Funny video explains what South Koreans think about the North

March 14, 2013

Eat Your Kimchi is a very popular blog written by two Canadians who moved to South Korea about five years ago and have been documenting their experiences ever since. Their videos began as observations about Korean pop culture from the outside, but, over time, have gradually taken on more of an insider's perspective.

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. (It's also pretty entertaining.) As you watch it, I would follow their advice to not take it as geopolitical analysis, but rather as a window into the popular attitude among the South Korean youth whom Simon and Martina channel so well.

Their argument is basically that South Koreans are just not as worried about the North as outsiders, namely Westerners, often believe them to be. They're accustomed to the threats, to the demilitarized zone, to the fact that the Korean war never officially ended. And they don't really worry about it.

This tracks with what I've been told over the years by residents and observers of the Korean peninsula. 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.

But the point is that this video accurately represents, based on what I've been told by people in a position to know, the popular view among young South Koreans. Last year, when I wrote about life for the young South Korean men who are drafted into the country's very large military, American and Korean experts described a deep and problematic disconnect among South Korean youth between the perceived and actual threat posed by North Korea. You can't really blame them. They're living in an upwardly mobile society, one increasingly known for its rising wealth and growing pop culture-- not the sort of place where vigilance against hyper-nationalistic dictatorships is going to be on the top of a young person's priority list.

In December 2011, as I wrote at the time, retiring South Korean Major Gen. Chun In-Bum gave an interview to the U.S.-run "Pentagon Channel." When asked whether there was a "weak link" in the South Korean military, he answered without pause, "We have been too good at our job. We've kept peace that the general population has forgotten is not free." He urged, "Now I think we recognize that we need to teach our younger people that, truly, freedom is not free."

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Caitlin Dewey · March 14, 2013