Photo: Stanislav Varivoda/Shutterstock

Tales From the Frontier of Expat Life: Tension in South Korea

South Korea
by Kate Holmes Jun 3, 2010
An expat tries to discern how nervous she should be about the tension between North and South Korea.

Most days it doesn’t feel like there’s a war on. Most days I don’t think about it. But two months ago the Cheonan, a South Korean naval ship, split in two and sunk into the Yellow Sea, and the wheels of hostility have slowly been turning since then.

This week things are moving faster- a torpedo was discovered in the wreckage and the Republic of Korea and the United States have both asserted that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was behind the attack. South Korea has cut off all trade and the majority of aid to the North. Leader Kim has ordered his armies to be combat-ready.

On the way to work I call my mom to say hello; 8 am here is dinner-time back at home.

“What are you hearing? Is anything going on there?”

“Nope, nothing’s happening Mom. It’s a beautiful day and people are going to work like always.”

At school I plop down at my desk and check my email. I have my New York Times subscription set up to send me any articles about Korea, and today my inbox is overflowing. Most of the articles say the same thing- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Korean president Lee Myung Bak in Beijing, pledges support. China continues to ride the fence. It seems like everyone’s waiting to hear where Beijing’s allegiance falls.

My morning classes are the same as always, and I marvel at the innocence of my students, probably unaware of the gravity of the situation. But at lunch in the teachers’ lounge, the atmosphere is as light as always. My colleagues chat about an upcoming birthday party, a television drama, and one teacher’s husky voice due to a cold.

Six weeks ago they were expressing grief over the 46 soldiers lost on the Cheonan, and praying it was a mine or a mechanical malfunction, anything but North Korean aggression. Two weeks ago they were speculating that the evidence pointing to North Korea was just a conservative party ploy to fabricate a sense of danger so that voters would favor their strong national defense platform in the upcoming elections. Today, not a word on the subject.

I give in after lunch and ask my coteacher, HwanSuk, “Are people talking about the North Korea situation?”

“Yes, of course. But I think it will be fine.” And she’s off to play the piano in the 6th grade choir contest.

Left alone in our office, I feel isolated from what’s happening around me.

I have the afternoon free, so I peruse the Korean expat blogs, and finally find a sentiment similar to my own. I come across discussions of what is happening now, speculation on what’s next, advice on packing an emergency bag of important documents, and US citizen evacuation procedures. I am glad to see other people are taking this seriously.

I check the English edition of the Chosun Ilbo, one of Korea’s top circulation newspapers, and find a myriad of articles on North Korean aggression. Apparently four Northern submarines have left port and disappeared from the ROK radar. Kim Jong Il has missiles pointed at Seoul. Half of the nearly 1,000 South Koreans living and working at Kaesong Industrial Complex north of the border have been evacuated for fear of a hostage situation.

A chat message arrives from Andie, another American teacher working an hour north of me in Seoul. She seems to have been doing the same compulsive news-reading as me, and she links me a CNN report.

vandie: Have you seen this?

kate0925: Yeah I saw that one. The DPRK has cut all ties with the ROK as of today.

vandie: I know. My mom is freaking out.

kate0925: Mine says she’s not but I don’t believe it.

I check the exchange rates- the won is tanking. My paycheck is worth 300 US dollars less this month than it was last month. I point this out to HwanSuk.

“Ehhh North Korea.” She sighs and rolls her eyes.

After school I make a trip to the gym- mostly because I don’t have a TV and I want to watch the news. On the treadmill I turn to KTV, and have to wait through several stories about the upcoming World Cup before anything pertinent comes on. Then over an hour of news stories about the war. I try to keep up in my minimal Korean.

Bits of the Cheonan are being recovered from the sea floor.

Continuing inspection of the serial number on what’s left of the torpedo clearly implicates North Korea.

News clips have been intercepted from North Korea’s state-run media. It looks like a newsreel from the 1950’s but it’s from this week. I am really wishing I had worked harder at learning Korean as the anchor goes on tirades in rapid North Korean dialect.

ROK soldiers are setting up propaganda speakers to blast pro-democracy slogans and economic news across the border. I remember reading that the North’s army had vowed to shoot at them as soon as they began broadcasting.

Last are interviews with Korean civilians at Seoul’s main train station. They are most worried about the implications for the South Korean economy. They are waiting to hear what China says. And they don’t want war. That’s all I can understand, but I can see that they are rather unimpressed.

I look down the row of televisions and notice that I am the only one watching the news.

I walk home slowly, trying to process all the information from the day. Along my street people are eating in outdoor restaurants, drinking beer and laughing loudly. School kids are roughhousing in their uniforms. Several old women lean against a wall of an old apartment building, talking quietly. I wonder what they’re all saying.

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