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What do South Koreans really think about North Korea?

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Mar 24 2013

I wrote on here once that “while North Korea and the Korean War probably still dominate Western coverage of Korea, South Koreans don’t think about either very much. They are also a little… something… about talking about those things with foreigners. I still haven’t worked out what the something is, despite thinking about it a lot.”

North Korea has been in the news a lot lately, with their missile and nuclear tests and latest threats to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire”. So I wanted to take another look at that something, and try to answer the question – how do South Koreans really feel about North Korea?

I said that South Koreans “don’t think about [North Korea] very much.” And that is what you generally hear and read, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that it is more nuanced than that. I have a tentative answer to that question, and it’s an interesting one.

But it might be wrong. And before I get to that, I want to talk a little about writing about Korea as an outsider.

Is an outsider’s perspective valuable?

I often write on here about Korean culture. There’s a generic justification for this sort of writing. It goes something like this: “An outsider’s perspective is valuable. An outsider can see things that people who are in the culture are too close to realize, and explain them better to other outsiders.”

That’s my justification, too, but I’m not comfortable with it. Perhaps there is value in an outsider’s perspective, and certainly it provides a bridge for other outsiders who want to know more about a culture. But there’s something a little presumptuous in the idea that an outsider can somehow see things that a perceptive insider cannot. And outsiders generally – and me in particular – are likely to be ignorant in crucial ways, and may miss the subtleties.

So I think that if you are going to attempt this sort of outsider’s perspective, you need to be careful. You need to be aware of the limitations of your own understanding, and try your best to educate yourself, and not just ignorantly spout off nonsense like those two egregious nincompoops from Canada. They recently made a video on the topic of this post – what do South Koreans think about the North Korean threat? – and the Washington Post, which should know better, uses the outsider argument to justify linking to their asinine video:

Simon and Martina Stawski, the married couple behind the blog, are close enough to South Korean pop culture that they seem to know it well, but distant enough that they’re good at explaining it to fellow Westerners. Their perspective makes the above video on how North Korea is perceived in the South particularly valuable.

I’m sorry, but I don’t agree. To be fair to the Washington Post, they do acknowledge that Eat Your Kimchi’s political analysis is asinine:

So does – and I mean no offense to the Eat Your Kimchi team here, whose work I enjoy – their belief that North Korea’s threat is overblown by the media and actually not that big of a deal. A nuclear-armed rogue state that periodically attacks its neighbor without provocation, destabilizes one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world and increases the odds of an unwanted military conflict is most definitely a big deal, and I can say with some certainty that the media is not “trying to sell newspapers” by keeping track of it.

And to be fair to EYK, they, too, somewhat acknowledge their ignorance with a disclaimer: “We’re not knowledgeable about the political situation here. We’re just talking about our experiences. If you want more technical/knowledgable info, this isn’t the place for it.”

If EYK would only take that disclaimer, remove the words “political” and “more technical/knowledgeable”, so that it read: “We’re not knowledgeable about the situation here. We’re just talking about our experiences. If you want info, this isn’t the place for it,” and put it in huge letters at the top of their entire “culture” section, I might not find them so objectionable. Failing that, I wish they would at least limit themselves to writing about pop music, and how to give your poodle a pink Mohawk, and the like. Because whenever they decide to explain something serious about Korean culture, they sound like squealing idiots.**To me, EYK always sound like English teachers who have been here for six months and now can’t wait for the newbies to arrive, so they can share their six month wisdom. Still completely ignorant about Korea, yet full of confidence and unaware of their own ignorance. My favorite example of theirs for this: “How to get Korean home delivery“, in which not even their inability to pronounce the Korean words for “hello”, “yes”, and the number 0 can stop them from telling all the internet how you should go about ordering food on the phone in Korea.

EYK’s thesis, quoted approvingly in the Washington Post, is that South Koreans don’t worry about the North Korean threat very much. And certainly that seems to be the general opinion. But I’m not sure it’s right. And I may be completely wrong in my opinion, and my outsider’s perspective may very well be ignorant and off-base; but I came to it after thinking about it a lot for two and a half years, and it is at least, I think, interesting.

