When I first came to South Korea, a little over two years ago, the international media was ablaze with predictions of doom on the peninsula. The North Korean government declared to the world that it was absolutely hellbent on turning Seoul into a “sea of fire.”
In spite of this – or, perhaps to some extent because of it – I moved all the way around the world on my own and settled in Daegu, South Korea. Immediately upon arrival, I was surprised to find that no one cared about the supposedly approaching holocaust. I asked people about it and they said it was no big deal.
Even the Korean press didn’t seem to care. What they knew, and I didn’t, was that this was old news. Rhetoric. North Korea has been declaring war for years. It’s actually a fairly successful strategy that has secured their sovereignty in spite of their awful predicament.
When you live in South Korea you are frequently woken by something called the “Doomsday Siren.” It’s an air raid alarm that sounds for several minutes at a time – usually in the morning – and is followed by a mandatory silence. Only emergency vehicles are allowed onto the streets in the following ten minutes.
This is because South Korea is still technically at war with a country whose artillery sits a mere thirty-five miles from downtown Seoul – a sprawling city with some ten million citizens. Readiness is important. The North is a belligerent entity, whose military is capable of wreaking untold destruction upon the South. They’re fond of terrorism, too. And spies. And assassins.
But nobody cares in this new, wealthy Korea. No one bats a surgically-created eyelid.
That is to say, no one cared until the end of March, 2010. When a North Korean submarine torpedoed a South Korean frigate, life changed on the peninsula. We were reminded of the impermanence of our comfort. The country took a financial hit. No one wants to invest in a warzone.
The news is dominated by the daily enfolding of events – events that appear to be leading us inexorably towards war. It’s not just the fear mongering western press, either. All over the world, newspapers are taking this seriously because it is quite serious.
What is alarming is that the general population of South Korea is now, finally, worried. They didn’t care when nuclear bombs were tested, or when missiles were fired over Japan. They didn’t care about the “sea of fire” comment. But now they’re scared. They think we’re going to war.
The US has issued evacuation preparations. Unfortunately for me, the UK hasn’t done the same. But it doesn’t matter – they all require a trip to Seoul. I live in Daegu, a few hundred kilometers south, and the one direction I know I don’t want to travel when the bomb drops is north. I don’t want to be in a city that will soon become a firing range for Kim’s million man army, or his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
I don’t think for one minute that I’m in any danger in Daegu. I’m confident that within the week we’ll see gunfire at the DMZ, a bomb on the Seoul subway, an airplane shot out of the sky, or – more likely – another ship sunk. But the North won’t roll on down as far as Seoul. Their actions will be provoked and they’ll be defensive. War is suicide, and they know this.
What does get me is that their actions are costing me money. My wages and my savings have been devalued significantly since the sinking of the Cheonan. I have a currency calculator on my desktop, and I watch the news and watch its effect. When President Lee opens his mouth, my savings get smaller and smaller. The won took a nosedive this week, and I have no choice but to bank on its recovery. (Pun definitely intended.) I doubt, though, that it’ll recover in the next few weeks or months.
But life goes on… I take my new motorcycle into the mountains every chance I get, because I can no longer take the atmosphere in the city. I can’t turn on the TV or look at Google News, because it all spells out the coming doom.
Yesterday I took my bike into the middle of nowhere for the express purpose of getting lost in the scenery. Korea was at its finest. Mountains rising out of valleys, rivers winding between them, an impossibly blue sky overhead.
I took a corner badly and wiped out in the middle of nowhere, and spent a few hours just lying on the road, staring at the sky. My bike was wrecked, but fortunately I wasn’t hurt. A strange sensation gripped me as I lay there. I felt happy. I was away from the trouble of people, on deserted road in the mountains of a country I actually kind of love.
That strange sense of peace and happiness didn’t last very long. As the sun came down over the mountain it began to get cold. Soon the sky was full of fighter jets, crisscrossing the blue with their noise and pollution and reminders of the fact that we’re on the cusp of something hideous.
I sat in my shorts and t-shirt for a few hours until I was rescued. My bike was destroyed, but I had it rebuilt by a surly old man who refused to speak to me. He charged me 35,000won and I laughed. Money is worthless.
The photo below was taken only a quarter of a mile from North Korea.