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Many South Koreans indifferent about North

Polls show S. Koreans haven't completely accepted findings that N. Korea blew up their warship.

south korean girl
A girl looks at a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during the Korean War exhibition at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul, May 30, 2010. (Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Usually Shin In-young and her friends don't think about North Korea and its pudgy, reclusive strongman who dons retro sunglasses, abhors airplanes and may have ordered a surprise attack on a South Korean warship. But when pressed for their views on their pariah-state neighbor, Shin’s age group has some things to say that might come as a surprise to the average Westerner.

A 23-year-old Yonsei University journalism major, Shin says North Korea doesn’t bother her much.

“I have never taken their provocations as threats because none of them have ever changed my life,” she said.

Shin and her friends represent a demographic inside South Korea that is mostly indifferent to the bellicose rhetoric and saber-rattling that characterizes the North’s foreign policy approach.

“The average South Korean university student is simply not interested in North Korea,” said Brian Myers, who is director of the international studies department at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, and wrote a New York Times Op-Ed on the matter.

Just take his current North Korean affairs seminar as an example, he says: Only four students chose to enroll in the class.

“If it was a course on American politics, there would probably be 30 kids,” he said.

College students’ apathy toward the impoverished communist state is so acute that many of Myers’ students lack even basic geographical knowledge of the North.

“If you show a map of North Korea, he’s going to have a hard time telling you the cities or even the main rivers, which is amazing when you consider how tiny the peninsula is,” he said.

In this hyper-capitalistic society where parents spend exorbitant amounts of money to send their children to specialty schools and “K-pop” music seems to blare out of every nook and cranny, Shin says her friends are more interested in trying to work for Korean business conglomerates like Samsung and LG.

But the North does manage to turn heads every once in a while, Myers said. And when that happens as it has with the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, intriguing attitudes toward the North come to light.

Shin says that because of the crisis she and her friends now worry a little but still think of “North and South Korea in brotherhood all the time.”

Sung Han-na, a student at Han Se University, says hostile views toward the North are rare among South Koreans: “I’ve never met anyone who treats North Korea as an enemy.”

Kim So-yeon, a 23-year-old liberal and Joongang Law University student, also values a common bloodline and heritage. “I’m one of the supporters of unification, so I try to speak about North Korea in a friendly way,” she said.

Kim wants the North to keep its nuclear weapons. She thinks it’s a justified deterrent against U.S. aggression. And she does not believe the North sank the Cheonan.

On March 26, the South Korean navy corvette was severed in two by a mysterious underwater explosion, killing 46 sailors. After an exhaustive investigation, on May 20 a commission of South Korean and international experts announced that North Korea had launched a torpedo strike on the warship.