Some personal experiences

Now, for some personal experiences, Eat Your Kimchi style. Like most foreigners who come to Korea, I suppose, I expected that South Koreans would feel a certain way about North Korea, and I was surprised that they didn’t think that way at all. Having fought a war with the North, I thought that they would dislike North Korea and see them as enemies. I quickly realised that wasn’t so. The Japanese were women- and island-stealing monsters, but North Korea was… something else.

At least, I thought, they would hate the North Korean leadership, who truly are monstrous – but whenever I heard South Koreans talk about this, which was almost never, and only in response to my own questioning, their opinions seemed curiously muted.

“I don’t hate Kim Jong-Il,” my first Korean friend told me, shortly after I came to Korea. “He just did what he needed to do.”

I asked my first co-teacher for her opinions about North Korea. She didn’t like North Korea, and she told me her main reason – “because we gave them cows. And they sold the cows, and kept the money.” (I have no idea of the truth of this peculiar factoid.)

Six months in to my first year, the North Koreans sank the ROKS Cheonan. I talked about this with the teacher who drove me home from school. She was upset, and angry. But she wasn’t angry at the North Koreans – her anger was directed at Lee Myeong Bak, the president of South Korea at the time. “I am so angry at him,” she told me. “Last election I did not vote. Next time, I must vote.”

At this point, I started to feel that South Koreans’ opinions of North Korea were actually a little bizarre. Their anger seemed to be tangential, non-existent, or completely displaced.

South Korean reactions to North Korea news stories

When Kim Jong-Il died, I broke the news to a room full of Korean teachers. It was lunchtime; they were talking, I was reading my phone, and I saw the news item and said with surprise, “Kim Jong-Il died.”

My co-teacher said, “Really?” and translated into Korean for the rest of the lunch room. There was about 30 seconds of mild conversation – then they went back to eating their lunch. It was not just a muted reaction; it was a completely bizarre one.

My co-teacher looked at me, and, I suppose, read my face, because she said “Are you surprised that he died?”

“I’m suprised by the reaction in this room,” I said. “I thought Koreans would care more.”

“No, no,” my co-teacher said. “They care.”

A week later, the death of Kim Jong-Il had an effect on all of us: the planned teachers’ trip to Yeongdeok got cancelled because of it. I didn’t see the connection between his death and our planned trip to eat king crab, which I had been looking forward to. I asked this same co-teacher (who spoke excellent English), “Why? Not out of respect?”

“No,” she said. “Not that.”

I tried again with another guess – “Is it because they are worried about war, and want to keep the roads clear?” It was all I could come up with. She laughed and said it wasn’t for that reason, either.

“But why?” I said. “What does Kim Jong-Il dying have to do with us going to Yeongdeok and eating king crab?”

“There was a message from the government,” she said. “It said government workers should stay at work at this time and avoid unnecessary travel.” I must have still looked baffled, because she paused – obviously not sure how to explain it – and reached deep into her memories of English for an expression. “They want us to stay at work and – hold the fort? – is that the expression?”

In retrospect, I think it was the perfect expression.

A final story, again involving this same co-teacher. I once again was the one to break a major North Korea story to her, when, a few months later, the North Koreans let off their (failed) Gwangmyeongseong 3 missile.

The news had been full of it for a week, and everyone knew it could happen at any time. We were alone in the office, late afternoon, and I saw the news and said a very foolish thing.

I said, “The North Korean missile exploded.”

Now I told you that this teacher spoke very good English, but my sentence was unclear, and probably even more so to a non-native speaker. I meant, “shortly after it took off,” but it sounded equally like “in the middle of Seoul.”

I saw my co-teacher’s body suddenly stiffen, and the color drained from her face.

“No, it exploded when it took off,” I said quickly.

She opened a Korean news site and glanced at the headings, and said nothing for a moment.

“They’re just a pack of gangsters,” she said, with real bitterness.

It was the only time I ever saw a South Korean have what felt like an honest, emotional reaction to the threat of North Korea.

How do South Koreans really feel about North Korea?

Newspapers, Eat Your Kimchi, and South Koreans themselves, will tell you that South Koreans don’t worry about North Korea; that it isn’t part of their daily lives and they rarely think about it. And for some Koreans, I’m sure that is completely true. But I don’t believe they really don’t care, or that it doesn’t affect them very deeply. To understand it, I think you need to think about psychological denial.

