Kim Yo-jong and Kim Jong-un want to continue the rule of the Kim family into perpetuity. (Rodong Sinmun, February 2018)

I have found it increasingly frustrating to report and write on North Korea these days. That’s because the Kim Jong-un regime has turned to isolation without any intention to change its ways, and because the world’s attention toward North Korea has dramatically decreased.

North Korea’s vulnerable groups of people are facing a humanitarian crisis, including the spread of malnutrition. Despite ASIAPRESS’s publishing of articles in Japanese, Korean and English, there’s very little reaction to them from the world. It feels like there’s nothing that can be done.

◆ From enthusiasm and hope to disappointment and hatred

In July, I held a meeting with South Korea-based researchers, journalists and human rights activists in Seoul. They replied to my sense of disappointment with one voice, “No, South Korea is even worse.”

The Kim Jong-un regime raised tensions in the region with nuclear and missile tests before changing its tune and engaging in dialogue from 2018. Kim Yo-jong went to Seoul and observed the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and in April of that year Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un hugged at Panmunjom, later followed by a meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

The entire world seemed to be focused on what was happening in North Korea and it felt like the state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula were going through dramatic changes. However, the enthusiasm and hopes South Koreans showed at that time seemed now to have completely disappeared.

The blame falls on South Koreans’ “fatigue toward North Korea”

Park In-ho, a researcher with the NK Investment Development Research Center who has been working on North Korean human rights issues for more than 20 years, explained why this was.

In February 2019 when the US-DPRK Hanoi summit ended in failure, North Korea returned to throwing insults toward South Korea and, and in June 2020, the country blew up the inter-Korean joint liaison office in Kaesong. In September 2020, North Korean soldiers killed a South Korean public official who floated into waters under North Korea’s control, pouring gasoline on the corpse and setting it alight. North Korea has not stopped launching test missiles, either.

“The Moon Jae-in government worked hard, but gave the South Korean people an exaggerated sense of hope. Ultimately, Kim Jong-un didn’t try to change. South Koreans are now just sick and tired of it,” Park explained.

Clearly, South Korean media’s interest in North Korea has decreased dramatically. There’s barely any North Korea-related articles worth referencing. Much of the reporting is simply the parroting of news already covered in foreign media outlets, official statements by the South Korean government, and reprints of North Korea’s state-run media outlets. There’s few news agencies that engage in independent reporting, a reflection of South Korean society’s diminished interest in North Korea.

A bundle of flyers create with the intention to level insults on South Korea and President Moon Jae-in. (Rodong Sinmun, June 2021)

Every year, KBS conducts a survey measuring awareness about unification among South Koreans that is published around August 15, the day Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule. This year’s results, published on August 14, clearly showed the “fatigue” toward North Korea that exists in South Korean society today.

Only 2.7% of the respondents said that they have “positive feelings” toward the Kim Jong-un regime. Meanwhile, 78.1% said they have “negative feelings” toward the regime, with 43.1% of these respondents saying they have “extremely negative feelings” toward North Korea’s government. The survey results show a dramatic negative shift in public perception toward North Korea when compared with the 20.6% of respondents who said they have “positive feelings,” 35.4% who had “negative feelings,” and 15.3% who had “extremely negative feelings” in the survey in 2018, when inter-Korean talks were ongoing.

Meanwhile, 80% of respondents to this year’s survey said that South Korea must provide aid to help North Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic. The results show the relaxed and mature nature of South Korean society when it comes to North Korea, reflecting both the society’s general hatred of the regime and the imperative it feels for providing the country with humanitarian aid.

◆ Reflecting on North Koreans’ secret crush on South Korea

Then, what about perceptions among North Koreans? Based on my own long reporting experience on the lives of ordinary North Koreans, I have found that, despite the fact North Korea churns out propaganda aimed at treating South Korea as the enemy, North Koreans have strong expectations and hopes for South Korea.

My colleague, defector-journalist Kang Ji-won, knows the thinking of the North Korean people better than most. He has told me earnestly that:

“The lives of North Koreans are at their worst due to the controls implemented by the regime under the pretext of preventing the spread of COVID-19. It’s not clear when trade with China will resume. North Koreans hold out hope that their South Korean compatriots will offer them assistance, no matter how slim that hope may be. If they knew that South Koreans are losing interest in North Korea, they’d be devastated. We must continue to report on and inform the world about the North Korean people’s poverty-stricken realities.”

After hearing Kang’s words, I felt like it wasn’t yet time to lose my motivation to soldier on.