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The Boston Globe

Ideas

Which is the real Korea?

Behind the North’s strange behavior and the South’s strange indifference is a still-unsettled war.

What does North Korea want? Internationally isolated, the North Korean regime has a long history of confrontation with the outside world, having threatened to engage South Korea and the United States in another war on numerous occasions. North Korea successfully tested its first nuclear device in 2006; most recently, its provocations have included a third nuclear test in February 2013 and a renewed threat to turn Seoul “into a sea of fire.” Stories from North Korean defectors reveal a life of desperate poverty and unimaginable repression. To Westerners, this belligerence and isolation in the context of such national suffering have often seemed baffling, even shocking. Guessing what motivates the regime, and what its inexperienced leader Kim Jong Un might do next, has become almost a parlor game.

To the south, meanwhile, sits a country where conditions could not be more different, and one where the threats of its neighbor to the north have been met with surprising calm, even indifference. “North Korea threatens to start a nuclear war, while South Korea dances to ‘Gangnam Style’,” observed German journalist Ullrich Fichtner about South Koreans’ reactions to North Korea’s rantings this spring. “War has never been this close, but Koreans in Seoul confront their fears by going about a bizarre version of everyday life, complete with truffle pasta and super-smart phones.” South Koreans even seem indifferent to the plight of the North Korean people themselves. Shin Dong-hyuk, whose biography, “Escape from Camp 14,” written by journalist Blaine Harden, focuses on his early life spent entirely in a North Korean prison camp, bitterly suggested in a recent interview that “South Korea should be put on trial next to the North Korean regime for turning a blind eye” to North Korean human rights violations.

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