As soon as I heard the news that Kim Jung-un had declared “a state of war,” I was on the phone to my father in South Korea.
‘What on earth is Kim Jung-un playing at?’ I inquired rather flippantly with that it-must-be-another-case-of-political-bullshit sort of grunt.
‘The usual, you know,’ he retorted blithely, ‘it’s the B-52s they are reacting to. They tried to make this year’s military exercise into something more than an annual parade of scarecrows. And the young lad (Kim Jong-un) doesn’t want to back down so easily.’
‘How is everyone else reacting?’
‘Getting on with their lives. Business as usual, you know.’
‘I see. You’re breathing rather heavily. What are you doing?’
‘Oh, I’m taking a hike in the mountains. It’s the weekend.’
I laid down my phone and went straight back to cruising through Facebook, just to realize I had entirely forgotten about the fact that war had been declared in my homeland. Admittedly however, it didn’t bother me enough to start reassessing my attitude, because in the back of my mind lay the conviction that it was just another case of boy cried wolf, yet again.
For most western observers, when a national leader announces that his/ her nation has entered “state of war,” it is to be taken as the literal equivalent of openly declaring war. More disturbingly still, when such announcements come flurrying arm-in-arm with doomsday blueprints from none other than the supreme leader of North Korea, it becomes rather difficult to dismiss it as mere charade. Just a few days ago, a friend of mine from America got in contact with me, apparently rather perturbed that he chanced to live in one of the cities “Lil’ Kim” had vowed to blow up. I gave him a response akin to that of my father’s, and a parenthetic reminder of America’s military and ballistic superiority—a reassurance you wouldn’t ever fancy giving an American at any given time.
If that’s anything to go by, you don’t need to be a regular viewer of Fox News or Daily Mail to have subconsciously entertained, at least for a millisecond, the image of a North Korean ICBM sharking over the Atlantic. Indeed, the recent series of provocations is marked by the fact that, for the first time, North Korea has abrogated the 1953 Armistice Agreement at the end of the Korean War. As some analysts would have you believe, the dreadful question of “What if?” lurks somewhere deep in our minds, as it well should. And so, South Koreans’ insouciance might come as a surprise for those of you who have had the chance to read reports of life in South Korea largely carrying on.
Mind, the general mood in South Korea is not so utterly uncaring of the recent developments. The possibility of war has been the most tweeted and talked about topic on the dinner tables. By no means, however, have such announcements sent South Korean citizens flocking to supermarkets to stock up on wartime ration—even those residing in the bordering cities. You might see a ten-year old half-anxiously tugging on the fringes of dad’s coat, ‘Dad, is war really gonna happen?’ One might even make humourous remarks about wartime precautions, ‘Should the worst happen, don’t bother with any cash, since it would become worthless. Just be mindful to keep all your jewellery and gold and property papers.’ Living next to a neighbour like North Korea naturally means that anxiety will periodically surface on a societal level. But that living arrangement has lasted for more than fifty years, and nowadays, each time anxiety visits South Koreans, it appears rather subdued and lacking in confidence.
A friend of mine who is working part-time at a nursery in South Korea spoke of one of the mothers during pick-up time, proselytizing all the other mothers to ‘get a walky-talky’ in preparation for war, with not much further elucidation on her arbitrary proposal. Those in her immediate proximity resigned themselves to giving her the protocol nod, while the rest, safely outside her field of vision, frowned and sighed in disbelief. If that’s any indication of the general consensus on how to react to warmongering threats, South Koreans indeed seem to keep calm and carry on without the government’s encouragement to that effect.
On the other hand, some South Korean conservative commentators do take to task the extent of apathy towards security issues. In the post-9/11 era, arousal of support for militant foreign policy is taken with skepticism, always weary and mindful of the politics of fear and how it could saturate our views of reality to its gain. In South Korea on the other hand, the politics of fear, at least since the days of Kim Dae Jung’s so-called “Sunshine Policy” has exhausted itself as a political resource. This has been almost entirely due to a belligerent neighbour up North that has cyclically posed palpable threats to security. Such provocative acts have been not so much stately as terroristic in nature, and with the exception of the 1987 bombing of the Korean Air Flight 858, most attacks were aimed at the South Korean military or the political elite. Civilians of South Korea hold the kind of trauma unlike that which New Yorkers have.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the Korean War. While it has significantly shaped and coloured societal psyche in South Korea—and will doubtless continue to be so—actual firsthand memory remains limited to the octogenarians of South Korea. For the vast majority of South Korean society, the ruins of war was something to get over, not sob about in self-pity. The quest to recover from a war-torn state and rapidly attain economic prosperity on a national and individual level has been one of the mainstays of the post-colonial, post-war reality in South Korea. Invariably, this demanded sacrificial work ethic, which was sustained by a unanimous desire to succeed. Consequently, such craving for success has occupied a central position in the average South Korean mindset (it is no accident that the country has the highest tertiary education enrolment rate in the world.) Now, the country has become a classic case of an “economic miracle” that continues to inspire other developing nations. Let’s just pause there, before this paragraph becomes an advertisement for “invest in South Korea.” The point is this: this narrative now looms over the scars of war for most South Koreans. People are simply too preoccupied to care to listen to what Kim Jong-un has to say. And war may have traversed beyond the possibility of consideration in daily life. What with all the tall apartment blocks and Samsung mobile phones and luxury restaurants and K-Pop idols South Korea has managed to amass from mere rubble and ash just sixty years ago, war is simply unthinkable. Too much is at stake. It becomes unthinkable because it would be as biblically destructive as the first. As the novelist Martin Amis wrote about considering nuclear war:
“The unthinkable is unthinkable; the unthinkable is not thinkable by human beings, because the eventuality it posits is one in which all human contexts would have already vanished… they would no longer be human beings. In a sense, nobody would be. That status does not exist on the other side of the firebreak.”
Considering the sheer recklessness with the American air forces bombed the Korean peninsular during the Korean War (far more napalm had been showered to raze populous urban areas and industrial installations than during the Vietnam War), it wouldn’t be an overstatement to liken it to a nuclear war. For many, contingency planning is only considerable after the fact. I’m willing to bank on the fact that foreign visitors and external investors in South Korea are alone in preparing for the eventuality. And they may be wondering why South Koreans are so cool-headed about it all. Perhaps, seeing how their foreign counterparts are behaving, South Koreans may wonder if they are excessively laid-back about it.
P.S. If you’re still curious about the current series of North Korea’s provocations, here are some readings you could do. You owe it to yourselves, seeing as you managed to bear through this article:
An overview about the current affairs in the Korean peninsular:
About Kim Jung-un’s fledgling regime:
Scott A. Snyder :
talks about potential scenarios on Council on Foreign Relations:
John Swenson-Wright: (highly recommended)
A deep analysis into the situation in the Korean peninsular:
Why North Korea is still unpredictable, and analysts should take precaution in dismissing the possibilities of a nuclear war:http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/138933/jennifer-lind-keir-a-lieber-and-daryl-g-press/pyongyangs-nuclear-logic
Why North Korea gets away with provocations:
Andrei Lankov on North Korea and China:
On why the US-South Korea joint military exercise was provocative
Bruce Cummings: (highly recommended)
A brief history of the Korean War, and how close the US was to using nuclear weapons
Christopher Hitchens: (highly recommended)
On his visit to North Korea: