Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Northern Worry


When we were living in South Korea, we were often asked whether or not we were worried about a potential attack from the North. Friends and family would write to us or call, asking our opinions on the matter or authoritatively telling us, "It's TIME to come home!" We'd thank them for their curiosity and concern, reassure them that there was no imminent danger, and would giggle together about it after finishing the conversation. To us, the concern was not only unfounded, but spoken out of ignorance...and that ignorance was a little cute.

It may sound bold of me to say that their concern was unfounded. However, I had a metric for determining whether or not to worry: I'd ask Koreans. I was an English teacher there, and I taught a wide swath of different types of people, from 12 year olds, full of angst, hormones and algebra, to adults of every age, economic state, and gender. I'd casually ask my students what they thought of the situation, and if they weren't worried, I wouldn't worry.

You see, they've been living with this for more than 50 years. Most of them have grown up under the envious gaze of the slightly-unstable-yet-mostly-impotent dragon to the North. Some of my students even remembered the conflict. They knew the brutality of war, having witnessed it, first hand, on home soil. They lived in the period of poverty that resulted from fighting your own brothers and cousins over your own land. They've been a part of the triumphant surge of Korean cultural and economic prosperity, an unrivaled modern underdog story.

In short, they know the situation, intimately.

So, when they worry, I worry.

A reality we only encountered twice in our four years there.

It was during those rare times that my wife and I would pack get-away bags, and go over evacuation procedures. We knew who'd grab what, what was necessary (MacBook) and what was expendable (microwave), and where we'd head if fighting broke out suddenly.

The need never arose, however. The situation would be almost completely forgotten over the next few days. We'd chat with friends in the US military, reassured at their nonchalance, and life would go on, uninterrupted - no panic, no hoarding, no skipping the evening's trip to the movies, the bar, or the noraebang (literally, singing room: think karaoke in private rooms with big screen TVs).

Now that we're back in the US and the situation in the ROK has escalated (slightly), we're still confronted with that same old ignorance -

"Wow. You guys got out, just in time, huh?" 
"Aren't you glad to be back in the US, now?
"Are your friends in Korea evacuating, yet?"

And yes, we are glad to be back. However, it's not because Kim Jong-Un has become pugnacious and called off the armistice. It's mostly because of In-N-Out (kidding). We're so happy to be back near family and old friends. We're thrilled to be away from the humidity of Korea, and back in the more temperate climate Northern California. However, we miss South Korea

What most people don't realize is that, for us, coming back to the US was a huge risk. In Korea, we had job security, excellent pay, great benefits, close friends and a home that we loved. Not only that, but South Korea is, generally, a far safer place than the US. Coming back to the US meant moving in with family, losing our health insurance, and plunging head-long into a weak job market. We've been back more than six months, and I've only now found full-time employment, and even that at little more than minimum wage. 

For most people, leaving the US takes courage. It's a huge leap of faith. For us, it was a leap of faith to come back.

The US and the ROK should absolutely take North Korea's threats seriously. They should make preparations and be ready to protect themselves, should Kim decide to follow through on those threats. We should all be ready. However, that doesn't mean we should live in fear. Life goes on. People work. Children play. Housewives shop. Teenagers study. 

Truth be told, our friends back in the ROK are probably more concerned for us than we are for them. 


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