Ever since Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea, took power after his father, Kim Jong-il, died, concerns over North Korea have never played second fiddle to any other issues over the past decade. North Korea successfully conducted its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4, 2017. A series of five missiles and nuclear tests heated international tensions, stoking fears about a possible war. As a result, many local and international news outlets blamed Kim for being an incapable and unqualified leader. By the beginning of 2018, however, tensions began to ease dramatically, with the two Korean leaders reaching a consensus on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and formalizing peace by the end of the year. The Argus listened to how North Korea is depicted in foreigners’ eyes.
The Argus: What are your initial thoughts on North Korea?
Xia: For me, I think about missiles and the leader of North Korea. Most of the news in my country usually covers Kim Jong-un launching a series of missiles and describes him as a bad person. He even has got his own nickname, Jin San-pang (金三胖), which means a fat person.
Anas: The first word that comes to my mind is “division” of the Korean Peninsula that occurred in 1948, for this event was the result of the Korean War and something that has not been solved yet.
Ali: I would say “authoritarian politics” where there is the least freedom. It seems like the people there are very submissive under Kim’s supervision as though they lack freedom. It reminds me of an army, a highly hierarchical society based on fidelity and family bonds. I heard from the media that North Koreans only have five or six choices for how they style their hair. They also have to go to bed and wake up at an exact time. I could not help but to think of back then I served in the army in my country.
Narmin: North Korea reminds me of my own country. Even though Eritrea is located in the Horn of Africa, very far from the Korean Peninsula, the leader of Eritrea and that of North Korea have lots of things in common. Just out of nowhere, like 10 years ago, the government decided to shut down every private news channel and they arrested all the journalists. Now, there is a single television channel, not to mention the radio. Everything is under the surveillance of the government. That was when people started comparing Eritrea to North Korea. It is easy to find many articles titled “Eritrea: Africa’s North Korea.”
Nicole: One thing I definitely can say is North Korea’s missile testing and the way South Koreans respond to them. Normally, launching missiles is terrifying news, but South Koreans do not seem to think of North Korea as much of a threat. I was eating at a restaurant the other day and heard about North Korea’s nuclear test for the first time. However, what was shocking was the fact that everyone else but me in the restaurant looked strangely calm and their life just went on as usual.
The Argus: How do people react when you say that you went to Korea?
Nicole: I was not afraid to come to Korea because I know that it has already been 60 years since the war. However, my family, especially the older generations who do not use social media, worried a lot because they still have this mindset about North Korea and the war. Even though I am in the South, my mother still thought that it was dangerous.
During my first month in Korea, my mom called me in the middle of the night to ask if I was okay after reading news about North Korea launching another missile. Right after the Inter-Korean Summit, my parents and my grandmother finally were relieved.
Narmin: When I came to South Korea, my friends in South Arabia said that I would be bombed and die in Korea. They worry that they will never see me again. But my family in Eritrea only said, “Oh cool, Korea.” The difference is that South Arabia heavily relies on the U.S. army to protect them since the South Arabian army is very weak.
Anas: If I say that I am in South Korea, people get scared and they worry about my safety. It is because all that they know about North Korea is that they have a mad president threatening the world with nuclear weapons. Whenever they talk about North Korea, it is all about threats and nuclear resources. After talking to Koreans, I tried to change the way my family thought about North Korea. But still the media has too great an impact on shaping the way people think.
The Argus: What are some positive aspects of North Korea?
Ali: I am not proud to admit that there is something positive about North Korea from Iran’s point of view. There was a war between Iran and Iraq 20 years ago. Back then, the U.S. and other strong countries backed up Iraq while no one supported Iran. North Korea was the only country that helped Iran by selling us missiles and weapons. If it were not for North Korea, Iran would have been conquered. To Iran, North Korea is one of our few friends.
