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How South Koreans Live Next To Their Totalitarian Neighbor


The first months of Donald Trump's presidency have seen newly heightened tensions between North Korea and the United States. On his recent visit to the Korean border, Vice President Pence said negotiations with the North had failed and all options are now on the table. For its part, North Korea put on a mighty display of power in a military parade. And an official North Korean newspaper said the country is capable of a, quote, "super mighty preemptive strike." South Koreans have lived next to the repressive and unpredictable state for decades. How have they watched this latest chapter in its long history unfold?

To answer that question, we're joined by author Suki Kim. She grew up in South Korea and is one of the few foreigners who have traveled multiple times to the North. In 2011, she spent six months teaching English to the children of the North Korean ruling class. Suki Kim joins us now from our bureau in New York. So good to have you, Suki.

SUKI KIM: Hello.

NEARY: So I know that you spent the last month in South Korea. Here in the United States, there was this sense - recently, in the last week or so - of this - of an impending war. Was that the mood that you experienced in South Korea?

KIM: No. I mean, I found it really surprising because it just wasn't much of a news over there. It seemed, you know, knowing both worlds, that we were talking a complete different language between South Korea and the United States.

NEARY: How do you explain that? Is it just that South Koreans are just used to this state of affairs kind of?

KIM: A couple of reason. Yes, they are absolutely used to it and sick of it and jaded. Anyone who watches North Korea for a while, there is just this constant state of panic for war that happens. Another reason is also the timing. You know, right now, the president, Park Geun-hye, was ousted from office. And the president's seat is vacant, which means there's sort of an emergency election coming up. So the whole country is fascinated by the trial of the former president and the upcoming election. And compared to all that, North Korea is kind of an old news - at this point, over 70 years old.

NEARY: Is there a danger of South Koreans becoming too complacent?

KIM: I think that they do talk about that. But there's also reality, which is when you have this incredibly materialistic society, it's literally a, you know, (speaking Korean) style (speaking Korean) land, then, you know, the reality of this war with this nation under Kim Jong Un kind of doesn't strike anyone as a realistic thing. And, yes, there is a danger to it. But at the same time, life does go on. And life is a very, very, very fast and active one in South Korea.

NEARY: So we've been talking about war. What about peace? Do the South Koreans even think about the possibility of detente anymore, the possibility of the border reopening?

KIM: I mean, I think the issue of one Korea reunification is one of those politically manipulated one. You know, the left parties used it. The right has used it, certainly, in South Korea. So it's almost like this sort of symbol whenever they need to use sort of national security in order to unite people or get their agenda across. So it's almost become a tired one, where everyone - if you were to talk to them and you interview South Koreans, they'll all say, reunification is necessary. Do they want it? They would pause. Do they want to pay for 25 million North Koreans? Do they want refugees? They don't really want that.

Also, there's 30,000 North Korean defectors who have defected to South Korea. And, you know, they basically - they're almost treated as sort of second-class citizen. So if they can't even handle 30,000 defectors, how are they going to handle 25 million people, embracing them into their society? You know, it's a rather unrealistic one at this point.

NEARY: Suki Kim, speaking with us from our New York bureau. Her latest book is "Without You, There Is No Us." Thanks so much, Suki.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.