So, I wasn’t planning on posting today – I’m saving my big holiday post for Friday – but with the death of Kim Jong Il, I feel like I should say something. Right now, those old nerves I experienced when North Korea would raise a ruckus while I was living in the ROK are resurfacing. This time, I’m honestly a bit worried for my friends and family, both foreign and Korean, who live in South Korea. I know they would all likely say that there is very little to worry over. This is exactly what I used to say to my own family when they called us over there worried sick over the news coverage they were receiving and the potential danger we could’ve been in. What else were we to say? They didn’t know if something bad could happen, and neither did we.
There was one time late last year and early this year when things did get really tense and we did have a small bag packed with our passports and an extra set of underwear in case we had to leave in a hurry. That was as bad as it ever got, and obviously nothing ever came of it. That’s kind of the perpetual situation over there; you’d be equally surprised if something did happen and if something didn’t happen. It’s odd, but that’s par for the course when your nearest neighbor is an ultra-secretive, possibly nuclear-armed communist country run by a psychopath who’d just as well allow the majority of his country to die from starvation than go without his whiskey.
It didn’t help us much in gauging the political climate of the place by talking with the Koreans we were close to. Their attitudes toward the threat posed by the instability of the DPRK took on a tone of nonchalance that was very out-of-line with the amount of levity we wanted to approach the situation with. When we had been in Korea for only a brief time, it was occasionally reassuring to hear our Korean coworkers compare the DPRK to a childish cousin who threw a hissy fit whenever it hadn’t received attention in awhile. That kind of reassurance lasts for a moment, but at the end of the day, you’re still a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language or fully comprehend the cultural ramifications of living in a country where the people are tremendously divided. You’re still an outsider and it gets alarming when it feels right to be scared but the country surrounding you seems to disagree.
When we were alarmed when North Korea bombed a small South Korean fishing community, the Koreans at our office were uncomfortably flippant when we expressed our worries to them. When we asked the principal what the protocol would be if something were to happen while we were at school, she said we “should take the kids down to the first floor via elevator, leave the building, and run.” And then she laughed nervously. Granted, she had already established herself as an idiot on several other occasions prior to this one, so I’m sure her response to that one incident isn’t at all emblematic of all of South Korea, but it was still unsettling to know that THIS is the person in charge of our own safety if something were to happen. Not only is the principal in charge of the school, but he/she is the person in charge of your safety as a resident alien, too.
I feel like I keep repeating the phrase “if something were to happen” throughout this post. It’s that something that you just can’t put your finger on when you are living so close to a secretive, volatile country that functions in many of the same ways as a cult. Oh, a cult that may have nuclear weapons.
There’s a lot in store for the Korean peninsula. I can only be optimistic that the people of the North will eventually be given a voice again.