Why Do Some South Koreans Believe A Myth That North Koreans Have Horns? | KUOW News and Information

Why Do Some South Koreans Believe A Myth That North Koreans Have Horns?

Apr 4, 2017
Originally published on April 4, 2017 4:00 am

At the height of the Cold War, in the 1960s and beyond, South Korean students were taught — and believed — some startling falsehoods about Communist North Koreans. One of these gained credence and lasted far longer than the Cold War itself.

Over the course of my reporting in Seoul, some interviews with North Korean defectors and older South Koreans have revealed a South Korean notion that North Koreans are really more like ... beasts.

"I once met a senior in South Korea who asked me if North Koreans have horns on their heads," said North Korean defector Lee Gwang-sung, who arrived in Seoul in late 2015. "I said: 'Are we cows? How can we have horns on our heads?' "

Shin Eun-mi, an elderly Korean-American who grew up near Seoul, mentioned something similar in a separate interview.

"When I was in elementary school in South Korea, teachers taught me that North Koreans had horns on their heads like monsters," Shin said.

She eventually realized it wasn't true.

"I knew that biologically, it is impossible for human beings to have horns," she said, "but the demonized images of North Koreans had lingered into my life."

Researchers say the notion of North Koreans — who are the same ethnicity as South Koreans — as being animal- or beast-like is a product of years of propaganda and misleading education.

"It was coordinated from the government. And the political leadership wanted people to believe that North Korea is the biggest enemy in the whole world," says Seoul National University education professor Park Sung-Chung.

North and South Korea were split along an arbitrary line — the 38th parallel — and engaged in a bitter war in the early 1950s before an armistice ended the fighting. The two countries remain technically at war, even today.

"Back in the 1970s, it was about Cold War mentality. We were against any kind of thing that comes from Communism, Communist country," Park says. As to the question of whether North Koreans might have horns, "I never thought that. Maybe when I was in elementary [school], I might have thought that they had horns, but when I was in high school, I didn't believe it."

South Korea's government eventually phased out its "anti-Communist" education program in 1988, replacing it with a more North Korea-friendly "unification" education.

But among some South Koreans, the image of North Koreans as beasts persists decades later. How did it live on for so long?

"It's very hard to change people's opinions once they've been formed early in life," says Sheri Berman, a Barnard College political scientist specializing in authoritarian regimes and propaganda.

"The techniques for instilling these beliefs have always been more or less the same. You want to start with children, because they're the most impressionable and that's where your belief systems tend to form and stick," she says.

Park, the education researcher, remembers a hit animated film shown across South Korea when he was a child called Doree Changun. It pits "dorees of courage," witty kids, against evil red wolves, who represent North Koreans.

"This is part of what dictatorships do to mobilize citizens for violence or the potential for violence," Berman says, arguing it's easier to be violent against groups you see as non-human. In other words, if you take away a perceived enemy's humanity, it's easier to fight them. The technique has been used the world over, throughout history.

"It's very difficult, once it's sort of begun, to fight it back," Berman says. "But you know the best way to do that is by letting citizens gain free access to information."

Information about North Korea was especially scarce during the height of the Cold War, says Park.

"We couldn't have any access to North Korea and North Korean people. We didn't have any access to the news releases from North Korea," Park says.

That kind of government censorship hasn't changed. A Cold-War era national security law is still on the books in South Korea — making it illegal for South Koreans to share North Korean content like news reports. The government blocks Internet users from accessing North Korean sites.

The result? Misinformation can live on — as Lee, the North Korean defector, found out.

"I thought, well, we're people, how can we, human beings, have horns on their heads? So I was very surprised and quite weirded out by that," he says of the lingering beliefs.

Even in systems that are considered free, long-indoctrinated beliefs can take generations to change.

Haeryun Kang and Jihye Lee contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump will have his first face-to-face meeting with China's president this week. Front and center in that conversation will be what to do about the growing threat from North Korea. For more than two decades, the U.S. has been trying to convince China to put greater pressure on the North to halt its nuclear weapons program.

This past weekend, Trump said if Beijing won't, as he put it, solve North Korea, the U.S. will. The Korean peninsula has been in an official state of war since the North invaded the South in 1950. That is more than a half century of hostility and mythmaking. NPR's correspondent in Seoul Elise Hu has this story about one of the enduring consequences.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: In the course of reporting here in Seoul over the past two years, a curious observation kept cropping up in interviews. This is Lee Gwang-sung, a North Korean defector who arrived in late 2015.

LEE GWANG-SUNG: (Through interpreter) I once met a senior in South Korea who asked me if North Koreans have horns on their heads. Are we cows? How can we have horns on our heads?

HU: Then in a separate interview for a different story with Shin Eun-mi, an elderly South Korean American who grew up near Seoul, Shin mentioned something similar.

SHIN EUN-MI: When I was in elementary school in South Korea, teachers taught me that North Koreans had horns on their heads like monsters.

HU: Or some other non-human beasts. She eventually realized it wasn't true.

SHIN: I knew that biologically it is impossible for human beings to have horns, but the demonized images of North Korea had lingered in my life.

HU: Researchers say the notion of North Koreans, who are the same ethnicity as South Koreans, as animal or beast-like is a product of years of propaganda and misleading education. Here's Seoul National University education researcher Park Sung-Chung.

PARK SUNG-CHUNG: It was quoting it from the government, and political leadership wanted people to believe that North Korea is the biggest enemy in the whole world.

HU: North and South Korea were split at an arbitrary line - the 38th parallel - and then engaged in years of bitter war, one that technically never ended.

PARK: Back in 1970, it was about Cold War mentality. We were against any kind of thing that comes from communism, a communist country.

HU: So North Koreans do not have horns?

PARK: I never thought that - maybe when I was in elementary, I might have thought that they had the horns. But when I was in high school, I didn't believe it.

HU: But the thinking persists in people some 50 years later. How did it live on so long?

SHERI BERMAN: It's very hard to change people's opinions once they've been formed early in life.

HU: Sheri Berman is a political science professor specializing in authoritarian regimes and propaganda at Barnard College.

BERMAN: The techniques for instilling these beliefs have always been more or less the same, right? You want to start with children because they are the most impressionable, and that's where your belief systems tend to form and stick.

HU: Park, the education researcher remembers a hit animated film shown across South Korea when he was little. It's called "Doree Changun."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, " DOREE CHANGUN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing in Korean).

HU: It pits dorees of courage, witty kids against evil, red wolves who represent North Koreans.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, " DOREE CHANGUN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, speaking in Korean).

BERMAN: This is part of what dictatorships do to mobilize citizens for violence or the potential for violence.

HU: Take away your perceived enemies' humanity, and it's easier to fight them. The technique is used the world over throughout history.

BERMAN: It's very difficult once it's sort of begun to fight it back. But, you know, the best way to do that is by letting citizens gain free access to information.

HU: Information about North Korea was especially scarce during the height of the Cold War, says Professor Park.

PARK: We couldn't have any access to North Korea and North Korean people. We didn't have any access to the news releases from North Korea.

HU: That government censorship hasn't changed. A Cold War-era National Security Law is still on the books here making it illegal for South Koreans to share North Korean content like news reports. The government blocks internet users from accessing North Korean sites. The result - misinformation can live on longer as the North Korean defector Lee found out.

LEE: (Through interpreter) I thought, well, we're people. How can human beings have horns on their head? So I was very surprised and quite weirded out by that.

HU: A reminder that even in systems considered free, long, indoctrinated beliefs can take generations to change. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.