Monday, April 22, 2013

Let's Talk About North Korea

The question of the day: "Are you worried about North Korea attacking South Korea?"

Fortunately, my eleven-student third-year classes did not take the exercise too seriously. They are allowed to choose between two daily questions. The other was, "What did you do last weekend?" But I only asked about North Korea because some of them walked into class talking about it. "Teacher," they said, "North Korea, missile, today!"*

And they were frivolously cheerful because if North Korea obliterated the South with nuclear weapons, then they would not have to take their midterm exams.

So I casually asked for their opinions, careful not to express my own views on the matter, and listened attentively to their responses.

Most students replied in the negative. "No, I'm not worried." Why, I asked. "Because Kim Jong-un is just making empty threats." Or "because North Korea will attack America first." And "because if they launch a missile at us, then the United States will launch a missile at them, and then they will be -- Boom! (Sound effects, gesticulations, laughter) Gone."

When it was KW's turn, I asked him which question he wanted. "Question two," he said.

"Are you worried about North Korea?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because my brother is... 군인? 군인... Soldier!" he said, finally, adding, "He would die."

"If North Korea attacks South Korea--" I began.

"If North Korea attacks South Korea, then my brother would die," KW finished.

Suddenly, MW's head jerked up and she exclaimed, "Oh! Me too!"

And SJ also had a moment of realization. "Me too!"

"Wait, no," said MW. "Not brother... cousin!"

I was taken aback. "You all have brothers in the military?" I asked.

JB, who was a little slow on the uptake, asked MW in Korean, "What's 'cousin'?" -- "사촌," she replied. "Oh," he said, "me too!"

Everyone laughed at the coincidences, but it was actually quite sobering. About half of my students had a family member or knew someone in the ROK military, thanks to the mandatory two years of service for all able-bodied males. If war broke out, we all acknowledged, their lives would all be in danger.

But would North Korea (북한/Bukhan) attack? Most people back in the States seem to be genuinely worried about their safety. But your average South Korean just shrugs off the menace. It's a delicate balance between knowing that North Korea is bluffing and does not have any logical reason to make good on its threats against the US and South Korea and taking into account the apparent lack of logic that defines the current Kim regime. North Korea is unpredictable, and unpredictable is dangerous. Right?

Right, except North Korea is predictable, and their belligerence is nothing new. That's why South Koreans are not scared. Perhaps deep down, they are thinking critically about what would happen in the worst case scenario (everyone dies, so that's that). But day by day, concerns over food, finances, and next week's exams are the top priorities, leaving no room for panic, or even anxiety, over North Korea.
A political cartoon from a local newspaper illustrating how South Koreans are more worried about the economic repercussions of war than either A) non-economic casualties or B) war breaking out at all. The text reads: 전쟁나면 서민만 고생... [1st missile] 담보 대출 연체 가압류 [2nd missile] 학자금 대출 연체 가압류 [3rd missile] 손해배상 가압류 [running man]: "안 나도 서민만 고생." Translation: If war breaks out, only the common people suffer... [1] foreclosure due to overdue mortgage loan [2] foreclosure due to overdue student loans [3] foreclosure due to compensation for damages [running man]: "Even if [war] doesn't break out, we suffer."
That's why I myself am not worried. At all. I mean, I don't even think about North Korea much, even though it is often on the news. But South Korea isn't into fear-mongering, at least with regard to this particular social issue. I feel like the American media is quite different, with doomsday reports on some networks having led some Fulbrighters' parents to call frantically from the US asking if the imminent nuclear apocalypse is grave enough to warrant leaving the country. Well, my parents haven't mentioned word one about North Korea or asked about my safety in the past month, so they're either unfazed by nuclear rhetoric or they just don't care.

But that doesn't mean I can't relate to the feeling of dread when one's family is at even the slightest risk of danger. Before class one day*, I found CY looking out the classroom window at the army training base across the valley from our school. It's so close to us that I can hear taps playing from the barracks when I walk home in the evenings, and when they run drills I sometimes spot colored smoke rising from the trees, even from my desk in the office. CY was now looking at the low gray buildings. "Three weeks later," she said quietly, "my brother will go there."

"Your brother is going to be a soldier?" I asked. "In three weeks?"

"Yes," she said.

"I see," I replied. "Are you going to miss him?"

CY nodded. Suddenly, it hit me.

"Ah! But, North Korea... Oh, okay. Oh, dear. That's tough. Are you worried? Your brother is not going to the border, is he?"

"No," said CY, pointing to the army base. "There."

"Oh, really? He's going to be right there? Well, that's good. He's very close. Can you visit him?"

She shook her head. "I think not."

"Well, I'm sure he will be fine," I said, actually unsure of anything I should say in that moment. "Two years is a long time, but I think he will be okay."

- - -

*This class and conversation took place about two weeks ago. I would have posted this then, but 1) I was busy and 2) it's not like the so-called North Korean threat has blown over quite yet, even if other international news has overshadowed it.

P.S. A recent Reddit IAmA featured a North Korean defector, answering users' questions about life in the communist state. A very interesting read.

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