Asia Pacific

South Koreans inured to threats by North; some even admire its audacity

by Foster Klug and Eric Talmadge


Many people in South Korea either didn’t know or didn’t care about their rival’s declared plan to launch a rocket this month.

This may puzzle outsiders, given that much of North Korea’s 1.2-million-strong army and its artillery are within easy striking distance of Seoul’s 10 million souls.

The media here have covered the story aggressively. The people who are paid to care — analysts and politicians — voice outrage and worry.

After the North launched a long-range missile early Sunday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye called it an “intolerable provocation.” She said the North’s efforts to advance its missile capabilities were “all about maintaining the regime” and criticized the North’s leadership for ignoring the hardships of ordinary people.

North Korea, which calls its launches part of a peaceful space program, trumpeted the beauty of the launch’s “fascinating vapor” as the rocket cut through the clear blue sky and said it had put a new Earth observation satellite into orbit.

But there is a marked contrast between that sort of attention and what ordinary South Koreans are interested in.

A couple days after the North’s announcement, it wasn’t even among the top 10 most-searched-for stories on Naver, South Korea’s biggest search engine. South Koreans were more intrigued by a local soccer player scoring his first goal with a Portuguese club, for instance, and by rapper Psy’s battles with his tenants.

This is partly because South Koreans have grown inured to the North’s repeated threats, and also because they have a vibrant, ultra-competitive society to distract them.

But it also stems from the complicated feelings that North Korea can produce here.

The people on both sides of the world’s most heavily armed border share the same ethnicity, food, language. Before their division at the end of World War II into the American-backed South and the Soviet-backed North, they also shared the same long history as a small, proud country that had survived regular battering by big surrounding powers.

So when North Korea provokes the world, there is some shame and embarrassment.

But there is also a tendency to cut the North some slack — even some grudging admiration in the ability of a Third World autocracy to regularly command the attention of powers like China and the United States.

There used to be fear. When Pyongyang first threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” in 1994, South Koreans cleaned out markets in preparation for an impending attack.

Now there is mostly just apathy.

Brian Myers, a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea, wrote after the 2010 sinking of a South Korean naval vessel that killed 46 sailors, including a student at Myers’ school, that he “was struck by how few people on our campus evinced any real anger toward” the North, which was blamed for torpedoing the ship. “This lack of indignation is mainstream here.”

South Koreans certainly have the capacity for collective outrage.

Tens of thousands have filled the streets in past anti-American protests, for instance. In the wake of a 2014 ferry sinking that killed more than 300, pop stars canceled concerts, and soul-searching about safety issues and responsibility seemed to infuse the population for weeks.

But while small groups of right-wingers can be relied on for protests, many South Koreans simply ignore the kinds of North Korea stories that captivate the wider world.