Many South Koreans indifferent about North

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.

But like Kim, other Koreans refuse to believe their government on this point. A May 22 poll by South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo found that 21 percent of South Koreans still did not believe North Korea was involved in the incident. Another May 26 poll conducted by three journalist unions found that 41 percent of Korean journalists — perhaps those most in touch with their government’s record of veracity — also do not believe the findings.

“It’s really extraordinary, when you think about it, that for the rest of the world it’s incontrovertible, but for South Koreans, it’s just not enough,” Myers said.

He says much of the skepticism can be attributed to a sizable population of bona fide North Korean sympathizers who are especially concentrated in the southwest. They resent President Lee Myung-bak’s strict stance toward the North, which departs from the magnanimous “sunshine policy” of prior administrations.

“People don’t understand that about 20 percent of the population here not only really sympathize with North Korea but actually sympathize with the regime. They actually take their sides in disagreements with the South,” he said.

Most South Koreans believe the North sank their warship, said Peter Beck, a Pantec research fellow at Stanford University. Still, he added that “the average Korean” has not completely accepted the findings and continues to cast doubts on various details. Some would say this makes sense in a country where every president since the 1980s has been accused for corruption.

Critics see indications of a cover-up and question why the government has failed to produce important evidence like the ship’s radio communication tapes.

A great many South Koreans are also cynical about Lee’s handling of the incident. They accuse him of using the event for political gain to rally conservative-leaning voters to his party prior to the gubernatorial elections that took place yesterday.

Kim would be one such skeptic. “It’s a fabricated story just for the upcoming election,” she said last month.

But despite doubts circulating the liberal-laden blogosphere, experts say more and more unsure Koreans are coming to terms with evidence that Beck calls “too strong to question at this point.”

Shin would fall into this group.

“I want to believe that it’s not North Korea who attacked our ship. However, I am now confused very much. The rumor saying our government made up the whole story … is not acceptable,” she said.

Others have taken their government at its word from the get-go and are just plain fed up with the North.

“During the two horrible years in the army, I was always under stress just because of them. I want to be set free from it,” said Kim Dong-hyun, a 23-year-old who just completed the two years of mandatory military service required of all Korean men.

Indeed, North Korea Heritage Foundation analyst Bruce Klingner says the new generation of Koreans hold views more like this ex-soldier’s than those of liberals Shin and Kim.

“For them it’s less affinity for North Korea, more interest in making money,” he said.

Journalist Lee Ji-sook contributed to this report.