We Asked 20-Somethings Living In South Korea What Life Is Actually Like. This Was Their Surprising Answer.
The Debrief: We often read about North Korea's military maneouvering and apparently there are gas masks on the undergound in South Korea's capitla, Seoul. But what's it actually like to live in South Korea right now?
We often read about North Korea. In the West we can’t help but cover Kim Jong Un’s movements and behaviour. He’s executed another adviser, there’s a Daily Mail feature. North Korea are testing missiles, there’s a Guardian headline. It’s his birthday, various youth sites make ‘funny’ memes of the dictator to celebrate with that quintessentially post modern, tongue in cheek irony that seems to be the house style of so much online content.
However, last October The Debrief saw 22 year-old human rights activist and North Korea defector, Yeonmi Park, speak at the Women in the World conference in London. Yeonmi told attendees ‘please don’t see Kim Jong-Un as a joke. He is killing millions of people.’
She went on to talk about what it was like to grow up in North Korea, ‘I believe my dear leader could read my mind’, she said, ‘I thought if I thought a bad thing he could punish me.’
When we read about South Korea it often has something to do with K-pop or the threat posed by North Korea. Western media currently reports that tensions between North and South Korea are high and rising; North Korea recently launched a long-range rocket and, last month, they tested their fourth nuclear device.
A poll, conducted last week by JoongAng llbo newspaper, found that 67.7 per cent of people favoured South Korea acquiring their own nuclear weapons in order to defend themselves.
Indeed, since the last round of UN sanctions were imposed on North Korea in 2013, they have unleashed a series of threats against the US and South Korea. In 1994 South Koreans stocked up on essentials in panic after a North Korean negotiator threatened to turn Seoul into a ‘sea of fire’. Such overblown, threatening rhetoric is nothing unusual for North Korea these days. Experts debate whether or not North Korea’s threats should be taken seriously, or whether they are empty. On the one hand some believe that, while the country has a large army, its equipment is thought to be outdated Soviet-era stuff in poor condition. While others believe that North Korea’s missiles could have huge reach.
The most recent reports are that the US has sent jets to fly over South Korea, intended as a show of strength following tests of what North Korea said was a hydrogen bomb in January and a satellite launch earlier this month. But, behind the headlines, what’s it really like to live in South Korea right now? Just how seriously to young women living there take North Korea's infamous dictator?
Jasmin Sohn, 30, lives in Seoul and works for Sofar Sounds
Jasmin tells me that the conflict doesn’t affect her day to day life directly. ‘Sometimes it does in indirect ways’, however, she says. ‘Once I had an appointment with a journalist who are specialized in North Korea. But on the day we supposed to meet, North Korea attacked Yeonpyeong island out of the blue. That was something I had not thought of, it was first time that I felt North Korea can affect my daily life somewhat directly.’
She thinks Kim Jong-un is a ‘bluffer’ and says the atmosphere in South Korea at the moment is ‘nothing special’, just business as usual.
‘To be honest,’ she adds, ‘I am not particularly sensitive to what North Korea does. I still remember when they attacked Yeonpyeong, my colleagues did not care much. But, the VIP guests from the U.S. that our company was hosting kept asking us whether Korea is safe or not.’
So does she worry about North Korea at all? ‘I worry if there are any people whose human rights are being violated, but not about the country itself. I am also interested in helping North Korean defectors to settle down here in South Korea.’
‘What I can say about North Korea is that maybe I do not have much information about what is really going on inside the country. During my elementary school years, we sometimes were assigned to draw a poster about the relationship between North and South Korea. We also learned language difference between two countries. At that time, I learned that North Koreans can never go abroad because of their strict ruling system. However, I sort of just gave up studying North Korea assuming many North Korea related-things are just blocked for South Koreans. Many people say North Korea is a part of Korea, but I see North Korea as one of many foreign countries, but a mystery more than any countries as it is the one I cannot visit.’
Ji-young Eom, 23, is a graduate from Ulsan, currently living in Seoul and looking for a job
Jiyoung says when she was recently in London she was asked a lot of questions abut North Korea. But, ‘no’, it doesn’t affect her day to day life other than that. She thinks Kim Jong-un is ‘an irritating dictator who’s non-sociable, unadaptable and just wants to be his grand father. Also, we are really sorry for his hair style and his appearance, it is simply a disaster, we often make fun of it.’
