” compared with more than 63 percent in 2007.