South Korea through the eyes of North Koreans

Reenactment of the changing of the Korean royal guards ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, Korea, on Nov 4, 2023. (Image: iStock/Mirko Kuzmanovic)

If you were to ask North Koreans how they view South Korea, their response might vary according to their job, the part of the country they live in, and their age. But what they would have in common is the impact on their subconscious of the regime’s narrative. 

North Koreans generally view South Korea as the 51st state of the United States. They think it has lost its Korean culture and that its political and economic decisions are in the hands of Americans.

Of course, the U.S. has influence but the idea that it directly controls everything would strike Americans and South Koreans as a case of Goebbels’ adage that if a lie is big enough and repeated often enough, people will come to believe it.

Defectors say they grew up always being told South Korea was a puppet state. 

This theme is frequently reinforced in movies and other propaganda material. Take, for instance, episode 13 of the popular North Korean drama Nation and Destiny. The film portrays the assassination of former South Korean President Park Chung-hee and has the assassin, Kim Jae-gyu, obtaining approval in advance from the United States. 

The core message of the movie is that changing presidents in the South is a trivial task for the U.S. once it decides to do so. North Koreans accept this portrayal as fact and genuinely believe it to be true.

In fact, the phrase “I have America behind me” became popular among young people, especially university students, explaining that they had a good sponsor. 

When Kim, 26, arrived in South Korea in May 2022, he could not hide his astonishment when he saw anti-American and anti-war demonstrations in Seoul.

“I was astonished by these protests. I had no idea there were so many people in South Korea demanding the withdrawal of US troops,” he said. “Aren’t these people all spies? When we were taught in the North about how revolution would happen in the South, the first task was the withdrawal of US troops. But to see so many people openly carrying out North Korea’s directives in South Korea is both interesting and terrible.”

Defectors are even more amazed to hear calls for the withdrawal of US troops in the National Assembly. Hearing this for the first time, every defector thinks, “Kim Jong-un’s spies have secured stable positions.”

Of course, they haven’t. The South Korea that North Koreans imagine and the South Korea that defectors experience are entirely different countries.

Regarding South Korea’s economy, the term which the regime in Pyongyang most often uses to describe it is “bubble.” 

“When I was at university, the professor would say South Korea has a bubble economy that the U.S. can burst anytime it wants,” said Jung, a 46-year-old former teacher who defected to the South in November 2022. “He used the example of the Daewoo Group’s collapse in 1999.”

Daewoo went bankrupt with tens of billions of dollars in debts that it could no longer service. But the explanation Jung remembers was different. 

“The professor said it was because the US automaker GM was angered by Daewoo’s acquisition of Poland’s FSO Company in 1995 and executed a plan to destroy Daewoo over four years,” he said.

“In the isolated environment of North Korea, we believed this explanation without question,” he said. “I thought of South Korea’s economy as just a subsidiary of the US economy.”

Again, the actual South Korea that defectors encounter economically is entirely different from the South Korea they viewed from inside North Korea.

It is not uncommon for North Koreans to encounter South Korean dramas or songs. Choi, 35, who arrived in the South in July 2022, was a fisherman. He said that they regularly watched South Korean movies and dramas out at sea, where controls are less stringent.

But North Koreans end up with significant misconceptions about South Korean culture.

“I used to think that everyone in South Korea spoke English fluently,” said Song, 52, who defected in 2012. “When I came here, I was surprised that many people didn’t.”

She thought this because of the common theme in regime indoctrination that South Korea has abandoned its national culture and traditions in favor of American culture, leaving nothing of Korean identity behind. 

“When I came here in 2022, I thought South Korea was so Americanized that people wouldn’t communicate well with me, and there would be no emotional connection,” said Cho, 55. “Contrary to what I learned, South Korea highly values its national heritage, preserves its cultural heritage, loves its history, and holds patriotism in high regard.” 

“The cultural difference is not as vast as I thought,” said Cho. “From a cultural point of view, South Korea is like a well-off North Korea. The emotions and sentiments of the people are very similar to those of North Koreans. I feel no sense of alienation here. My boss at my construction company feels like an older brother. This unexpected similarity is the biggest shock I’ve experienced since coming to South Korea.”

Zane Han

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