Life as normal in South Korea

Another day, another threat. Long, vague, wordy statements reeled out one after another with all too familiar stock phrases such as ‘sea of fire‘ and ‘disastrous consequences‘. With joint US and South Korean military training exercises currently taking place and a newly elected President in the Blue House, Kim Jong-Un and his regime seem to have taken the bluster and hyperbole to a whole new level over the last couple of weeks. But despite the potential outbreak of ‘thermo-nuclear war‘, (Kim’s words, not mine) there is no sign of panic in South Korea and life goes on as normal.

Many Koreans have lived their entire lives listening to such threats, and the truth is that despite all the talk, North Korea’s threat-to-attack conversion rate is (fortunately!) very low. The general consensus seems to be that starting a war would be tantamount to suicide for the Kim regime. In fact, most people don’t even think that they want a war, but that they actually just want to be able to start negotiations for aid for their starving population and failing economy, and what better bargaining chip than a nuclear bomb. All these ominous threats and imminent rocket launches are seen as desperate attempts to be taken seriously and to get some attention, much in the same way that a petulant child might whine and stamp its feet until the older kids take notice.

For outsiders I think the situation looks a lot worse than it is, and most of the panic and fear-mongering is coming from several thousand miles away. Most Koreans seem remarkably unfazed by the presence of a tinpot dictator sitting on a reported stockpile of weapons just 30 miles away. However, every time I look at the Western news and read things written well out of reach of any nuclear weapon North Korea might possess, people seem to be genuinely afraid. I saw a headline on BBC News last weekend that proclaimed in big, bold letters ‘N Korea at war with S Korea‘. Well that’s been the case since 1950 so it hardly seems like news to me.

So to those of you (Mum and Dad!) waking up to headlines like ‘N Korea threatens nuclear war‘, don’t start sending gas masks and water filters just yet!

The Kim is dead. Long live the Kim.

At 22 I haven’t had many “where were you when…?” moments, but I think December 19th 2011 will be one of them. It was just a normal morning at school when one of my Korean co-workers came running into the teachers room and shouted ‘have you heard? Kim Jong-Il is dead!’. A quick glance at BBC News confirmed that it was in fact true. But there was something about the way she shared the news that felt slightly uncomfortable. She was happy about it. It’s easy to forget that this is a country still at war with it’s northern neighbour, but this certainly served as a sharp reminder.

Conversation quickly turned to the possibility of reunification, and since the successor had yet to be announced, speculation was rife. The kids all wanted to talk about it, they were clapping and singing, it was really quite eery seeing their reactions. Outside in the streets the tension was palpable and everyone was watching the news on their phones (which also made me realise I haven’t seen anyone read a newspaper yet!).

Then the news came that, as suspected, Kim Jong Eun was the successor, and the atmosphere changed again. We were advised to register with the British Embassy here, there was talk of stockpiling food and water, there were helicopters overhead, and a noticeable increase in military presence on the street.

We kept an eye on the news all evening, but it was difficult to know what to believe, with some articles making grim predictions and others saying it would be a smooth, trouble-free transition. Getting any real information about such a secretive state seems impossible; the very fact that he had been dead for two days before the rest of the world found out surely proves this. Whilst I initially, and naively, thought that if anything was to happen it would be in the following days, it soon became clear that this would be a lingering concern for the South Korean people for the next 12-18 months.