Narmin: I think Eritreans, especially the older generations, do not disagree with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, because they see Kim Jong-un in the president of Eritrea. My dad, for example, loves our president because he thinks President Isaias Afwerki is the reason Eritrea is in a good state today. Having been in the army, the Eritrean leader played a key role in winning the war against Ethiopia and finally gaining independence. However, he is not letting anyone leave the country or speak up. Similarly, Kim Jong-un limits the freedom of his people but provides them a sense of safety.
I think Kim Jong-un is cool in the sense that he goes against the U.S. who wants to monopolize nuclear weapons. He is courageous to say, “I will have it because you do, too,” while everybody else succumbs to their power and does nothing that might upset the U.S.
The Argus: What is the political relationship between your country and North Korea?
Nicole: Ecuador faced a huge economic crisis back in 2000, and that was when our country had to adapt the US dollar. Since then, Ecuador has been heavily influenced by the U.S.’s politics and economy. When they display the news, although they do not badmouth North Korea, they do disapprove. There is an example of showing the attitudes of the Ecuadorian government toward North Korea. It was around March of last year right after I came to South Korea. I found that the Ecuadorian government enacted regulations on North Koreans. Our country is known for requiring no visa when entering the country except for visitors from only 11 countries. But last year, Ecuador suddenly decided to impose visa restrictions for North Korea after the U.S. placed sanctions against the North for launching a missile.
Narmin: The U.S. also had a hand in how Eritrea is divided today. The U.S. sided with Ethiopia and did not help Eritrea during the war. As a result, Eritrea always associates North Korea with the U.S. For example, the news reported that the U.S. made North Korea launch another missile by provoking Kim Jong-un. In other words, the U.S. is regarded as the cause of all adverse situations. Kim Jong-un is not portrayed as a bad person but as someone taken advantage of by the U.S.
The Argus: What do you think that South Koreans think about the North?
Xia: When I saw North and South Korea enter the stadium together at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, I hoped that the two Koreas could finally reunite and peace in East Asia would come soon enough. To my surprise, I learned that not all South Koreans want reunification through a Korean friend of mine. It was shocking because I thought that everyone would be looking forward to becoming one again.
Narmin: A lot of my Korean friends also told me that they disagree with reunification because of the economic and political gap. They believed that all their hard work to get this far would mean nothing if the North drags South Korea down to their level. They were even concerned about the crime rates due to differences in mentality, or the way people think and behave.
Anas: The idea that I had about North Korea started to change little by little since I came here three years ago. South Koreans seemed to have different sentiments toward North Korea. I have met some people who thought of North Korea as their missing half. I could feel a sense of nostalgia and bitterness while talking with them. On the other hand, others did not like idea of reunification. They regarded North Korea as a dangerous foe, blaming the regime for the everlasting state of the war.
The Argus: What do you think about the future of the two Koreas?
Nicole: I believe that the North and South do not necessarily have to reunite but can stay separated. If reunification happened right out of nowhere, its side effects would outweigh its advantages from my perspective. It is more important to maintain a good relationship than push forth one single Korea. One way could be starting free trade between the Koreas so that they would both benefit.
Narmin: Instead of reunification, the two Koreas could benchmark the case of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). GCC countries consider themselves as one ethnic group, or as all coming from the same nation. However, due to political differences, they decided to stay separated but form a union in which they share their natural resources. They do not have any problems at all since their autonomy is guaranteed. South and North Korea could consider the option. Though they may not be reunified, they can maintain a close relationship at the same time.
Anas: What happened during the past weeks, including the peace talk and signing of the peace treaty, seems to be a positive step towards a peaceful Korean Peninsula. However, the scenario of reunification is far from being realized because of political deadlock. North Korea wants the South to give up its strategic collaboration with the U.S., who demands denuclearization, which is utterly impossible for North Korea to accept for their own safety. The multilateral relations show how hard the next months or years will be for different parties to settle on a mutually beneficial solution.
By Moon Chae-un and Bidogaeva Maria
Associate Editor of Campus Section, Guest Reporter