‘We are used to hearing the news about North Korea, and living in this country where there is a supposed threat. But I don’t think war will occur that easily, it's too complicated and risky, mostly for North Korea. I'm sure that Kim Jong-un knows that.’
The perception seems to be that South Korea has a stronger army and, if North Korea did attack a foreign state the international response would be so great that it would end up being a bigger problem for North Korea in the long run. People trust that their government are doing what they need to do and adopt a ‘keep calm, carry on’ approach to life.
She says she doesn’t really worry about war at all, ‘many people in South Korea consider North Korea as a kind of…nasty younger brother, who is always seeking attention from all over the world and money for making their own weapons. I used to care about the poor citizens of North Korea, but I'm busy enough with my own life.’
On weapons tests and military posturing, Jiyoung says they’re ‘annoying, irritating, bothering. I can use all of these adjectives. But we’re used to it.’
‘It could be that we are insensitive towards war’ and ‘our own safety’ she says but ‘when we hear of North Korea's news, we are like (especially younger generations)… ‘Again!?!? That's so annoying, meh, anyway should we get some some delivery chicken for dinner tonight?'
Jiyoung does think that South Koreans ‘should be more prepared and think carefully’ about the situation but she says people aren’t given advice about what to do in case of an emergency, ‘ummm maybe just running to the nearest shelter’. ‘I stress that we should be more prepared’, she says.
Sunny Park is 31, she’s a CEO living in Seoul
‘You will be surprised how it actually doesn’t affect my daily life at all’ Sunny confirms. ‘This has been ongoing since the day we were divided and I guess I’ve become numb about those incidents.’
‘I do always think of North Korea’, she says, ‘I believe that the country provides no human rights and continues to go against the world peace but I don’t blame the people from North Korea but a small portion of them in control manipulating the entire nation. At the end of the day, they are Koreans like me, and I hope to share the freedom we all have in the future.’
‘I should probably pay more attention to national security, and get myself more prepared for plan Z’, she adds.
Katherine Spowart is originally from the UK, she’s 24, currently teaching English in Seoul and blogging about Korean beauty trends
‘Nobody ever really brings North Korea up’, Katherine says, ‘Sometimes we might mention it if we've seen something in the Western media, but other than that you wouldn't know there's a terrifying dictatorship going on just 35 miles north of us.’
She says that any concerns about North Korea’s activity are usually ‘brought on by people at home asking if I've seen the recent news about what the North are doing, never the atmosphere here in South Korea. Recently my friends and I went on a white water rafting trip. What we didn't realise was that we were basically on the border! We looked at our iPhone maps and were shocked. When we saw a fleet of about 6 military helicopters overhead, I did worry slightly. But this didn't phase the Korean organisers at all, they didn't mention it. I think that's why I never truly worry, because no one seems overly worried here. When the South Koreans start visibly panicking, that's when I'll worry.’
Katherine says that there are gasmasks on the underground in Seoul. ‘I haven’t been told specifically but I know that the underground stations are meant to be used as shelters if there is an attack. I’ve heard that there are drills sometimes, but I’ve never been told anything and I’ve never experienced one.’
Calum, a solicitor from the UK in his late 20s, who is also currently based in Seoul, confirms this. He says ‘I’ve had no safety demos or anything like that – unlike when I worked in London and had an anti-terror drill when I worked in one of those high-rise buildings in the City.’
Katherine points out that there are many people in South Korea who still hope that the country will reunite and become one again, ‘there are many families that were torn apart by the split, and obviously the people over the border are really suffering. Some of my students have brought up a number of times how much they want to reunite which at first surprised me, but then I realised they're one people that were separated. I feel more sad for North Korea than fearful of it.’
South Korea has a ministry for unification, a government department which exists for the rejoining together of the country. If there is ever a reunification it will be a significant international moment. North Korea has borders with China and Russia, while South Korea is considered to be more allied with the US. So, any coming back together will have huge ramifications for relationships between those superpowers and in the meantime it's business as usual for South Koreans.
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