The last few weeks, I’ve fallen into the habit of reading the paper before I go to bed. Invariably, it’s the latest provocation by North Korea. When I wake up, I check the paper and read the latest provocation by South Korea and the U.S. It’s a comforting, regular cycle that provides respite from the occasionally welling of raw terror.
Living in Seoul doesn’t feel like the prelude to a war. Nothing has changed as far as I can tell, except I see fewer soldiers traipsing through Myeongdong (the international shopping area) laden with pink shopping bags. The number of American soldiers seems to have dropped off too, though that could be because a few weeks ago one of them shot a BB gun into the air outside a hotel in Itaewon, and the local command has banned alcohol consumption – leaving very few reasons for troops to visit Itaewon.
But otherwise, life continues as normal. No air raid sirens, no guns positioned in the streets, no sandbags. Seoul-ites haven’t changed their habits: young people still go shopping, old people still head to the mountains on weekends, and the only visible safety precaution is a few people sporting dust masks, to protect against the spring dust storms blowing in from the Gobi desert.
I feel I should give a coherent analysis of the conflict between North and South Korea. I have a political science degree and I’ve lived in Seoul for eight months – surely my personal and professional interests coincide enough to make a few educated guesses. But that’s all I have: guesses. I feel like I’ve stepped into a massive conflagration that’s been going on a long time; any firm opinions would be more about creating a mental framework to name and hence control my fears. All I can really offer are snapshots of observation and ill-informed opinions. That said, I still feel I know more than the Americans I saw in the pub quiz a few days ago, who called their team The Wolverines, after the teenagers who defeat the North Korean invaders in the latest iteration of Red Dawn.
Yesterday I spent a long time researching emergency packs. My government recommends creating one. Some enterprising capitalist put together a complete one for $140, but after close study of its contents I figured I could buy better-quality components separately, for less money. Over the next few days I expect scooter delivery men stopping by my door to drop off plain boxes containing a portable radio, batteries, thermal blankets, glow sticks, etc. In the event of an emergency, I put them all in my new backpack, along with some toilet paper and a change of underwear, and get out – to the countryside if the roads out of town aren’t blocked, or to the airport if they are. This all presumes that I have the presence of mind not to just sit in a corner and cry, or get blind drunk, or simply dither over leaving my expensive, colourful new ‘couple’ sneakers behind while the missiles rain down.
Will I lug my laptop or will I leave it to be blown up or looted? Will I even make it out of the house? What if my neighbourhood is one of the first hit in what U.S. generals are calling a ‘tragedy’, before their precision-guided weaponry can find and blow up the North Korean armanents? If war breaks out, strategists predict a minimum of 3,000 people dying in the first few minutes. Luckily I don’t live in range of North Korea’s artillery pieces; however, this means I’m at risk of a missile strike – less likely, given the missiles’ inaccuracy, but more deadly if they hit. Or, if Kim Jung Un figures the game is up and launches an atomic bomb, then my emergency bag is irrelevant and I might as well take up all those hard drugs I’ve watched documentaries about.
While I was ordering my supplies online and contemplating dark thoughts, the Koreans around me were laughing, smoking, being fashionable and drinking fancy coffee. No one cares because they’ve seen it all before, and even media reports that this is uncharted territory don’t seem to faze them. I guess a silver lining to 60 years of cold war is that it calms you down. My girlfriend keeps telling me nothing is going to happen.
If President Park is to be believed, there are millions of Koreans who are still smarting from the sinking of the Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island a few years back and think that now is the time to settle scores. This time she’s resolved to respond militarily – though to be fair, former president Bak did call for a counter-attack to the Cheonan bombing, but the order wasn’t carried out.
Realistically, the threat of direct attack isn’t great. Despite the heavy rhetoric, there are a number of signs that North Korea won’t escalate things. Closing the Kaesong industrial facility, declaring the 1953 armistice void, restarting nuclear plants – they’ve done all these things before, though not in such a short space of time. I’m more worried about some commander launching a shell by accident and kicking things kick off. I wish I could be as blasé as the Koreans. It’s like during Typhoon Bolaven last year, when I taped up my windows, put my breakables in a suitcase and spent the afternoon in an underground café, while the old woman across the street didn’t even take down the flower pots on her balcony. When I came here, no one told me that part of culturally adjusting is getting used to existential threats.
Commentators say that Kim is sabre-rattling as much for a domestic audience as an international one: he has to prove himself as a new leader, and what better way than to face down the imperialists. (A word that I don’t use ironically, by the way.) The only thing I’d add is that, prior to this crisis, much was being made of him ruling differently from his father, who pursued ‘military first’ policy. Kim Jong Un is ‘military and economy’ – two-track, a fact reaffirmed at last Saturday’s central committee meeting, where he appointed Pak Pong Ju, someone who’s encouraged internal markets, as a premier.
Kim also fired dozens of top generals when he took office. The state and bureaucracy are one and the same in North Korea, and according to people more knowledgeable than me on this topic, policy is made through competing bureaucratic centres – the military, the executive, and so on – who fight for influence, even with competing academic journals. It makes sense that a part of the bureaucracy which had ruled successfully throughout Kim Jong Il’s reign, and then seen its leadership decapitated as soon as Kim Jong Un came to power, would not be happy. It might need appeasing. So maybe the current bellicosity is the younger Kim trying to show the military bureaucracy that, despite his two-track policy, he’s still all man and that their longer-term interests won’t be compromised.
The South and the U.S.
I’m getting increasingly upset at the U.S.’s role in this. There is absolutely no reason to hold war games right now, or indeed every year. Flying B2s and B52s nearby, stationing naval vessels off the coast and talking tough on sanctions is unnecessary. At least, it is from a liberal internationalist point of view. If you believe that the U.S. has specific interests – sending a message to China, and promoting its own military-first message, such as spending $1 billion on missile defence in Alaska, and installing new missile systems in Guam – then this all makes sense. Both sides are a convenient foil for each other.
North Korea has ample evidence that the U.S. will actively invade and overthrow governments it doesn’t like – Iraq and Afghanistan being the most recent examples – and that, without its nuclear program, the DPRK will meet the same end. And as Bruce Cummings points out, the North was supposed get peaceful nuclear power under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Agreement, but it never did, thanks to the U.S. So, while the paranoia is unjustified, the grievances are real. Nobody’s hands are clean in this.
I moved to Korea to start a new life. I’ve sacrificed my savings and gone into debt to be here. I’ve networked patiently and am slowly seeing the glimmerings of job opportunities. It would be tremendously ironic if a war cancelled out the last eight months of effort just as they’re starting to pay off, and I returned to my homeland with no more than the clothes on my back. Granted, if that happened then irony would be the least of my worries. I’ll take irony over tragedy any day.
To end on a happy note, I saw this guy in the metro and had to take his picture. He was embarrassed – hence the grimace – but assented. Gold hair, gold cap, gold leggings, gold bags, gold headphones, gold jewelry, gold t-shirt. If you’re trying to be cool you can give up now, because this guy just won the contest forever. You will never, ever attain his level of all-over sparkle. He’s the Chuck Norris of Hongdae, and the sooner us lesser mortals realize that the better.