For Young South Koreans, The North's Nuclear Test Is Barely A Blip | KERA News

For Young South Koreans, The North's Nuclear Test Is Barely A Blip

Jan 11, 2016
Originally published on January 15, 2016 12:39 pm

News of a North Korean nuclear test reached the rest of the world in short order, but days after the rogue nation claimed it tested a hydrogen bomb, 17-year-old Jinwoo Ha, in neighboring South Korea, said she hadn't heard.

"Mmmmm, sorry, but I don't quite know about the issue, so can you please explain that?" she said, after being asked for her reaction to the test.

She and several of her peers south of the border say they have more pressing matters on their minds.

"We have to study, we have to live, we have to work," said Kim Hyejun, a 21-year-old art student. When asked how often she thinks about North Korea, she said, "Just that they are there, we are here, that's all. We don't have family out there, we don't talk, we can't see them. To me, it's another country."

Older generations may remember a once-unified Korea and what tore it apart, but that was decades ago.

"The young people, they don't have a history of the Cold War and of communism and of the ideological fight," says Katharine Moon, SK-Korea Foundation chair at the Brookings Institution.

And North Korean nuclear rhetoric has always been in the background of their lives.

"These are individuals who have grown up with multiple annoucements and declarations about the North's threatening postures and programs. So in a way, they've become very familiar with this narrative," Moon says.

They also haven't felt tangible consequences, such as the effects of radiation leakage or worse, actual war.

There is one constituency among younger generations that is watching North Korea more closely: college-age South Korean men, for whom military service is mandatory.

"We're very concerned because we have to go in [the] military," says Jeong-kyu Lee, who completed his mandatory service but fears being called back in the event of combat. "If North Korea does some ... bombs, we like, all have to like, prepare for war, right?"

Sure, the possibility exists, but it has for so long that it's had a desensitizing effect. Domestic concerns here, like high youth unemployment, can cause far more worry than the threat of a bomb.

Haeryun Kang contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's hear from people with a vital interest in North Korea's most recent nuclear test. They are citizens of neighboring South Korea. And though in theory they are the ones most threatened by their neighbor, many responded to the news of the nuclear test with a shrug. NPR's Elise Hu reports from Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUBWAY RUMBLING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: This stop is Hongik University.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: It's Friday night in Seoul or, more specifically, the Hongdae neighborhood, where you can't spread out your arms without hitting a college student. The news of a North Korean nuclear test may have reached the rest of the world. But here, just hours away from the test site, 17-year-old Jinwoo Ha hadn't heard.

JINWOO HA: Sorry, but I don't quite really know about the issue, so can you please explain that?

HU: Students here say they have more pressing matters on their minds.

KIM HYEJUN: We have to do like study. Or we have to live. We have to work. So I think there is much important thing in my life.

HU: That's Kim Hyejun, a 21-year-old art student. She says she almost never even thinks about North Korea.

HYEJUN: Just they are there and we are here. I think that's all. We don't have family out there. We don't talk. We can't see them. To me, it's another country.

HU: Older generations may remember a once-unified Korea and what tore it apart, says Katharine Moon of the Brookings Institution. But that was decades ago.

KATHARINE MOON: The young people, they don't have a history of the Cold War and of communism and of the ideological fight.

HU: And North Korean rhetoric has always been in the background of their lives.

MOON: These are individuals who have grown up with multiple announcements and declarations about the North's threatening postures and programs. So in a way, they've become very familiar with this narrative.

HU: So far, no tangible consequences, like the effects of radiation leakage or actual war, have been felt. But there is one constituency among younger generations that is watching North Korea more closely - college-aged South Korean men for whom military service is mandatory.

JEONG-KYU LEE: We're really concerned because we have to go to military.

HU: Jeong-kyu Lee is one of them.

LEE: If North Korea do some [expletive] with bombs, we, like, all have to, like, prepare for, like, war, right?

HU: The possibility exists, but it has for so long that it's had a desensitizing effect. Domestic concerns here like high youth unemployment can cause far more worry than the threat of a bomb. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.