Just how worried are South Koreans about North Korea?
Last Friday, as international news reports were filled with the news of US missile tests off the coast of North Korea, warnings from Pyongyang to foreign diplomats in the country and the re-defection of a North Korean back from the South, the most discussed story on South Korean news sites was about the outcome of the trial of a man accused of murdering his girlfriend with an octopus.
The man had previously been convicted of murder in October after supposedly staging the death of his girlfriend to make it appear that she had died of suffocation while eating the live small octopus in order that he could inherit 200 million won, around £115k, from her life insurance policy. However the decision was overturned on Friday and the man was charged instead for theft and must serve one and a half years in prison. This story, which had been ongoing for months, captured the attention of South Koreans more than the dozens about the current political situation with North Korea.
Similarly, in February, the day after North Korea’s latest missile test, the most popular internet article was about an ongoing discount sale from popular cosmetics brand, Innisfree.
As the rest of the world discusses the possible implications of North Korea’s current threats, South Koreans, for the most part, are carrying on as normal. Rhetoric which may seem like cause for alarm to an international audience has become part of everyday life for citizens on both sides of the 38th Parallel. Just this week North Korea threatened to destroy South Korea in a ‘sea of flames’. This may sound alarming until you consider the fact that this particular analogy has been used regularly for nearly twenty years. As of yet, the proposed body of fiery water has yet to materialise.
James Pearson is the co-director of NKNews.org, a popular North Korea news website, and editor of Koreabang, a website which translates the most talked about articles, along with netizen comments, from Korean news portals into English. He said ‘[South Koreans] are fatigued by the constant attention to North Korea. They are not perhaps as naïve as everyone else because they can speak Korean and read the sources and they actually understand the situation a lot more intimately than the rest of the world. They, therefore, know that it’s not really anything to be panicked about.’
South Koreans might instead feel more cause to worry about other implications current threats may have on their economy and lifestyle rather than their personal safety.
The South Korean government seems to feel similar concerns as newly elected president Park Geun-hye met with foreign investors on Thursday to reassure any fears about current tensions. Speaking at the lunch meeting, she said ‘I say confidently that we will create a stable environment so that you can make investments and do business without any concerns.’ Park was keen to remind investors that the country had faced similar threats before without negative impact on the county’s economy.
Many young South Koreans, who are generally fairly apathetic towards politics, are also more concerned about the negative impact North Korea’s behaviour might have on their economy. South Korea is a country with a highly educated population, with over 80% finishing some kind of higher education, which is suffering from extremely high levels of youth unemployment. Last year, a survey from the Hyundai Research Institute indicated that as many as one in five Koreans between the ages of 15 and 29 are unemployed. As Kihoon Kim, a Korean exchange student currently studying in the UK, remarked, ‘Younger people are worrying about work so they really want peace.’
It seems young Koreans may be finding it more and more difficult to identify with Koreans on the other side of the border as their lifestyles become more and more dissimilar. Kim goes on to say, ‘Even when I was young, United Korea was the only answer for a whole Korea but I think currently, younger students are thinking that North Korea is just the enemy.’ While the countries may share the same history and heritage prior to their split, huge developments which have taken place since have placed them poles apart. How is a young person living in the most connected country in the world which also happens to be one of the world’s major economies supposed to identify with the citizens of the world’s most secretive country which routinely relies on aid simply to feed its people?
One united Korea has always been viewed as the ultimate diplomatic goal for both countries, North Koreans are counted as South Korean citizens under the constitution, but many experts now believe that, practically speaking, circumstances may make this impossible. Pearson said ‘ I think these days, as we bite into the 21st century, the two states are so different and are moving apart so much that any possibility of unification before North Korea adopts some serious changes just seems to be very far-fetched.’
Pearson also warns that it is important to ‘view this from a domestic perspective first because that is exactly how North Koreans will view it’. There are several domestic factors which could be the major motivations for North Korea’s current threats. As he comes up to his second full year in power, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung’s birthday, an important national holiday, and 60 years since the Armistice agreement was signed, Kim Jong Un’s actions could be motivated by a need to display his strength to his own people. It seems most South Koreans have a similar take on this as Kim, the exchange student, told me ‘If they aren’t aggressive to other countries the people look at their president as weak. It doesn’t help their view of the hierarchy.’
South Koreans, if anything, feel more obligated to be worried because of the ongoing global media attention than because of actual concern. Pearson explains that because the current threats have ‘been so prolonged, the media coverage has also been equally prolonged and this is had made the mood change in the sense that people feel they should be sitting up and taking notice. But even though that is the case, it’s very difficult for them to do so.’
This is not to say that South Koreans believe there is no possibility of any kind of incident although most think it is unlikely. In a recent poll by Gallup Korea, 67% answered ‘no’ when asked whether they believed that North Korea would stage a provocative attack however in a poll held a few weeks previously 47% replied that they felt the North may launch a limited attack.
North Korea has a history of small-scale attacks such as the two that took place in 2010 when North Korea bombed a small South Korean island and sunk a navy vessel killing fifty people, both military personnel and civilians. Kim, who served in the South Korean military under mandatory conscription, said ‘I think there is a possibility of a small incident like previous ones. Just a small fight. But if the response is stronger compared to the previous one, it could become massive.’ These concerns mirror those of UN Secretary General and South Korean, Ban Ki-moon who told reporters this week, ‘I am very troubled, as a Korean citizen particularly, that the current level of tension is very dangerous. If there is any small incident caused by miscalculation or misjudgement, it may cause an uncontrollable situation.’
As Kim Il Sung’s birthday approaches both South Korean and US officials have issued warnings that they believe North Korea may be intending to launch a long-distance missile. Despite this, having heard similar threats before, South Koreans are unfazed. As Pearson says ‘Until there is any actual sign of conflict or any actual provocative act, South Koreans will just go on as normal and even if there is, they are probably still going to go on as normal.’
What do you think? Is the North Korea threat real? Let us know what you think in the comments.