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Culture, Reality

The Korean Bantustan

by Dave Durbach / 12.01.2011

When North Korea attacked Yeongpyeong island off the peninsula’s disputed Western coast a few weeks ago, killing two civilians and two soldiers, the world shuddered and braced itself – again – for impending doom. The South has refused to back down, and with Kim Jong-il set to install his son Jong-un in power, tensions on the Korean peninsula are stronger than ever.

Many fail to realise that Korea has been a single nation for well over a thousand years. It was only at the end of the Second World War that decades of brutal Japanese colonial occupation came to an end and the USSR and USA decided it was best to split the peninsula amongst themselves. The ensuing war claimed over 3 million lives, including 28 South Africans. Sandwiched between World War II and the Vietnam conflict, it is today remembered (or not) as the Forgotten War.

Families were divided and a nation dissected to appease foreign powers, separated by a 4km wide de-militarised zone, until today the Cold War’s final frontier. The USA has maintained a massive military presence on the peninsula since then. Two years of military service is still compulsory for South Korean men. The North reportedly boasts a standing army of one million, and cutting edge nuclear technology that belies its starving population. North and South stand in a state of constant readiness, and have done so for the past 50 years.

Though sharing a common history, language and culture, a bitter rivalry has emerged – manufactured and maintained by outside powers. By all accounts, people in the North have little knowledge of the outside world, and remain convinced they are a proud and prosperous nation, united against Uncle Sam and everything he stands for. Far less discussed are the ordinary people of the South, who, though living in a relatively free society, know very little about their northern neighbours. Though small groups of Southern tourists are permitted to go hiking in the North, extreme care is taken to avoid people coming into contact with one another. Communism is still a dirty word in the South, where laws prohibit possession of literature and music, even instrumental, thought to be sympathetic to the North’s cause.

It’s a story that most South Africans ought to be able to relate to – how ideology, a system of beliefs deliberately passed down from parent to child, teacher to student, can become a cancer that turns a nation against itself.


Not long before this latest attack, I sat down with two Korean friends and asked how they felt about the north. Eun-Young (Jen), 28, is a teacher from the small farming town of Chungju. Ju-Yuen (Christina), 29, is a flight attendant from Daegu, South Korea’s third largest city. Though they can’t be said to speak for their country or their generation, their views are by no means unique.

Mahala: What do you think about North Korea?

Jen: I don’t care or have any interested in North Korea. But you asked me… We are the same – the Korean race. So South Korea helps them in many ways. When they’ve had difficulty obtaining food, we’ve sent them food. We support them by sending our people to help them grow their domestic industry. I think they just take our hand when they need our help. That’s all. They have two faces. They trespass in our seas to catch fish illegally. They even killed a person who didn’t have any weapon – she was just tourist. I don’t like North Korea.

Christina: I believe South Korea has helped North Korea a lot in many ways, especially financially. But NK wants more and more. It’s not SK’s responsibility to take care of NK’s poorness. I am strongly against reunification because they betray us and threaten the world with nuclear power all the time. It’s such a shame….

Do you have any family or friends there?

Jen: No, I don’t.

Christina: I don’t have any family members and friends there.

What do you think about Kim Jong-il?

Jen: I think we have to help each other, but Kim Jong-il leads NK as a closed society and puts all his effort into growing his military. Maybe he thinks this is the only way to protect his country from other strong nations.

Christina: I don’t like Kim Jong-il. I fully believe that nobody likes him in South Korea. He totally has two different faces.

What do you think about ordinary North Korean people? Are they different to you? If yes, how?

Jen: I think they are different to us. We have grown up differently in terms of ideology, politics and life style. I don’t know how to express this . . . They try to smile in front of other people but they hide their thoughts or mind. They look the same but they are different.

Christina: Honestly, I have no idea what they are like because I haven’t personally met anyone from North Korea. However, according to TV or general information, they are very very different. Even though we are the same race, we have been separated for a long time. They are not allowed to express how they think and feel, or even to decide what to do in their future. They just follow what the government orders them what to do. They strongly believe that Kim Jung-il is the only god. They are just educated like that since they are born. They are totally different from people in South Korea in almost every way.


Do you feel threatened that North Korea will attack South Korea?

Jen: These days NK threatens the whole world with nuclear weapons. And before we experienced the Korean War. Sometimes I am afraid it will really happen again.

Christina: Well, to be honest with you, I don’t feel threatened by them because they just threaten us whenever they have complaints. So I would say we’re kind of used to it! (laughs). We don’t care what NK does as much as people in other countries.

Would you like to see one, united Korea? Why, or why not? Do you think it might happen? If yes, when?

Jen: No. Old people want to see a united Korea. But most young people don’t want this. Maybe we would fall into utter confusion. It would be different than what we expected.

Christina: It might happen, but actually many people in South Korea don’t want this, including me. North Koreans are poor. They are very different, in their thoughts and even in language. It would cause huge confusion. Most importantly, we don’t like North Korea’s politics and their attitude.

Would you like to go to North Korea to see it?

Jen: No. There is no special reason. I just don’t want to. Maybe I am afraid or fearful.

Christina: Well, personally I would prefer not to go there. I’m not really interested at all. But my grandparents have visited North Korea, a couple of years ago for sightseeing. I wouldn’t feel safe there. A female tourist from South Korea was killed by a NK soldier. She took a walk along the beach and the soldier just shot her as he thought she had invaded a military area. He obviously over-reacted.


If you had asked most young white people living under apartheid 25 years ago about life in townships and homelands, you probably would’ve heard something similar. “I haven’t met anyone from there but according to what I’m told they are completely different in their language, beliefs, culture and thoughts. They are poor, untrustworthy, dirty. If we were to live together it would be total confusion…” This isn’t the logic of educated young adults; this is the effect of a lifetime’sworth of propaganda justifying separate development.

For those who talk of the impending collapse of the North and the inevitable reunification of the peninsula, the clock is ticking. Already, few people remember the days before the war. Consecutive generations have grown up fearing an invisible enemy a few kilometres away. The longer Korea remains divided, the more entrenched these prejudices grow, and the harder they are to ever overcome.

*Opening image © Darian Pearce.
**All other images @ Dave Durbach.

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