Legally, South Korea does not recognize the existence of its northern neighbor. Yet North Korea remains a pervasive feature of South Korean politics both domestically and internationally. The discourse Seoul holds on Pyongyang, however, is far from homogeneous and inconsistencies abound: in a single speech it is not uncommon for North Koreans to be described both as brothers and as enemies. To make sense of this conundrum, we met with Dr. Sarah A. Son, who studied South Korea’s narrative on North Korea, to talk about her research and the practical implications of this narrative: South Korea’s handling of North Korean defectors.
Dr. Son is Research Fellow at the Academy of Korean Studies and a contributor to NK News since 2012. Prior to her current position, she was a Research Fellow at the Asiatic Research Institute at Korea University in Seoul, with a focus on identity and inter-Korean relations.
Dr. Son earned a Bachelor in International Relations (Hons) from Bond University in Australia, where she was awarded the John Hardy medal for Most Outstanding Humanities and Social Sciences Graduate, and an MA in International Law and International Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (SOAS). She completed her PhD at SOAS as well, where she researched national identity and policy as related to the Korean unification and the issue of North Korean defector resettlement in South Korea.
I find [the Park administration’s decision to impose a unique state-sanctioned history textbook] disappointing […] It’s not really in line with what is obviously been going on for a long time in other developed nations. But I think, perhaps, it’s also a sign of the ongoing insecurity about the national narrative that exists in South Korea and among its policymakers. They are concerned that the story that South Koreans are being told and adopting, and subscribing to, is not the “right” one. But at the same time, the idea that a single elected government would be able to describe “the truth” is bordering on ridiculous […] I don’t think that’s right. And perhaps more importantly, what it also highlights is that […] alongside the teaching of history, there needs to be an attitude of inquiry, an attitude of debate, an attitude of bringing together different historical views and debating them and allowing for difference of opinion because that’s what history is. It’s not a single set of facts.
The interview was recorded on October 29th in Seoul.