Safe in a War Zone
When I originally told my friends and extended acquaintances that I was going away to live and teach in Busan, South Korea, many people were concerned:
“Is it safe there?”
“Aren’t you afraid of terrorists?”
“Are you sure that this is the best time to be living outside of the U.S.A.?”
Most Americans are internationally untraveled. This is reflected by the fact that only a distinct minority of us even own passports, a point much-derided by the many Canadians and Europeans that I meet abroad. For many Americans, anywhere outside of the huge womb of our country is strangely dangerous, swarming with anti-American mobs and prone to terrorist attacks. This attitude was especially prevalent in the years following the 9/11 attacks — when I came to Korea — during the reign of our most untraveled President of all, George W. Bush. Bush’s “pre-emptive” wars and go-at-it-alone cowboy diplomacy caused our country to become deeply reviled throughout much of the globe, and stories filtered their way back home of a heightened level of hostility towards Americans everywhere we went. Also, most Americans knew close to nothing about Korea — other than that at some point we were in a war there — so I could understand some of their concern.
It turns out that Busan is one of the safest places I could possibly be. It is certainly safer than ANY city in the States. There’s pretty much zero street crime. You can walk, or even stagger, down a dark street at four a.m. and no one will bother you. I have never heard of anyone getting mugged in Busan. Sure, there’s a lot of petty theft – bikes, motorcycle, and bags frequently disappear — and, like almost anywhere, women needed to exercise caution when alone. But terrorism? Really? There’s a huge difference between Busan and say… Mogadishu. But many people back home seem absolutely unable to make the distinction. Bagdhad, Kabul, Karachi, Busan are all the same place — a sordid, violent place, where good Americans get kidnapped and their heads turn up in ditches. These are all places where the people are all foreign. One must watch out. Too much caution cannot be exercised.
Okay, maybe I’m being unduly harsh. Peoples’ concern for my safety abroad generally comes from a good place. They’re just concerned. If fact, they are so concerned, that when telling them I was coming to The Peninsula, many folks, poker-faced, asked me:
“Are you going to teach in North Korea?”
“You guessed it. Not only that, I’m defecting. I’ve received a personal invitation from Kim Jong-Il. We’re going to swap hair tips.”
This concern really illuminates the American character: It shows that one, we’re really nice people at heart, and two, we know close to nothing about the rest of the world.
Yes, there was a war. There was a really nasty war. Over thirty thousand Americans died, along with hundreds of thousands of Chinese, and two to three million Koreans. That’s right. In fact, the war never ended. A peace treaty was never signed — just an armistice. So, technically, I am living in a war zone, and it is the safest place I’d ever been. I’ve lived in rough neighborhoods in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Believe me, this is nothing, despite the fact that all it would take is one soldier, hothead, drunk — or worse yet, a rogue general, a la “Doctor Strangelove” — to start taking pot shots across the DMZ, and the business could kick off once again, forcing me to practice my breast stroke all the way to Japan.
The prospect of me teaching in North Korea was and still is absurd. But North Korea does loom in our minds as some sort of hell mouth, out of which springs much of the world’s extremism and bizarre aggression. After all, aren’t they part of Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil”? Doesn’t their bouffant-sporting leader wear platform shoes and obsessively watch Hollywood films? Aren’t they our sworn enemy?
The North Korean government has one of the worst reputations of earth – a reputation that, honestly speaking, doesn’t spring out of a vacuum. They have often been up to some very nasty stuff. Aside from oppressing their own people through executions, slave-labor camps and pure brutality, they have over the years employed sabotage and outright terror tactics to destabilize the Southern regime and further their own ends. They have sent commando teams south, most famously in 1968 in an attempt to attack The Blue House and assassinate then-President Park Chung-hee. They blew up a Korean Air jetliner in 1987, and in 1983 murdered 17 South Koreans -including 4 government ministers –in a terrorist a bombing in Yangoon, Burma. There have been numerous naval incursions and skirmishes, including one in 1999 that resulted in the deaths of over 30 northern sailors. Over the years, the North Koreans also abducted a number of Japanese citizens, some of whom still live in the Stalinist state. The Cold War never ended on the peninsula. The place is, in some ways, is an ideological time warp, so perhaps my American friends’ worries weren’t so unfounded.
Cut to today: On March 26, the South Korean ship Cheonan went down, taking 46 sailors to the bottom of the Yellow Sea. A South Korean-led international investigation concluded that a North Korean torpedo – fired from a mini-sub – was to blame. The North at once denied the accusations, as they have each time in the past. Immediately, tensions rose. Talk of war was spat out on both sides, with the South clamoring that it will defend itself at all costs, and the North once again threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” The South Korean currency, the won, took a nosedive. Suddenly, the story is dominating international headlines. The South is making noise in the U.N. Security Council, pushing for sanctions. I’m getting concerned emails from back home. Fellow expats are exchanging emergency evacuation plans on Facebook. For the first time in my nearly six years here, it looks like this could really be it, that with both sides backed into the corner, we just might see The Korean War, Part 2, only this time with a nuclear North.
Is this just paranoia? Surely both sides have too much to lose. And when I talk to my students, many of whom are young men who are either in the military reserves are just about to do their mandatory two-year duty, there isn’t a trace of concern. They’ve grown up in this strange society where war could break out at any time, but where no one under the age of 50 really believes it ever will. Most have no love for the North Korean regime, but rather just view the country as a sad, impoverished, insane cousin that is best not mentioned in mixed company.
So I go on with my life, teaching, writing, drinking beer, talking to girls and watching World Cup matches at obscene hours on the TV. I have my apartment and my two cats, and after years on The Peninsula, an abnormal life has taken on a real sense of normalcy. Sure, we get air raid drills every couple of months, complete with screeching fighter jets running patterns, and yeah, my hair does stand on end each time, waiting for that big boom that never comes…
Friday, June 25th, is the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, when Soviet-made Northern tanks came crashing across a poorly-defended 38th parallel. It’s also the same day I’m set to board a plane to America for a long-overdue visit back home. Let us hope cool heads prevail and my plane gets off the ground and soars away safely. I, for one, won’t lose any sleep.