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On the edge of fear in South Korea

Posted Jan. 18, 2012, at 11:43 a.m.

No matter where you are in the world, a classroom of 35 15-year-old boys is going to get pretty excited over the unusual sight and sound of two fighter jets screaming overhead. But this wasn’t just anywhere, and it wasn’t just any day: it was Busan, South Korea, and two days earlier the world had learned that Kim Jong-Il was dead.

I’d been living in South Korea for five months to the day when the news was announced. It was the first time I ever had a conversation about the North with any of my Korean friends or colleagues. Until now, the presence of the rogue neighbor was an absolute nonfactor in daily life in Busan, a bustling port city of 3.5 million at the far southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula — 70 miles closer to Japan than to Seoul, in fact.

I asked a coworker if she had any family in the North.

“I don’t, but I feel so sad for those poor people,” she said. I asked her how she felt.

“Nervous,” she admitted. “We never know what they’ll do.”

“I’m more worried about the impact on the economy,” another coworker told me. “I have my retirement fund to think about!” She laughed, but — like most attitudes that day — it sounded a little forced and a little nervous (the KOSPI, the South Korean equivalent of the New York Stock Exchange, took a temporary dip but has since recovered, much to her relief).

Another friend filled me in on what it was like in 1994, when Kim Jong-Il’s father (Kim Il-Sung) died.

“Here in Busan, not too bad. But in Seoul, lots of people were buying as much rice and bottled water and stuff like that as they could. Everybody gets nervous, because we never know what will happen with them.”

Before moving to South Korea to take a job as an English teacher, I had always been able to think of North Korea from a healthy remove. They were an abstraction — thousands of miles away, unlikely to reach far enough beyond their borders to affect me.

In South Korea, though, news from the North takes on an eerie and discomforting tone. I watched the footage of hordes of North Koreans weeping hysterically and I thought about how the young men in those clips could have been — had they just been fortunate enough to be born a few miles further south — my students, spending their days playing Angry Birds rather than being forced to fake tears at a monument to a madman.

After Kim’s death, I read an outstanding book called “Nothing to Envy,” by Barbara

Demick. She interviewed a number of defectors from the North about their lives there.

Some talked about forcing themselves to cry when Kim Il-Sung died, but for others the tears were legitimate. North Korean textbooks phrase math questions around calculating the killing of “American imperialist bastards.”

Satellite footage of the world by night shows absolute darkness in North Korea. They are indoctrinated to believe that their neighbors in South Korea live in abject poverty and despair: In fact, South Korea is a blisteringly modern country where 85 percent of homes have broadband access and (by some estimates) 98 percent of all residents have a cell phone.

When West and East Germany reunified, per capita income in West Germany was about three times higher than their neighbors. Today, South Korea has a per capita income 17 times higher than the North. How does a place like that still exist in today’s world?

It’s been nearly a month now, and it doesn’t seem that anything dramatic is going to happen. Do I feel less safe now than I did before? Nope. I slept fine the night before; I’ve slept fine since. But as I said, I’m closer to Japan than I am to North Korea. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a little comforting.

After all, when it comes to North Korea, you just never know.

Steve Butterfield was born and raised in Maine. He served as a representative to the Legislature from Bangor (House District 16) from 2008-2010. He studied international affairs with concentrations in East Asia and conflict and security studies at the George Washington University and the University of Maine.

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