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Korea Blog: On Not Being Interested in North Korea

I once asked a former foreign correspondent in South Korea what he wrote about. “North Korea, North Korea, North Korea, and North Korea,” he said. “Oh, and some North Korea as well.” But he’d done that work, for the Economist, something like a decade ago, when the Korea he actually lived in commanded much less international attention than it does today. I naturally assumed, when moving to Seoul a bit over two years ago, that some semblance of a balance had since been struck between media focus on the North and media focus on the South. Events of recent years, including but not limited to the ejection of a president, have indeed put this country in the international headlines, but more of them have stoked the world’s persistently greater fascination with the other one.

That kind of attention has, at least, added to the list of subjects, most of them already threadbare, that reliably generate stories in South Korea: pop music, academic competitiveness, suicide, Samsung. Now we have the “Why aren’t South Koreans obsessed with North Korea?” piece, which usually reflects little more than Westerners’ own obsession with North Korea. I once asked a longtime American resident of South Korea for his thoughts on why so many expatriates here develop such bad attitudes, and he chalked it up to the universal tendency of expatriates everywhere to take on certain characteristics of their host population, in this case habitual complaining. Something similar seems to have happened to me, not in terms of an acquisition of the grumbling instinct but the loss of interest in — bordering on the loss of awareness of — North Korea.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember indulging a mild North Korea obsession of my own in college, scouring the internet for then-scarce photos of the streets of Pyongyang, with its nearly carless streets, blank-faced citizens, and stern traffic ladies, when I’d meant to study for finals. (Some of those procrastinated-on exams were for political science classes, I reminded myself by way of justification, though the professors didn’t then consider the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea anything more than a curiosity.) Something about the combination of orderly poverty, exotically bland aesthetics, ever-present ideological charge, and hilariously obsolete technology took me back to the Cold War. Or rather, since the Cold War ended quite early in my academic career (though world maps with the USSR hung in the classrooms I sat in for years thereafter), it took be back to a certain idea of the Cold War.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.