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Mainer’s view of tension on Korean peninsula

Posted June 24, 2009, at 9:23 p.m.

SEOUL, South Korea — It was an average Wednesday night, except that there were soldiers outside my door.

Soldiers with rifles.

Rifles with bayonets.

Dressed in camouflage, anonymous in their helmets, a small group of South Korean fighters clustered into defensive position on the corner of my block earlier this month, miming shots down the alleyway from behind riot shields. Others patrolled the street, waving a lighted baton at bemused pedestrians, as though directing frantic crowds toward safety.

This shouldn’t have frightened me.

My South Korean friends chuckle at the idea that North Korea poses any threat to their urbane lives and tell me not to worry. They don’t see anything strange in ROK soldiers rehearsing evacuations in their front yards. They don’t find it odd that local schoolchildren practice duck-and-cover drills. They’re used to cabinets full of gas masks in every subway station and explosives hidden under bridges to thwart the passage of tanks. Another day, another threat of nuclear war from an unstable dictator located just a few hours away.

For 56 years, South Koreans have worked and played and raised their children within range of Pyongyang’s weapons. Two generations have grown up in a nation where being “at war” is a mere technicality of language, a truce rather than a treaty. To these men and women, Kim Jong Il isn’t a spectre of terrorism or a pillar of the “axis of evil,” he’s a minor annoyance — just give him what he wants and he’ll go away — just like he did in 2006 … and in 2002 … and in 1994.

Even now, as rising tensions are dominating the American media, North Korea simply isn’t a concern to Seoulites. It’s barely even a topic of conversation. The local newspapers summarily report the latest developments in both Korean and English, often alongside editorials complaining that “the West” is again overstating the threat and thus unnecessarily causing the Korean won, its currency, to drop in value.

When you raise the issue with native Koreans, they smile to cover their discomfort and change the subject, a sure sign of that East Asian cultural conundrum known as “saving face.” When something is unpleasant or embarrassing, you simply don’t discuss it. But rude foreigner that I am, I point to the elephant in the middle of the living room and am rewarded with gentle rebuke. Silly American, North Korean soldiers will never target their fellow Koreans. There are Koreans, and then there’s everyone else, and that loyalty supercedes politics. America or Japan, maybe, but they’ll never attack us.

That’s precisely the attitude that many South Koreans held before Kim Il Sung’s forces crossed the border at dawn, June 25, 1950.

Seoul just after World War II was an international city, filled with young people high on growth and freedom and new opportunity. When the war ended in 1945, and the Korean people emerged from 35 years of Japanese rule, there was dancing in the streets. The next few years were both a time of tremendous hope and a prelude to utter destruction. I spend my days looking at photographs of this war; at neighborhoods that I know today as frenetic neon hives, but where, a half century ago, there was just a forest of ghostly chimneys to tell where buildings once stood.

I read all the analyses, and the argument against fear makes good rational sense. Kim Jong Il is simply testing Barack Obama and Korean President Lee Myung Bak. He’s trying to establish his son’s legitimacy as the next leader. He knows that if he ever were to make a move against the South, the 28,500 American troops sta-tioned here and the half-million-strong South Korean Army guarantee that his ill-equipped, starving troops wouldn’t stand a chance.

But neither would I.

Those of us who live north of the Han, the river that bisects the city, are well aware that our homes are already considered a loss if war were ever to return. Only those expatriates who independently make their way to Embassy-mandated meeting points south of the river stand any chance of evacuation. My apartment is located about 40 miles from the border where the million-man North Korean forces wait — the distance from Bangor to Mount Desert Island. I have a vague escape plan involving the deepest subway tunnel, and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve started carrying my passport, with a small photograph of my husband tucked inside its cover, just in case.

For even the most reasonable Americans, accustomed to the security that hundreds of miles of ocean provide, it’s uncomfortable feeling like a target. There’s a natural impulse to deflect any creeping fear with gallows humor. One discussion board for foreign English teachers is buzzing with talk of emergency supplies and bio-logical weapons and elaborate schemes for Hollywood-style getaways. The title of one thread sarcastically reads, “You’re all going to die.”

