“Are you surprised by how calm people are about the situation with North Korea?” a new Korean friend asked me during my recent visit to Seoul.
I was there to speak about the future of jobs amid the Fourth Industrial Revolution to an audience at the World Knowledge Forum in October, but spent some extra time after the event to get to know the city and the issues facing the Korean Peninsula.
The appearance of relative calm was indeed uncanny. In the wake of a September 3 nuclear test, as Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un continued to sling insults at each other, and as Chinese scientists warned of the risk of nuclear contamination from test sites in North Korea, life went on. Promotions of the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics were ubiquitous, the streets were bustling, and people worried about demographics-provoked economic slowdown, the impact of artificial intelligence and automation, and ongoing corporate scandals.
Walking along Gwanghwamun Plaza in central Seoul on a sunny Saturday afternoon, shortly after the announcement of Donald Trump’s impending visit, I encountered a protestor. A man held a sign with Trump’s screaming head superimposed on a Nazi uniform next to a flaming cloud and a message that boiled down to roughly “Madman, stay away! No nuclear war.”
A few hours after my stroll, there were two competing protests along the plaza. One was in support of jailed former president Park Gyeung-he, who was impeached nearly a year ago. Another, in the new tradition of “candlelight protests,” honored the more than 300 people who died in the 2014 Sewol ferry accident, as protestors also objected to Park’s seven-hour absence from the public eye during the disaster, which retains a powerful emotional resonance.
South Korea’s own challenges took a higher priority in the minds of many of the people I met.
When a clear and present danger has been looming for decades and the outcome appears to be in many ways out of your control, what else can you do?
People’s tendency to feel they have less power than they do to address problems is a story for another day. Still, one might be forgiven for having the impression that the rest of the world may feel that way about South Korea’s role in its own future. Public debates about the Korean Peninsula often seem to be missing the voice of South Koreans: they are about North Korea, the United States, and China.
Amid the steady stream of Korea related news since my visit, it’s been unsettling to see how South Korea seems to be little more than a footnote in articles in the international press about possible solutions to the rising dangers from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Every once in a while, however, a story –like that of the North Korean defector shot by his colleagues and now recovering in a South Korean hospital- reminds us how real the border issue is.
It’s hardly as if South Korea has done nothing; two year military service is mandatory for young men, and the closer you get to the border the more obvious the constant state of alert becomes.
On a day trip to the Demilitarized Zone, just 35 miles from Seoul, I reflected on the seeming contradiction between studied nonchalance and the constant presence of threat.
Despite my Korean friends’ relative calm, one of them commented to me that I was brave to go to the DMZ amid heightened tensions. In fact, the Joint Security Area, where negotiations are held and soldiers from both sides of the border come into close proximity, was closed that week because of US-South Korea military exercises.
At the Dora Observatory, along the northernmost edge of the DMZ, tourists from around the world peered at North Korea, with a Potemkin village set up within eyeshot. Young people took selfies against the North Korean backdrop, even as North and South Korean propaganda loudspeakers competed for attention: harsh military propaganda from the North, and ballads and K-pop from the South.
Wondering what it must be like for the soldiers on either side of the border charged with audio propaganda duty, I was intrigued by a character in the powerful short story collection that I picked up in Seoul at the Kyobo bookstore, The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea (affiliate link),by Bandi, the anonymous North Korean writer. Assigned a border sentry position on the 38th parallel, the character, Kyeong-Hun, was accused of his brain having beem “rotted by the South Korean puppets’ anti-Communist broadcasts that parrot ideas of “freedom.” He recounted: “I was subjected to this constant barrage of “freedom” propaganda. These broadcasts hounded me every hour of the day; there was nowhere to go to escape them, and nor was it feasible to go around with my hands over my ears.”
At Imjinkak Park, built by the South Korean government to keep alive the memories of the families separated by the Korean War, a spontaneous choir sang hauntingly in front of a memorial stone plaque, Though there were no reunions that day, families could walk across the “Bridge of Freedom” between the two countries, over the banks of the Imjin River. Walls and fences were lined with ribbons, stuffed animals, and notes to missed family members.
Our tour guide told us that there was a surge in Korean interest in visiting the DMZ after a group of Germans on a reality television show made a trip there. It seemed incongruous that reality TV was the inspiration for visits to such a sobering spot.
So often I talk about how living near railroad tracks very quickly accustoms you to tuning out the passing trains to the point where you hardly notice they are there. In many ways, that is an apt metaphor to describe what to outsiders may seem like nonchalance in face of a nuclear threat. Perhaps that also explains the reality tv connection and the selfies at the DMZ