Jared Diamond in Collapse explains psychological denial this way – and I don’t think it’s difficult to see the parallels with the Korean situation:

This is a technical term with a precisely defined meaning in individual psychology, and it has been taken over into the pop culture. If something that you perceive arouses in you a painful emotion, you may subconsciously suppress or deny your perception in order to avoid the unbearable pain, even though the practical results of ignoring your perception may prove ultimately disastrous. The emotions most often responsible are terror, anxiety, and grief…

For example, consider a narrow river valley below a high dam, such that if the dam burst, the resulting flood of water would drown people for a considerable distance downstream. When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam’s bursting, it’s not surprising that fear of a dam burst is lowest far downstream, and increases among residents increasingly close to the dam. Surprisingly, though, after you get to just a few miles below the dam, where fear of the dam’s breaking is found to be highest, the concern then falls off to zero as you approach closer to the dam! That is, the people living immediately under the dam, the ones most certain to be drowned in a dam burst, profess unconcern. That’s because of psychological denial: the only way of preserving one’s sanity while looking up every day at the dam is to deny the possibility that it could burst. Although psychological denial is a phenomenon well established in individual psychology, it seems likely to apply to group psychology as well.

South Koreans aren’t worried about North Korea? Really? I don’t think that’s quite it. I think there is a deeper reason why South Koreans say they aren’t concerned – why their reactions are so strangely muted, why they just shrug and go back to their lunch.

North Korea is a serious threat. It is a rogue state with nuclear weapons. It routinely threatens Seoul with destruction. From time to time, almost randomly, it kills South Koreans. South Korea fought an incredibly brutal, destructive war with it. It is an extraordinarily vicious, criminal regime:

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates that North Korea holds approximately 200,000 people in its system of concentration and detention camps, and that 400,000 people have died in these camps from torture, starvation, disease, and execution. These reports, in the context of estimates that North Korea has allowed between 600,000 and 2,500,000 of its people to starve to death while its government squandered the nation’s resources on weapons and luxuries for its ruling elite, suggest that North Korea’s oppression and politically targeted starvation of its people collectively constitute the world’s greatest ongoing atrocity, and almost certainly the most catastrophic anywhere on earth since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. (Source)

And those imprisoned North Koreans are part of the extended Korean “family”, part of the one race of “our country” that refer to each other by custom as brother, sister, aunt, grandmother.

It is impossible be South Korean and not be affected on some psychological level by the menace to the north. All South Korean males have to serve a term of military service during the height of their youth. It is always in the news, always doing something – testing nuclear weapons and missiles, making vague or specific threats, selling drugs or counterfeiting money or hacking South Korean computers. The threat of it is constant in the everyday existence of South Koreans. At my elementary school, soldiers turn up every few months to run an electronic wire across the playground for inscrutable purposes, and then spend the day skulking in the trees across the rice field from our school.

But in South Korea, everyone ignores it. They are running about, trying to study more, study faster, work harder, look more perfect, earn more money, own the latest electronics, get a big apartment. The contrast – the cognitive dissonance – is extraordinary. And some day, possibly not too far off, something will happen with North Korea. Most probably it won’t be war, because nobody has anything to gain from a war. But does anyone really think that North Korea will just go on indefinitely? Eventually there will be some kind of rebellion or coup or collapse, and South Korea will have to face the very expensive and painful task of figuring out what to do with what Christopher Hitchens called “a nation of racist dwarfs“:

Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: This horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.

I think it is almost impossible to keep those two ideas in your head simultaneously. I am in a fast-paced, high tech culture. I am in a divided country where one half of my people are brutally repressed. I should get double eyelid surgery. North Korea has a nuclear weapon and is testing a missile. I want the Galaxy S4 but I have to pay MinHo’s hagwon bill. Kim JongUn is threatening to turn Seoul into a sea of fire but I have to go there to buy the Galaxy S4 and pay MinHo’s hagwon bill. It is cognitive dissonance on a massive, nation-wide scale, and the only way to deal with it is to pretend it doesn’t exist, try to ignore it, and “hold the fort”. Keep eating your lunch and tell everyone, including yourself, that no – you really don’t think about North Korea very much at all.

