Kim Sung-jin, a student of North Korea studies, has been nursing ambitions to serve as a “bridge” between South Korea and the communist state to pave the way for their reunification since he entered his school in Seoul in 2004.
Although reunification still seems to be a far-fetched dream with chilled ties between the two Koreas, Kim, 27, hopes his study and research on the North will help narrow their differences that have widened over more than six decades of division.
“Division of the Korean Peninsula resulted from the bitter Cold War confrontation between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. But I believe reunification must be achieved, and that Koreans should lead that process,” Kim of Dongguk University said.
“There are considerable misconceptions about the North. For instance, many believe as its regime has been negatively portrayed, its people would be the same. I hope to contribute to removing such misunderstandings.”
Like Kim, some 50 students here at Dongguk’s department specializing in the reclusive state take a great pride in being rare North Korea majors. The school opened the country’s first department on the North in 1994.
But at times, they feel disheartened by the lingering social prejudice against studying North Korea, whose regime was described as an “enemy” in Seoul’s defense policy paper in 2010 following the two attacks in the year that killed 50 South Koreans.
“It was sad to see some around me looking at me with some fear or suspicion and asking me if I was some sort of a commie. Some even assume we would worship the North’s founding father Kim Il-sung,” said Kim.
“I think to a certain degree, it was unavoidable as there has long been strong anti-communist sentiment in our society. Negative views about the North were reinforced after the sinking of the corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeongdo.”
However, after some bouts of frustration, students appear to have turned the prejudice into enthusiasm for honing their expertise in the little-known country with some calling their major a “blue ocean” or “untrodden field” with a great potential.
In South Korea, there are only two departments of North Korea studies including one at the Sejong campus of Korea University in Yeongi, South Chungcheong Province.
“It is a field people have rare access to and are not much interested in. This means if you study hard here, it can be a blue ocean. I always view my studies here from this positive perspective,” said Choi Susie, a 20-year-old junior at the school.
“My motivation to study North Korea is that as most information about it is delivered through media indirectly with some warped, I wanted to study it firsthand in an objective manner.”
Though it is interesting to learn bits and pieces of North Korean society, students here have to admit the “limits” of North Korean studies ― being unable to freely travel to the North and meet people face-to-face and having much information based on hearsay or what has been reported through its mouthpieces.
“It appears to be quite challenging to get a firm grasp of North Korea even as we study more and more. For this, I was at first confused. There are clear limits,” said Choi.
More than two years into her study, Choi now dreams of a trailblazing project to boost cultural exchanges between the two Koreans with the aim of helping enhance mutual understanding.
“Unification should seep deep into every nook and corner of society rather than just a mere political unification. If we expand bilateral exchanges in the cultural realm, it could be easier and more helpful to foster wide grassroots support for the unification,” said Choi.
“In Berlin, fragments of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of German division, are now crucial cultural assets and help boost tourism there. We can together think ahead of how the two Koreas can turn our culture into harmonious post-unification assets.”
With rising uncertainties in North Korea with the hereditary leadership change, students stressed the need to better understand North Korea rather than being flustered with “politically-filtered” information on it.
“With political overtones being developed over any North Korean issues, people tend to interpret them from an ideological standpoint, and put us on the ideological spectrum. But we study inter-Korean relations and North Korea itself, not political ones,” said Kim Jeong, a 21-year-old junior at Korea University.
“We study what could happen in the North and how we can best respond to an unexpected situation there.”
With a low employment rate among students at the departments of North Korea studies and declining popularity, there has recently been talk of shutting down or merging them with other political science departments.
After Dongguk opened its department in 1994, five other universities established similar departments. But now only two universities retain the department with others closing or merging them with others. Dongguk decreased its admission quota from 40 to 20 in 2007. It plans to further decrease it to 18 next year.
“As it is a private school, we are well aware that it should think about creating profit. But a school is a special entity that should invest money in developing human resources necessary for national advancement,” said Kim Sung-jin.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)