[Feature] Where in the world is South Korea?

South Korea map

There are North Korean refugees who first hear the term ‘South Korea’ only after arriving in South Korea, especially among those who come from the provinces.

Kim Yoon-suk, who left North Korea at the end of 2012, testifies, “I always called South Korea ‘the neighborhood below’ or South Chosun. Back home, I didn’t even know that there was a proper country called ‘South Korea.’”

When asked by the reporter whether the term was not heard through South Korea dramas, Kim replies, “It’s true, I often watched South Korean dramas. But I always called them the videos from the neighborhood below, never ‘South Korean dramas.’”

Kim Soon-hee, who left in 2011, had to leave her grandmother behind in North Korea. She describes her humorous story: “After I heard from a broker some information about escaping from North Korea, I told my grandmother, ‘let’s go to South Korea now.’ Wanting to remain in her place of birth, she rejected my suggestion and told me, ‘If you’re going to leave you might as well go to South Chosun, instead of South Korea.’”

On the other hand, Park Joo-hwan, who left North Korea in 2012, explains that there are differences across regions. He says, “I’m from Chongjin, and my family and friends often said things such as, ‘People in South Korea are better off.’ In harbor cities, there is information coming from the boatsmen, but honestly, there aren’t that many sources of information in the inland provinces, so people may not know.”

It’s not just lack of access to outside information, but distortion of it too that leads to misunderstanding of geographical facts about South Korea. Kim Yoon-suk adds, “Actually, I thought that South Chosun (South Korea) was just a small place down south. I could never have imagined how developed it could be. In North Korea, there’s so much propaganda criticizing and demonizing South Korea, so I really thought that was all there was to it.”

Living in the city doesn’t appear to increase levels of awareness. Shin Ho-jin is from Wonsan, and left the country in 2010. He says, “Although Wonsan is a relatively large city in North Korea, there are many people who cannot conceive of where ‘South Korea’ might be.”

He adds, “On top of that, if you visit the campsite of the International Youth Party, there is a huge world map on the wall, and the whole Korean peninsula is painted red as if it were all North Korea. People get more confused when they see things like that.”

Choi Tae-ho is from Pyongyang. He explains, “Even in the capital city of Pyongyang, there are many people who don’t recognize the term ‘South Korea.’ Actually, I don’t know if they really don’t know or if they know but pretend not to know. After all, this is the city where everything related to politics, economics, and social affairs are all concentrated.”

When asked on the reason for this, he says, “They may be afraid of harsh punishments. What I can say for certain is that I have never heard the term ‘South Korea’ in Pyongyang from any of my family, cousins, or friends.”

Whether it is because they ‘really don’t know,’ as in the case of those from the inland regions; because ‘it is better not to know,’ as the North Korean refugees from Pyongyang say; or because they ‘hear things but get confused’; the word ‘South Korea’ is not common currency among North Koreans. The Korean Wave may be sweeping through North Korea, but its people do not yet call their neighbor down south by name.