The death of Kim Jong-il was obviously a big deal. My co-worker, who never mentions the news, told me as soon as she heard. My girlfriend said it first thing when I talked to her that day. That being said, the news barely made a ripple in my daily routine or anything I could notice about life in Yangsan/Busan/Southeast Korea. The 0ne thing that did happen (which pointed to a greater concern at higher levels of decision-making) was my school trip was cancelled because government-oriented organizations were not permitted to travel outside of their province in the wake of Kim’s death. Other than this needless though perhaps understandable emergency protocol, Kim Jong-il barely surfaced on the radar of my Korean experience.
Counter-intuitively, I think as an American the death of Kim was more significant. Since I’ve been home, most people who vaguely follow the news have inquired, “What was it like when Kim Jong-il died?” When I explain to people that N. Korea just is not much of a factor in the lived experience of S. Korea, they seem somehow doubtful or confused. Americans, I think, view the international arena as something of a drama with plots and intrigues that they can personify and characterize in unrealistic ways. I think if Americans wanted a better understanding of the South’s experience of the North, they’d do better to consider their experience of the American ghetto. Scattered throughout out the United States are pockets of poverty, violence, and decay. We drive by them (or more likely around them) without a second thought, because the problem is very real, immediate, and somehow implicates us and our actions in its solution. If we were to really think about it, life would become soon unbearable. North Korea, on the other hand, is distant, surreal, and another nation’s problem. Reality is a convenience that oceans make possible.