All Quiet on the Southern Front

Does the average South Korean really care about the news of Kim Jong Il's death?

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

SEOUL – South Korean television and radio stations don’t often simultaneously air live broadcast news from North Korea’s official media. But as the nation sat down for lunch on Monday, they saw an unfamiliar face appear on their Samsung flat panel TVs. It was that of Ri Chun-hee, North Korea’s star newsreader, dressed in a traditional, black funeral gown, seated and weeping in her trademark wavering voice. That’s when most people here knew it was serious.

Despite being ill for some years now, Kim Jong Il’s death came as a surprise. The South Korean government seemed to be caught off guard as well. President Lee Myung-bak called an emergency Cabinet meeting and the Unification Ministry set up a new commission to monitor all developments up North. The message to the public: Stay calm, the situation is under control, go about your normal lives.  And on the streets of the capital, most Koreans seemed to be doing just that, for now.

Despite the fear that a hostile nuclear-armed state without a clear leader in charge could instill in its neighbors, most South Koreans here really just don’t seem to care about what happens in the North.

Choi Young Joo, a 29-year old piano instructor, was driving home when she heard on the radio the news of Kim’s death.  

"I thought ‘oh wow, he’s dead,’ not a big difference than before," she said. "I sent my friends a group chat message about it.  They just asked me ‘what are we going to do for dinner?’"

Other Seoulites shrugged their shoulders or plainly said "I don’t care" when asked how they feel now that Kim, one of the world’s most brutal dictators, is history. Short of a missile barrage, many cosmopolitan citizens of this city of 10 million don’t seem to think their lives are affected at all by what occurs above the 38th parallel.

"I was at the office when I read the news today.  I didn’t think it was a big deal at first," said Yu Mi Hyun, 25.  "But after I talked to my friends in the military, I realized this was an important event and that we need to watch it closely."

The apathy toward North Korea among the country’s youth is a big concern for the government, which is reaching out to teens and 20-somethings with ventures into social media and greater online visibility. In October, the Unification Ministry launched Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as an Internet television channel that features news, press briefings, and even a television drama all related to reunification issues.

"Pretty much nobody among the younger generation of Koreans is seriously interested in unification and North Korea," says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst at Kookmin University in Seoul. "North Korea is increasingly seen as a distant country, an irrelevant place, a poor dictatorship whose population happens to speak the same language."

The death of Kim is just the type of event the South Korean government is trying to prepare the public for.  But trying to convince young Koreans that the six decades-old division of the peninsula is still relevant today is a challenge for the Unification Ministry.

"South Korean life is very competitive and young Koreans are busy with school or searching for jobs.  They don’t have time to think about unification," says Lee Sung Shin of the Unification Ministry’s public relations team. 

But that’s a problem, says Shin, adding that when unification does happen, it will be sudden and unexpected.  Andrei Lankov agrees: "Unification will come and not as a result of negotiations between the two governments, but as a result of a revolution in North Korea.  The current generation will deal with the consequences of this change." 

And those consequences, Lankov says, including picking up the bill for reunification. In August, a state-run think tank estimated the cost of merging the two economies could run as high as $203 billion. But if young South Koreans seem unconcerned by the uncertainties that Kim Jong Il’s death might mean for their bank accounts or social safety nets, another demographic can’t wait for the regime to fall.  They are the 22,000 strong community of North Korean defectors.

Kim Hung-kwang of North Korean Intellectual Solidarity, a Seoul-based organization made up of former North Korean elites, says he’s been getting calls all day from other refugees, asking if the news of Kim’s demise is real. "It seems like it is hard to believe for them," he says. 

But Hung-kwang tells them not to get their hopes up yet that Kim regime is in its death throes. At this point, which course heir apparent Kim Jong Un — the third youngest son of the late Kim — will take the country is anyone’s guess. "North Korea can go one of two ways," says Hung-kwang. "They will either engage with the international community, or they will become an even more dangerous, militarized regime."

Other North Korean defectors want to personally play a more active role in the overthrow of the Kim family. During rallies put on by the North Korean People’s Liberation Front, a group made up of former soldiers of the North’s million-man army, members wear camouflage and wield plastic rifles. They say the only way to end the regime in Pyongyang is to take out its leadership. During one demonstration in Seoul in September of last year, the activists showed how they’d do this by lining up a man wearing a Kim JongI Il mask in front of a firing squad. One member shouted fire and recording of gunshots rang out.  The man in the mask fell to the ground.

"Many South Koreans are suspicious of us," says Liberation Front member Park Dae-gook. "They think we betrayed our government before so maybe we might do that again. We’re in a desperate situation, so that’s why we want to go to the frontlines." North Korean defectors are not eligible to enlist in the South Korean military. The Liberation Front’s offer to form a combat unit or participate in training exercises with South Korean forces has been rejected by Seoul’s Ministry of Defense, which appears to not take the group so seriously.

But taking up arms against their old government is not how most politically active North Korean defectors feel they can best be utilized. Intellectual Solidarity runs covert operations to send DVDs, USB sticks, and other media filled with information about the outside world across the North Korean border.  Their goal is to spark an eventual uprising. And as Seoul chews on the death of Kim Jong Il, Kim Hung-kwang says it’s a crucial moment.

"We need to reach out to North Koreans and counter the regime’s official propaganda that paints Kim as a hero. They need to know what is true or not about him," he says. Hung-kwang adds that these efforts by defectors need to occur during the next 100 days, when North Korea holds an official period of mourning for the late Dear Leader.

"It seems like the day in which we will be able to return to our hometowns is coming quickly," Kim Hung-kwang says. "But if that day is to come soon, we have to increase our activities to ensure North Korea becomes a more free nation first."

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