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Where the Korean divide hardly exists

Pop culture is bigger than Kim in some places

Where the Korean divide hardly exists
Kim with Russian president Dmitri Medvedyev in January 2011 (photo:
Thomas Toe and Mark Chit, Yangon

December 23, 2011

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As the world digests the news about the death of North Korea's long-reigning dictator Kim Jong-Il, many throughout the world are wondering what will come next for the notoriously secluded nation. But in Myanmar, the two Koreas do not bring to mind a decades-long showdown between democracy and totalitarianism. In fact, many don't even acknowledge two Koreas. For them, the peninsula is principally the source of much-loved and deeply influential pop culture. Albert Cho Ko, 28, a local journalist, said the majority of young people in Myanmar would react much more acutely to the death of a beloved soap opera star than a political tyrant who even in death continues to cast a long shadow over the country he ruled so brutally. “Myanmar youths don’t have much interest in the political situation in North Korea.” Interest in the geopolitical fallout of Kim Jong-il’s death would only hold interest for some in Myanmar’s government, Albert Cho Ko said, given the history of economic and military ties between the two countries. But this ignorance about broader political developments among young people poses new challenges as the country continues to take its first tentative steps towards political reform. “Awareness of political themes is vital for youths today, as we are now moving towards democratic reform,” said Daw Yin Yin Maw, president of the Myanmar Council of Churches. In the past, she said, young people have largely been focused on preserving their livelihoods within a desperate and largely closed economy. “They have not been able to concentrate on anything other than finding job opportunities.” Moreover, the word “politics” itself remains a loaded one that conjures overt and dangerous acts of protest or defiance, she said. “For me, politics is happening everywhere, even in our own families.” U Soe Naing, a retired university professor in Yangon, said ambivalence towards North Korea was not always the norm, particularly in the wake of the 1983 assassination attempt against then South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan during a state visit. Twenty-one people were killed and 46 others injured when three bombers, a North Korean major and two captains, detonated a device at the Martyr’s Mausoleum in the former capital prior to Chun Doo-hwan’s arrival. Three South Korean politicians and four Burmese nationals were among those killed in the blast, which tore the roof off the monument. Two of the suspects were arrested, with one confessing to the plot. A third was later shot and killed by Mynmar soldiers while trying to escape. But the intervening years have dulled public perceptions about a country that has since maintained close ties, particularly military ones, with the Myanmar government, the former professor said. “As the new government is now in the process of reforming the country and striving to create good relationships with democratic countries, the death of the North Korean leader may have no effect on the future of Myanmar,” said U Soe Naing. U Zo Bawi, an ethnic Chin and member of the National League for Democracy, said he hopes that the country’s current leaders will understand that former relations with authoritarian regimes must be changed if the country is to achieve real democratic reform. “I do expect that our leaders will realize that the acts of authoritarian governments are not in the best interests of their people,” he said, adding that maintaining close relationships with such regimes could impede legitimate political reform.
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