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 to talk about her research on South Korea’s narrative on North Korea and the practical implications it has on how South Korea handles North Korean defectors.
Dr. Son is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has recently been a Research Fellow at the Academy of Korean Studies and the Asiatic Research Institute at Korea University in Seoul, focusing on identity and inter-Korean relations.
Dr. Son earned a Bachelor degree in International Relations (Hons) from Bond University in Australia, and an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from SOAS in 2005. Following a period working in British politics, she completed her PhD at SOAS in 2014, where she researched national identity and policy as related to Korean unification and the issue of North Korean defector settlement in South Korea.
I find [the Park administration’s decision to impose a unique state-sanctioned history textbook] disappointing […] 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.