In 2010, after getting a job offer to teach in South Korea, the New York Times ran an article about a North Korean rocket launch. My mother implored me to read about the state of affairs between North and South Korea before heading over there.
I felt a huge amount of anxiety. I thought South Korea was a powderkeg, just waiting to explode. Should I stay home? If I go, could I die at any moment? How would I get home if war broke out?
However, a year and half later, I’m still here. I may be here another year. And people keep coming and coming, despite knowing the “situation.” Last year, I was near Seoul. Now, I’m in Busan, a large Southern coastal city.
So these are some observations from my time in Korea. Take it with a grain of salt, but also, take all the news reports with one as well. Remember the news media exists to entertain you. People watch scary movies for entertainment. Filling you with fear is just another form of entertainment.
Most foreigners in Korea are soldiers or English teachers.
The US used to have a military base in the South Korean village closest to the North Korean border ( I went on a tour of the DMZ last year, and we drove through it). It’s still there, but it’s been abandoned. If the US was really worried about an attack from North Korea, wouldn’t it make sense to keep US soldiers at the base closest to North Korea? However, they do keep large amounts of soldiers in Seoul, located in Yongsan and Itaewon.
A friend went on a blind date with a US soldier, and asked if he was worried about an attack, and he said that if no one counterattacks, NK has enough supplies and weapons (though no long-range capabilities, as evidenced by the failed rocket launch) to attack for 60 days. After that, they’re done.
If something when down, they’d only have the element of surprise for a few hours before SK and the US counterattacked. They would not be able to win.
They could still cause a hell of a lot of damage - NK has dug tunnels to Seoul before, wide enough to get 30,000 soldiers into Seoul in one hour. They’ve discovered 4 tunnels, and estimate there could be a dozen more. If NK figures out a sophisticated long-range missile launcher, Seoul could be in trouble.
However, this is unlikely to happen. Why? NK’s leader was thought of as a God. A God would not lose a war. While Kim Jong Il is dead, his son has been presented to the people that same way his father and grandfather were - as divine. He can’t attack another country because he KNOWS he would lose, and he wouldn’t just lose the war, he’d lose the respect of his people. People may begin to question how all powerful he really is, and that would be worse than being nuked by the US.
Whenever there are threats, they make the hourly news rotation in the US. Everyone asks me if I’m worried. And there have been attacks. Last year was the shelling of Yeongpyong Island, which killed 2 people and 2 soldiers. After that, my Korean friend told me a Spanish exchange student at her university was going home, due to pressure from her family. In the aftermath, most Koreans were just upset at the loss of life. They didn’t want anymore fighting. It was a game of chicken that went too far. South Korea was doing naval exercises in the sea, which is covered by the 38th parallel agreement. North Korea said that South Korea was in the their part of the sea, even though they weren’t. So NK responded by doing their own naval exercises, and the shelling hit the island.
Living in South Korea is strange to me, as an American. It’s common to see Korean men dressed in camo on the subway. All Korean men have to do a year and nine months of mandatory military service before they’re 29 - they can only get out of it if they’re mentally ill or gay (both are taboo in society). Every month, on the 15th, there’s an air raid drill at 2pm. They sound the sirens and all buses and cars stop for 15 minutes. It’s annoying more than scary.
The year before that, it was the sinking of the Chenoan ship, which killed 42 people. Instead of being angry, a lot of South Koreans doubted North Korea was responsible for that one, though. But my friend was in Korea at that time, and her parents flipped out and wanted her to come home immediately. People overseas were more upset than those on the peninsula.
The Cost of Fear:
Last year I met a recruiter, and the number one question she got from American parents was “how will you get my child out of the country? Is there a contingency plan?” And she said, “no.” As a result, a lot of parents wouldn’t let their kids go teach in Korea.
All you can do is register your trip with the Government, and they’ll send you updates about travel safety. They’ll help you if you lose your passport, but you’re on your own if something happens. Then again, so are all the Koreans.
I guess if something terrible did happen, and Koreans started fleeing, I’d probably take a ferry to Japan. Luckily I live in a coastal city now. I don’t know how the US Government would get us out. There’s only so many airplanes. Plus, there are people from all over the world here - Canadians, Brits, Russians, Filipinos… if their governments did have to get them out, it’d take a really long time.
I can imagine that this fear of a NK attack may keep people from visiting. It may keep English teachers from considering Korea. I know it almost kept me from the country as well, but I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t come here. Going to Korea has been the best decision of my life, and I’m so glad fear didn’t get the better of me.
If you want to come here, don’t let fear stop you.
The US is really far from North Korea, and at no risk for attack. This most recent launch proves that - NK does not have the potential for long range missiles. So they can’t nuke us. They can’t even nuke Seoul. They can make nukes, but they can’t go anywhere. Why are we so worried about NK? Is it just the fact that they MIGHT have nukes? Or are we worried about our allies, SK?
I think US media covers NK more than SK does. In the days leading up to the launch, life went on as normal. No one seemed worried. If Koreans did start leaving, I’d be worried.
My students were happy when Kim Jong Il died, though.
The REAL North vs. South.
The vibe I get from people is that they’re sick of the fighting. The war ended in an armistice, not a treaty, so there have been incidents nearly every year since the end of the war. Obviously people would want a more secure peace. It’s not that they live in fear or anything - they sort of forget NK is there until they make a threat, then they get irritated, and then they go back to ignoring them. Politicians also ignore them unless it’s an election year, I think. A few years ago, I remember politicians promising to be harder against North Korea, with mixed results from constituents. Most people are in agreement - they don’t want to fund NK’s nuclear program, but they don’t want to see NK people suffer.
On Korean Independence Day last year, on August 15th, I saw people protest in favor of reunification. Also, there were people protesting the US Army base. They threw tomatoes over the barbed wire fence. It was the only time I put my hood over my head, trying to hide that I was American.
People may want to reunite, but there are already North Koreans living in South Korea, since South Korea doesn’t send refugees back (I think China does, in some cases). However, they face a lot of discrimination. If people find out they’re from North Korea, they don’t want to hire them or rent apartments to them. They also face mental problems, because the world is so different than what they’re used to (i.e. cell phones, passports, the presence of food), and physical health problems from the starvation they’ve faced over the years. Language difficulties abound too - North Koreans use a different word for North Korea than South Koreans do. Also, South Korea has adopted some English words - like ai-su-cu-reem for ice cream, but North Korea doesn’t do that at all - they’ll use the Korean word for “ice” and “cream”. This could lead to communication problems, as I think Northerners have different accents than Southerners in Seoul, Busan, and Jeju.
There are volunteer organizations trying to help North Korean refugees, but these services need to be expanded, especially if the South and the North reunite.
There will be some South Koreans who won’t want to reunite, and some North Koreans that will be so badly brainwashed, I think they’d rather commit suicide that live outside of their Dear Leader’s grasp. Reunification will not be easy, but it may be better than what we have now in the long run.
Just remember, every summer, North Korea launches a rocket. They seem unpredictable, but really, all they have is their rocket launches, naval exercises, and threats. They physically cannot do anything more. And if they unthinkable does happen, South Korea is not defenseless. They have an army of EVERY SINGLE MAN in Korea, and the US’s nuclear weaponry.
So don’t lose sleep over North Korea. I don’t - at least, not any more. I wish I could stop looking at my newsfeed and seeing friends back home in a state of panic over news that NK MIGHT be testing something. America wants you to think we’re on the brink of World War III, but in reality we’re probably closer to a Class War or a Civil War 2.0
If you worry about one thing, worry about the North Korean prisoners in the labor camps. Seriously, Google that shit. It’s terrifying.