SEOUL, South Korea — It was the early morning of Friday the 13th in North Korea when “The Great Successor” Kim Jung-un launched a rocket into space and defy the wishes of most of the developed world.
In the West, Friday the 13th would spell bad luck from the beginning. To Asians the date or number holds no significance. The feeling of the people you meet here is surprisingly calm, much the way as it has always been, after 50-plus years of provocation and torment from the North.
“I thought they were just bragging. I didn’t think they were going to go through with it,” said Yun Hyung-sik, a florist working in Seoul. Yun said the reason he thought the launch was a hoax was simple, “because they don’t have the money. I thought the new leader was just talking about missile launches as a way to talk up the new regime. The launch really surprised me. And then after they actually launched it, it failed!”
Yun sat in a small sushi restaurant on the East side of Seoul Saturday night talking about the ordeal with the restaurant’s owner Yu Jay-jin.
“Stupid idiot! Do you know how much it cost?,” Yu became visible furious waving his fist in the air. “That kind of money could feed the North Korean people for a year.”
Much of the world shares Yu’s confusion as to why North Korea, a country of starving people, would spend nearly $1 billion to attempt to launch a rocket into space.
“I don’t know why they did that,” Yu continued. “I first heard about the plans to launch the missile from some of my customers, and I asked myself ‘Why do we need to help their government?'”
Yu’s frustration is intertwined in Korean culture and tradition. Koreans, North and South, consider themselves one people temporarily separated. Their ethnicity means a lot to them and both are very nationalistic, often to the fault of xenophobia. But when it comes to family and the responsibility of working to support their families, there may be no people stronger than the Koreans. They selflessly and regularly work 70-hour weeks with little overtime pay. Yu and his wife work six days a week from 5:30 p.m. to 6 a.m., catering to Seoul’s late-night crowd.
“A father has to provide for his children,” Said Yu, a father of three school-aged sons. “A poor country like North Korea cannot waste money on things like rockets.”
“Father” is how North Koreans addressed Kim Jung-il, the father of North Korea’s current dictator Kim Jong-un. However, many see more of a physical resemblance between Jung-un and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. This was seen by some to be an important factor in Jong-un’s selection to be “The Great Successor.”
“I think Kim Jung-Eun resembles his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung,” Yoo Ju-yeon, a software developer for Korea Trade Insurance Corporation, said. “His body type and voice are the same; even his clapping motion is very similar to his grandfather’s.”
Sitting in an office in the heart of Seoul on Monday morning, Yoo admitted, “I was scared when I saw that huge missile on television.” But he continued, “Actually, many Koreans weren’t scared because we have many missiles of our own, and we have knowledge of North Korean missiles. Many of my coworkers think this (North Korean’s provocation) is an annual event.”
Not even Kim Su-kyung, a 13 year-old middle school student on her way to class in central Seoul, was worried that much. “I heard about it (Friday) from my friend at school. She has a smart phone. I was never scared, but it makes me hate North Korea. Not the citizens, but the people in control.”
Back at the Korea Trade Insurance Corporation, Yoo explained, “With the production of long-range missiles they hoped that North America would be scared.” He added, “And I was afraid of that.”
“They did it because they want to have negotiations with America to get food and assistance. The rocket is dangerous for America,” said Kim Hyun-hong, who works as a legal expert at KB Card, Korea’s largest credit card company. He said he was busy at work and hadn’t heard the news of the rocket’s failure until Friday afternoon. “A taxi driver told me about it.”
“North Korea wants to develop a rocket because they have many hardships and difficulties,” said Kim. “If North Korea succeeded with the rocket launch it would not be good for America. It was a long-range rocket — a rocket that could have reached America.”
Kim went on to explain why most South Korean remained calm throughout the situation, “Developing those types of rockets requires high technology. North Korea doesn’t have that technology.”
Edward Arnold, an American teaching English in Seoul agreed with Kim about North Korea’s lack of technology. He added other reasons for the failed launch. “Pressure, stress, and probably the lack of free thought and creativity that is required for any scientific project to succeed.”
“It’s another sign of the flawed government,” he said. A government “that pumps money into public spectacles like this instead of improving living conditions for its people.”
Back at the sushi restaurant, Yu doesn’t see North Korea settling down anytime soon. “I expect North Korea to keep going with these crazy actions. They feel that they need to show their power to the world.”
Florist Yun chimed in, “I think they will look for other ways to show the power of Kim’s ‘kingdom.’ It looks like they will produce a nuclear weapon next as a way to show their superiority,” he said, mentioning new intelligence that the North is preparing a tunnel, like it has twice before, to test nuclear weapons.
“They want to bring more serious and troubling issues to the world.” Yun explained North Korea’s actions “It’s like, ‘You’re a boss? I’m a boss, too. Look at my powerful weapon. I could kill you if I want.'”
“They told the world it was a satellite rocket, but they just wanted to show the world how far they could launch a weapon,” said Yu, as he mimicked the rocket’s demise with an empty beer bottle from one of his customers. “That much is obvious.”
In Asia 13 still has no significance as an unlucky number, but after North Korea’s miserable failure early last Friday the 13th, Kim Jung-un may rethink his schedule for future provocations.