All Quiet on the Southern Front

Does the average South Korean really care about the news of Kim Jong Il's death?

SEOUL – South Korean television and radio stations don't often simultaneously air live broadcast news from North Korea's official media. But as the nation sat down for lunch on Monday, they saw an unfamiliar face appear on their Samsung flat panel TVs. It was that of Ri Chun-hee, North Korea's star newsreader, dressed in a traditional, black funeral gown, seated and weeping in her trademark wavering voice. That's when most people here knew it was serious.

Despite being ill for some years now, Kim Jong Il's death came as a surprise. The South Korean government seemed to be caught off guard as well. President Lee Myung-bak called an emergency Cabinet meeting and the Unification Ministry set up a new commission to monitor all developments up North. The message to the public: Stay calm, the situation is under control, go about your normal lives.  And on the streets of the capital, most Koreans seemed to be doing just that, for now.

Despite the fear that a hostile nuclear-armed state without a clear leader in charge could instill in its neighbors, most South Koreans here really just don't seem to care about what happens in the North.

Choi Young Joo, a 29-year old piano instructor, was driving home when she heard on the radio the news of Kim's death.  

"I thought 'oh wow, he's dead,' not a big difference than before," she said. "I sent my friends a group chat message about it.  They just asked me 'what are we going to do for dinner?'"

Other Seoulites shrugged their shoulders or plainly said "I don't care" when asked how they feel now that Kim, one of the world's most brutal dictators, is history. Short of a missile barrage, many cosmopolitan citizens of this city of 10 million don't seem to think their lives are affected at all by what occurs above the 38th parallel.

"I was at the office when I read the news today.  I didn't think it was a big deal at first," said Yu Mi Hyun, 25.  "But after I talked to my friends in the military, I realized this was an important event and that we need to watch it closely."

The apathy toward North Korea among the country's youth is a big concern for the government, which is reaching out to teens and 20-somethings with ventures into social media and greater online visibility. In October, the Unification Ministry launched Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as an Internet television channel that features news, press briefings, and even a television drama all related to reunification issues.

"Pretty much nobody among the younger generation of Koreans is seriously interested in unification and North Korea," says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst at Kookmin University in Seoul. "North Korea is increasingly seen as a distant country, an irrelevant place, a poor dictatorship whose population happens to speak the same language."

The death of Kim is just the type of event the South Korean government is trying to prepare the public for.  But trying to convince young Koreans that the six decades-old division of the peninsula is still relevant today is a challenge for the Unification Ministry.

"South Korean life is very competitive and young Koreans are busy with school or searching for jobs.  They don't have time to think about unification," says Lee Sung Shin of the Unification Ministry's public relations team. 

But that's a problem, says Shin, adding that when unification does happen, it will be sudden and unexpected.  Andrei Lankov agrees: "Unification will come and not as a result of negotiations between the two governments, but as a result of a revolution in North Korea.  The current generation will deal with the consequences of this change." 

And those consequences, Lankov says, including picking up the bill for reunification. In August, a state-run think tank estimated the cost of merging the two economies could run as high as $203 billion. But if young South Koreans seem unconcerned by the uncertainties that Kim Jong Il's death might mean for their bank accounts or social safety nets, another demographic can't wait for the regime to fall.  They are the 22,000 strong community of North Korean defectors.

Kim Hung-kwang of North Korean Intellectual Solidarity, a Seoul-based organization made up of former North Korean elites, says he's been getting calls all day from other refugees, asking if the news of Kim's demise is real. "It seems like it is hard to believe for them," he says. 

But Hung-kwang tells them not to get their hopes up yet that Kim regime is in its death throes. At this point, which course heir apparent Kim Jong Un -- the third youngest son of the late Kim -- will take the country is anyone's guess. "North Korea can go one of two ways," says Hung-kwang. "They will either engage with the international community, or they will become an even more dangerous, militarized regime."

