Of course the obvious and surprising thing about living here in Korea right now is how life is going on as if there are not millions of nutcases living about nine hours away from us—roughly the same distance as New York City is from my family’s home in Maine—and as if we did not just draw rather sickeningly close to duking it out with them in a brutal war. Of course Busan is probably out of range of most of North Korea’s weapons, and was in fact one of the few cities that was never taken by the North during the Korean War—or what South Koreans call the Yoogiyo (6-25) War—but, regardless, thousands of people might have died in the space of a few minutes, without anyone here batting so much as an eyelash.
My girlfriend called me in a fit of terror because she thought I would have to get on a plane and fly back to America, but when I went outside a few minutes later I saw people walking around and laughing in the evening sun, talking on their cellphones, running errands. If anything they were more jovial than usual.
The day after the attack one student asked me if America would help Korea in a war. My knee-jerk reaction was to say yes and reassure her—even though we helped them in the last war with the result that their nation was left in ashes. Later, a teacher asked me if I had heard about what happened, and when I told him that I was walking around with my passport on my person at all times he laughed. An old man (or “grandfather”) on the subway was arguing with his wife about politics and continuously pronounced the words “Ooli Nala (Our Country / Our Shore)” and “Meegook” (America). Beyond a few pictures in a few newspapers, and a woman at a restaurant watching the news and shaking her head when the list of the wounded came up on the screen, I have been unable to notice a significant difference in the Korean zeitgeist, if that is the right word; perhaps I should say “tag-geist”, since all of this went down about two days ago Korean time.
Contrast this with America, where similar disasters leave everyone utterly stunned—politicians take advantage of the typical hysteria to deprive us of the few rights we have left, flags are draped over every window and doorway, anyone who questions anything is threatened with exile to Siberia, and ten-year wars begin in countries picked via the dependable darts-thrown-at-a-world-map method. But Koreans, I think, are so tough, so used to this crap, that beyond a few slobbering, cross-eyed patriots calling for blood here or there, most people sleep through the night without much trouble.
Any idiot could guess that this has something to do with sixty years of on-and-off hostilities with their closest neighbor to the north; generation after generation has lived under these circumstances without much awareness of what life is like when there aren’t thousands of guns pointed at you at all hours of the day. So, as Tolstoy says, there is no condition to which a man cannot become accustomed; the specter of suicidal war has been hanging over their heads, and the heads of their grandparents, for so long that people scarcely notice it anymore.
And that is, in and of itself, worthy of some note. Things may change in about three days when a US carrier group engages in some harmless war games around the same area the North Koreans want so badly—some islands that are obviously intolerably deep within their territory—led by the USS George Washington, no less, which, as long-time readers may recall, I accidentally infiltrated several months ago. I should probably stock up on food and water the day before, and maybe think of taking a day-long vacation in Japan or China, as it seems to me that such an inviting target is basically begging the North Koreans to get this brewing conflict over with.
A war seems inevitable, as wars often do when you are not looking back at them fifty or a hundred years later; wars are easy to start, and peace can be very difficult to maintain; if people work hard, they can make peace work; if they are resigned to sacrificing thousands of innocent lives (at the very least) when there is no real need to do so, then I think this blog is going to heat up quite a bit in the coming weeks.