The latest North Korean nuclear test has scholars, analysts and journalists scrambling to hammer out something, anything, now that the other shoe has fallen. Yet, most of the analysis will focus on the political reactions to the test while failing to address how the grinding cogs of the superstructure affect the lives of real people. Numbers will be crunched – payloads, productivities and potential loss – statistics will be pumped out, great scholars will prophesize a new arms race in Northeast Asia, but most will not, perhaps cannot, cast an eye on what might be happening at ground level. In an attempt to offer balance to the mountains of analysis being churned out, it is required we give a voice to the people of South Korea, including North Koreans living south of the border.
For South Koreans, the annoyance of having a much shortened Lunar New Year holiday this year was hardly made more enjoyable by news of the North’s successful nuclear test. If history is any guide, however, most South Koreans will simply shrug their shoulders and go about their business. It may come as a bit of a shock to westerners who obsess over Pyongyang’s every move, but South Koreans, for the most part, try their best to ignore the antics of their northern brethren. According to polling from the Asan Institute, inter-Korean relations ranked far below issues such as job creation, income inequality, and rising education costs in the recent presidential election. Furthermore, December’s successful missile test had very little impact on the election itself, with less than three percent of voters identifying it as “the most important issue.”
In contrast to the weeks following the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, when there were civil defense drills throughout Seoul, and, according to the East Asia Institute, nearly 70% of the public supported retaliatory military strikes, the prevailing response to the third nuclear test is much more likely to be a “there they go again” resigned acceptance. A large part of this is down to the widespread perception that the North Korean nuclear and missile programs are primarily directed at the United States, and as such, South Korea has very little control over what actions the leaders in Pyongyang decide to undertake.
One area where this could have an impact is in South Koreans’ attitudes of how strongly President Park should attempt to engage with the North. A post-election poll in the Dong-a Ilbo, found that a majority of South Koreans supported renewed dialogue with the North and favored providing humanitarian aid “regardless of the political situation.” Might this support diminish in light of the latest nuclear test?
The answer to that question, while not entirely clear, suggests a major shift in public opinion is unlikely: An analysis of South Korean public opinion conducted by Stephan Haggard and Jaesung Ryu found little change in attitudes regarding supplying humanitarian aid to the North after the DPRK detonated its first nuclear device in 2006. More interestingly, there was actually an increase in public support for the additional supply of humanitarian aid in the months immediately following the second test in 2009. Taken together, and given the fact that this test was telegraphed weeks in advance, South Koreans would most likely be willing to give President Park the benefit of the doubt if she chose to overlook the recent provocations and give renewed engagement a try. Given that North Korea has followed up both of its previous nuclear tests with a renewed push for dialogue, this is clearly something that the leadership in Pyongyang is banking on to happen.
As for the 24,000 North Koreans currently living in the South, what effect will Tuesday’s action have on them? A comment we often heard while working with North Korean migrants in Seoul, was that they felt the past always followed them. Most had traveled so far and risked so much, yet, each time the North would threaten Seoul with the “lake of fire”, or the South would promise to “strike back with all its military capabilities” (personally we prefer lakes of fire as a more colourful threat), our North Korean friends would shrink a little lower in their seats. One instance in particular comes to mind; in 2009, following a group meeting, we were having lunch with friends from North Korea. As we shoveled bibimbap into our mouths, the news was humming in the background. All of a sudden, the table went silent and all heads locked on the TV.
Pictures of North Korean military flashed up on the screen, interspersed with stock images of exploding nuclear devices – these were reports on the second nuclear test. An almost palpable silence descended on the table and we must admit we were not in a rush to break it, curious as to what would be said next. The eldest of our three friends calmly placed his spoon on the table and declared, “These crazy bastards make it so hard for us to be here. Every time this happens, we feel some guilt.” On reflection, it would have been interesting to know if this young man was also pointing his finger at the sensationalist reporting of the South Korean media (although, admittedly, the testing of a nuclear device in a neighbouring country that openly declares its displeasure at your existence is already quite sensational).
Concerning the North Korean community in South Korea, the collective guilt felt each time the two governments clash, has several effects; firstly, it once again reminds South Korean society they are threatened, and alerts them to the possibility of a fifth column in their midst. Secondly, it hinders the settlement process for North Korean migrants as the weight of imagined responsibility is carried like a cross for many North Koreans. Thirdly, it emphasizes the marginalized status of North Koreans in South Korean society: if you imagine you share a portion of responsibility for catastrophic events, you will be more conscious of your inherent difference and outsider status, a feeling compounded by the real discrimination experienced by North Koreans.
The point is, for the North Koreans living in South Korea, the reported upcoming nuclear test represents yet another challenge to their existence and their loyalties. For many it is a moment when they may feel obligated to prove themselves once again, to practice their Seoul accents a little harder and, perhaps, think seriously about re-migrating to somewhere they can find some peace – and anonymity.
This article is the second in a two-part essay which attempts to analyse and understand the kind of reactions we can expect if light of North Korea’s third nuclear test. Part one looked at political reactions to the previous two installments of the long-running Korean drama “Test & Sanction,” while offering opinion as to why this latest episode might lead to a different outcome.
Cover image by Dayv Matt.