Other North Korean defectors want to personally play a more active role in the overthrow of the Kim family. During rallies put on by the North Korean People's Liberation Front, a group made up of former soldiers of the North's million-man army, members wear camouflage and wield plastic rifles. They say the only way to end the regime in Pyongyang is to take out its leadership. During one demonstration in Seoul in September of last year, the activists showed how they'd do this by lining up a man wearing a Kim JongI Il mask in front of a firing squad. One member shouted fire and recording of gunshots rang out.  The man in the mask fell to the ground.

"Many South Koreans are suspicious of us," says Liberation Front member Park Dae-gook. "They think we betrayed our government before so maybe we might do that again. We're in a desperate situation, so that's why we want to go to the frontlines." North Korean defectors are not eligible to enlist in the South Korean military. The Liberation Front's offer to form a combat unit or participate in training exercises with South Korean forces has been rejected by Seoul's Ministry of Defense, which appears to not take the group so seriously.

But taking up arms against their old government is not how most politically active North Korean defectors feel they can best be utilized. Intellectual Solidarity runs covert operations to send DVDs, USB sticks, and other media filled with information about the outside world across the North Korean border.  Their goal is to spark an eventual uprising. And as Seoul chews on the death of Kim Jong Il, Kim Hung-kwang says it's a crucial moment.

"We need to reach out to North Koreans and counter the regime's official propaganda that paints Kim as a hero. They need to know what is true or not about him," he says. Hung-kwang adds that these efforts by defectors need to occur during the next 100 days, when North Korea holds an official period of mourning for the late Dear Leader.

"It seems like the day in which we will be able to return to our hometowns is coming quickly," Kim Hung-kwang says. "But if that day is to come soon, we have to increase our activities to ensure North Korea becomes a more free nation first."

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images


Vaclav Havel Walks into a Nightclub

My one night at a rock concert with the Czech dissident, artist, and president.

It's a shame that the death of one of the world's most ghastly leaders, North Korea's Kim Jong Il, will overshadow the death of one of its finest: Vaclav Havel, the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, who passed away on Sunday, Dec. 18, of respiratory ailments -- he was a lifelong smoker and lung cancer survivor -- at his country estate in northern Bohemia. I only met Havel once and wouldn't pretend to know him, and my reminiscence accordingly counts for far less than the rest that will be offered. You can read those if you want to understand why Havel matters to history or art; what follows, for what it's worth, is an account of why he matters to me.

It was six-and-a-half years ago in Washington, D.C., and I had somehow persuaded an extremely indulgent editor friend at a music and fashion magazine to let me write a short squib about a Czech band called the Plastic People of the Universe, which was playing at the Black Cat nightclub on 14th Street. I mostly wanted an excuse to meet "the Plastics," a band whose legend far outstripped its recorded catalog, most of which was out of print and hopelessly difficult to find. The group had formed in Prague in 1968, amid the rush of the Prague Spring, with the intention of playing music inspired by the American experimental rock musicians they adored: the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart. It was a modest aim that, after Soviet tanks rolled into Wenceslas Square the following August, suddenly looked revolutionary. The Plastics were not particularly political, but Czechoslovakia's newly disciplinarian communist regime looked askance at their lyrics -- many of them written by the best Czech poets of the era -- which celebrated sexuality, Catholic imagery, and other taboos. In 1976, after years of government harassment, the band's members and associates were finally rounded up and hauled into court on trumped up "disturbing the peace" charges.

Among the poets whose work had informed the Plastics' records -- which were pressed in sympathetic Western countries and circulated samizdat-style in Czechoslovakia -- was Vaclav Havel. The band's trial inspired him and other dissidents to draft the landmark Charter 77 human rights declaration the following year, a document that laid the foundation of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The conviction of the Plastics -- which was finally overturned by the Czech Supreme Court in 2003 -- also prompted some of Havel's finest writing. In his essay "The Trial," Havel described how the court proceedings made the band into "the unintentional personification of those forces in man that compel him to search for himself, to determine his own place in the world freely, and in his own way, not to make deals with his heart and not to cheat his conscience, to call things by their true names."

The seven-piece band that was waiting downstairs in the Black Cat's sepulchral green room when I arrived that summer afternoon included only a couple of the members who had founded the Plastics 37 years earlier. One of them, saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec, also happened to be the band's de facto English-language spokesman; after leaving prison, he had spent many years in exile in Canada. Brabenec was 62 and, with his long flowing hair, prodigious beard, and heavy Slavic features, resembled an Orthodox patriarch. Like everyone else in the band, he smoked incessantly as he described the details of the band's visit to Washington. "Oh," he added, leaning back in the cracked pleather chair, "and Vaclav is coming."

A couple of hours later, they trooped down the stairs: not just Havel, who happened to be in town for a reading at the Library of Congress, but also former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the Czech ambassador. They availed themselves of the cooler full of Heinekens, drinking and smoking with the band and listening while the bassist, Eva Turnova, recounted her run-in with Lenny Kaye, the proto-punk guitarist and her hero, on the band's tour stop in New York. Then the band was called up to the stage, and the rest of us followed, settling in the back of the club around a big black plywood table, sticky with stale beer and etched with the names of dozens of past concertgoers.

On the stage, Brabenec let loose an ear-splitting peal of free improvisation, and the rest of the band settled into a heavy, abrasive rhythm. This was not the Fleetwood Mac of Bill Clinton's administration, and I leaned over to ask Albright what she thought of it. "I think it's -- I think it's great," she said after a lengthy pause. "I like it a lot. Now, I can't say I've heard a lot of it -- I've mainly heard about them."

Havel, the old avant-gardist, was watching with a smile on his face. He had personally coaxed the Plastics out of retirement in 1997 for a performance at Prague Castle on the 20th anniversary of the Charter 77 signing; a year later, he brought Plastics bassist Milan Hlavsa -- who died in 2001 -- to Washington to perform with the band's hero, the Velvet Underground's Lou Reed, for Havel and Clinton at the White House. I asked him about his relationship with the band, but the music drowned out his soft voice, and I stopped after a couple questions, feeling guilty -- I was keeping him from watching the show. On the dance floor, the Czech ambassador was shimmying to the music with a drink in his hand and a Plastics T-shirt under his sport coat. A slow trickle of admirers approached Havel for his autograph, which he signed with a pair of red and green felt-tip pens: "Havel" in loopy cursive, followed by a heart.

Then without warning, Turnova blew Havel's cover, outing the "ex-president" in the back of the club. A couple of hundred fans turned around to face Havel, who stood up and waved sheepishly, his shoulders hunched slightly inside his sport coat. "For Mr. Havel," Brabenec called out, "'Magical Nights!'" The Plastics launched into a song of the same name, one they had performed three decades earlier at a clandestine music festival that Havel hosted at his country house. The lyrics went:

We live in Prague, that is the place

Where the Spirit itself will show its face.

We live in Prague, that is the place.

The ex-president smiled again, and I realized I was in the presence of something remarkable. Here was a man who had survived one of the Eastern Bloc's worst regimes and helped overthrow it; who had navigated the confusion of the Iron Curtain's fall and the division of his own country; who had endured the myriad little compromises and disappointments that come with the actual business of governing. Yet he had emerged somehow intact, in a way that the U.S. politicians I had met in Washington, survivors of far less battering public experiences, rarely seemed to be. As I watched him drinking beer with old friends and basking in the sound of a band he had seen play who knows how many times, it was possible to believe that one could plunge into the morass of politics and emerge on the other side a human being. Havel had, true to his own words, determined his own place in the world.

It was 1 a.m. by the time the encores wound down and Havel finally got up from his seat. After he had left, I noticed something on the table at the place where he had been sitting. It was just a concertgoer's name, etched through the black paint in loopy cursive, punctuated with a heart.