As I sat at my desk writing this essay on June 15, just days after the approval of United Nations sanctions prompted Kim Jong Il to again threaten a nuclear attack, an air raid siren’s undulating scream filled my apartment. I’d never heard one before outside the movies. I couldn’t quite believe that it was real. I peered out the win-dow, expecting a firetruck or an ambulance — anything but an actual air raid siren — but I couldn’t see through the trees. I ran into the hallway for a better view of the street. Korean businessmen and women were just sauntering down the sidewalks, chatting and heading back from their lunch break. It was as though I was the only person who could hear it.

I’d just experienced my first civil defense drill. The instructions reverberating through a megaphone were essentially, “This is a test. This is only a test,” but my tenuous grasp of Korean wasn’t sufficient, and with my heart racing, I was imagining something more along the lines of “Run for cover!”

I felt similarly when we visited The DMZ, a surreal swath of mine-riddled land that marks the boundary between the two Koreas at the 38th parallel. Standing a few yards away from North Korean soldiers, you feel the need to whisper, to make yourself seem small. Every day, a dozen buses deposit camera-laden American and European tourists at the most visible symbol of the war that took tens of thousands of lives. They pose awkwardly with stone-faced ROK soldiers, and take photo after photo of the wasteland, as though capturing images of what’s not there will somehow make sense of this mirage.

But my Korean friends’ parents and grandparents, who survived the war hiding in caves or fleeing ahead of the same WWII-era tanks that lie in wait just north of the DMZ, don’t go take snapshots. For them, it isn’t something to gawk at; it’s a scar, slashing across their nation, across their communal and personal history. Younger generations were raised on their memories, and as a result, support for unifying the two Koreas is higher than the economic realities of such a plan would suggest.

North Korea is like a child that can’t care for itself, said one friend, a 30-something businesswoman who lives in Seoul. Most young professional Seoulites supported the late former president Roh Moo Hyun’s “sunshine policy,” of aid and cooperation with their northern neighbor. North Korea isn’t an enemy; it’s a duty, like paying her taxes or caring for her aging parents. On June 14, thousands of Koreans who agreed with her took to the streets to protest Lee’s hard-line policies and the United Nations decision to enforce stronger sanctions against Pyongyang, facing off against countrymen who are tired of taking responsibility for their wayward Northern neighbor.

But just a few blocks away, the monster LCD screens that crown the glass towers downtown flashed celebrity news and advertisements for luxury cars. Teenagers ran from their classrooms to the private tutoring academies where they spend their nights being drilled on English and calculus and microbiology. Workers rushed into their offices at first light, and toiled at their desks until well after dark. Then they drifted to sidewalk tables where they ate barbecue and toasted the day’s work with shots of the Korean liquor soju or to the private karaoke rooms, called noraebangs, where they sang away their stress.

The South Korean drive for progress is a national obsession and a point of pride. Maybe living for 50 years under a vague, unyielding threat, the likes of which we only briefly experienced after Sept. 11, drives Koreans to work harder, to play harder, to study harder … to fit in as much life as possible before the inevitable confrontation that everyone senses, but no one dares name. Or maybe this stoicism, this stubborn devotion to daily life in the face of uncertainty, is admirable. Perhaps we coddled Americans need to be told, once again, that there really is nothing to fear but fear itself. Kim Jong Il will rant and rave, he will test missiles and build his bombs and provoke skirmishes at sea; and life in Seoul will go on.

But just for a moment, I can’t help wondering if that distant rumbling I hear is something more than a swelling summer thunderstorm.

Misty Ann Edgecomb is a Limestone native and a former BDN staff reporter. Since September, she and her husband have lived in Seoul, where she is a Fulbright researcher writing a book about adoption during the Korean War. For information or to contact her, visit http://smallfishbook.blogspot.com/.

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