Of course, I may be wrong. Korean readers, please tell me in the comments.

Waegukin wrote these 2836 words on March 24th, 2013 | Posted in Culture |


5 comments on “What do South Koreans really think about North Korea?”

  1. Teresa says:

    This is perhaps the best explanation of South Korean reaction (or seeming non-reaction) to North Korea that I’ve read/heard.

    I was baffled at the fact that all the foreigners in my hagwon were (seemingly) more concerned that Kim Jong-Il’s death would be a catalyst for something else. In fact, we were the ones to relay the news to our Korean co-teachers, and they didn’t visibly react nearly as much as we expected. “Not at all” would be an apt description, and note that I said “visibly.” As I’ve always said, Koreans are an inscrutable folk.

  2. Aragond says:

    This is probably the most insightful post on South Koreans attitudes to the north I have read in yonks. Your very sage quote of Jared Diamond is ridiculously illuminating! I wanted to stop spamming your comments sections with my commentary, but this post demands my thanks.

    Before going to Korea (Incheon) for the first time in the mid-90s — so, yes, a very different Korea — I read a forewarning that I should not try to broach the topic of the North with Koreans, they won’t discuss it. So, fool as I am, I stumbled into making some comment to my mate’s fiance about… actually, I actually asked her straight-up why Koreans don’t like discussing the North, or how they felt about it. I don’t recall. What I DO recall is the absolute, fifty-foot thick, reinforced, solid stone silence that followed. I had crossed a line, that much was clear, but I have never since been able to figure-out specifically why.

    Again, your post illuminates.

    Living under perpetual threat not from missiles (which, surely, are more for the US and Japan than the South) but even from long-range artillery and a two million-man tank-armed force that, probably much like last time, could overrun Seoul in mere days absolutely *must* mess with your psychology well beyond paralysing fear and deep into cognitive dissonance.

    Again, thank you.

  3. The Waegukin says:

    Glad I could provide you with some Sunday reading^^.

    When you do get South Koreans talking about North Korea, they can sometimes be extraordinarily funny. One guy had me laughing for about ten minutes as he told me how in North Korea, being fat was considered attractive, and that I could do well for myself if I put on a ton of weight and moved there.

    The other subject on which I’ve heard Koreans be extraordinarily funny is eating dog meat. I guess the slightly taboo nature of the topics brings out the humour.

  4. Cathy Kim says:

    I may not be the Korean reader you wanted to hear a comment from since I was born in Korea but have lived in the US all but my first year. However, I’d probably have a similar reaction to your inquiries of how does a South Korean feel about North Korea.

    You’re puzzled by the detachment but I’m puzzled that you’d expect more of a reaction. When Kim Jong-Il passed, I remember it was mentioned at home and that was it. No cry of joy, no excited banter ensued. Why? Because his son would probably succeed him, which he did.

    Both of my parents have called the dictator in NK as “crazy” but there is a bit of sadness in how they feel about NK. My father’s oldest brother somehow was separated from the family and stuck in NK while the rest remained in SK. My aunt told me it was a great loss to my father since he worshipped his older brother and he would never see him again.

    I think the sadness of losses like those are easier to express than the fear of a crazy dictator hovering north with a great threat of bombs and attacks. Until it hits personally, it’s just out there, not close. An example would be 911 in New York. It happened, it was awful, it changed the landscape of airports in the US but I don’t have a great fear of terrorists or airports from it. Terrorists make threats all the time. I’m more bothered by the increased airport security that makes it take much longer to get to my gate! If you asked me how I felt about al-Qaeda, I’d probably look indifferent and ask what specifically do you want to know? Ask me about airport security lines and I might be more impassioned and express great annoyance that I have to check in at least 40 minutes before a short flight.

    I’m writing with limited time so I’ll stop there.

    I came across your blog since I was trying to find the best way to learn Korean. You write well in a conversational tone which makes it easy to read and you’re quite amusing. My Korean is horrible. My parents feared when we were young that they would confuse my sisters and I living in the States so we didn’t speak much Korean growing up. I have a desire to know it fluently but I have not made it a priority and my huge lazy bone in learning languages is an issue. But here I go, going to give it another shot…


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