Monday, June 27, 2011

North Korea - famine, family and feuds

[P.S. If you are short on time, skip to the last paragraph. The first two are more or less just my ramblings.]

Although there are many good and bad things about teaching in South Korea, I think that one of the most interesting aspects of teaching at a middle-school in particular is to see how students of this particular generation view North Korea. Although it's not something I bring up in regular classes (most of my students wouldn't be able to express themselves anyway), it is something that I have discussed with my higher level conversation classes, as it often comes up in essays they submit to various English ability competitions. The view that comes forth is often pro-reunification, although many don't seem to know much about, or perhaps relate to, the Korean War, how it started and the politics around it, beyond "Kim Jong Il wants to kill us all". But there seems to be a generally positive attitude towards the North, and even though no-one agrees on how it is run (obviously - "history is [will be] written by the winners" anybody?), everyone sees it as the other half of the country and North Koreans as still essentially just other Koreans. Although most know about the part that Park Chung-Hee played in the industrialisation of South Korea and can recognise how it fits in to the comfortable lifestyles they live today (in fact, this was what one of them wrote an essay about once), the fact that life in South Korea during the 1960's - early 1980's was arguably worse and more restrictive than life in the North is not something commonly known. Perhaps the familiarity with both of these important parts of Korean history is generational - after all, many of these students' parents would have been born or grown up under Park Chung-Hee that could now see the payoff for all their effort, and similiarly there would be many grandparents who would have been born or grown up during the Korean War - but probably not that many now that were old enough to live through it as an adult and vividly remember everything that happened that are actually willing to talk about it to their families. Not exactly Happy Story Time, right? And after all, these kids are only 13 - 15 years old, so even being able to discuss what they can, in English, is pretty amazing.

What I find interesting is that the stuff I'm hearing now from these students is really not that much more in depth than the opinions I heard from university students in Seoul when I was studying at Ewha. Keeping in mind that Ewha is Korea's top women's university and ranked in the top 5, and pretty much everyone in Seoul seems to at least be able to communicate in English, this was a bit worrying, as the opinions were also completely the other way. At the time I was there in 2006, North Korea was testing nuclear missiles over the East Sea, so naturally there was a lot of worry that Seoul was the next target. Out of interest, I asked around about what my fellow (Korean) students thought of North Korea and I was fairly shocked to hear a pretty generalised "North Korea is evil, they want to kill us, we should kill them first" or "North Korea doesn't deserve our help and reunification will never be possible" or just plain indifference. Ok, sure, the threat of nuclear annihilation was probably a bit influential here. So I asked some of my class mates from my North Korean Literature and Education class what they thought of the country and the people. Not much difference. What about the famines and starvation? Don't you feel pity for the regular people? Nope. Out of about 30 people that I asked, only about four people responded positively, saying that they believed that reunification was possible or that the South should continue to send food aid to the North.

Anyway, so opinions vary. I can't help but wonder however if this generation's vague benevolence to the North has something to do with it's imminence to collapse and the South's clear upperhand in the situation. In 2006, even though the South was still obviously a stronger economic power and had the backing of the Bush administration in the case of military action, food aid was still being sent in fairly regular supply and the Kaesong Industrial Complex, run collaboratively by DPRK and a private South Korean company was thriving. Recently, with the decline of Kim Jong-Il's health and the preparation for the succession of his son Kim Jong-Un, military scuffles are becoming more common, food aid has been reduced and a general air of tension has been on the rise. As well as the sinking of the Cheonan battleship (after which Pyongyang pulled out of the KIC), and the shelling of Yeongpyong island, North Korea recently took great offence to the revelation that certain divisions of the RoK army were using pictures of the North's 'Royal Family' for target practice and severed further ties. All the usual faff and huff. However, a new and very telling development is the effect this has had in North Korea, but this time not just on the people, but also the military which until previously has been pretty well insulated from the effects of food and foreign aid shortages, taking longer to be affected during the famines in the 1990's (apparently North Korea actually requested that food aid be stopped in 2002 but luckily loopholes were found). Anyway, read this article from the ABC and watch the video. It says everything that you need to know. What do you think? Do you think reunification might be something we see sooner rather than later over, say, the next five to ten years? And if so, do you think it'll be reunification from internal collapse, or will the DPRK try to go out guns blazing?

No comments:

Post a Comment