The news networks have gone into overdrive this week. The Korean Peninsula has once again come into focus for all the wrong reasons. By attacking the populated island of Yeonpyeong and killing four South Koreans, the North have made it clear that the accession of Kim Jong-un to Head of State will not signal an end to provocative, audacious behaviour.
It has been widely reported that the North have strengthened their nuclear position with the recent confirmation of uranium enrichment. The American scientist who visited the facility, however, has since warned against unnerving hysteria. Conservative commentators, too, have spoken out against sensationalizing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Isn’t that exactly what they want?
All the same, it’s brinkmanship that would test the mettle of many. For me, though, it’s served as a poignant reminder of how people live during times of ‘crisis’. It’s also highlighted the remarkable will that exists within humans to continue on with their lives, even when the world around them goes to pieces. Children, in particular, show impressive indifference in the face of adversity.
I’ve spent the past six months teaching in South Korea. I work in an academy in Gwangju, in the south west of the country. Whilst the international media has been reporting on the mood in Seoul, I have spent the past two days gauging opinion amongst the middle school teenagers I teach. The first thing I noticed is that not one child raised the issue of the North Korean attack when I inquired as to how they were, or how their day had been. The general reaction, when I raised the point, equated to: “oh, that!”
Further questioning revealed a mixture of disdain, sympathy, reactionary, half-hearted hatred and bemusement. But very few of the opinions were enforced with anything resembling conviction… more like eye rolling and heavy tutting. There was little in the way of childish zeal; the sort one might expect if, say, America had been attacked by an enemy. Of course, I wasn’t grilling 11-year-olds for their opinions on the Korean Situation… I reserved it for the older kids. I wonder if I’d have encountered slightly more animation with the youngsters?
There seems to be a level of acceptance here that these things will, on occasion, happen. It’s apparent even whilst watching news broadcasts: compare those of CNN yesterday with Korean networks. Of course, this is huge news, but it seems as though folks aren’t as willing to get carried away. The calmness struck me as odd at first, but very quickly, I realized it was a sentiment I was well familiar with.
I grew up in the 1980s and 90s in Northern Ireland: surrounded by The Troubles. It seemed like everyday someone had been shot dead; or a bomb had exploded somewhere. Sometimes when we’d be walking to or from school, we’d be greeted on the road by British soldiers, heavily armed. The town I lived in was often closed off because of bomb scares… occasionally, bombs. I was evacuated from a cinema in 1998 whilst playing pool. About an hour later, a huge fireball came rushing towards us at the top of the hill. The bomb had exploded. It probably never came anywhere near us, but it felt like it was right on my arse!
I had a laugh about the incident in school on Monday with friends. Nobody was shocked or surprised… these kind of things just happened. I only realized things like this weren’t normal when I left Ireland for the first time (also in 1998) and went to America. People would ask me how it was, living in Northern Ireland, as if it was a war-zone. I laughed at the very thought… “sure, it’s normal!” Would be the reply. And to me, it was.
‘Normal’ is whatever moment of history we are born into. This week I’ve had messages and emails from home asking me about the situation here.
“What’s going on?”
“It sounds terrible!”
“Is there going to be a war?”
“You’ll be on the first plane home!”
Probably the exact worries people had about our own circumstance in Northern Ireland ten or fifteen years ago. Without trying to make little of what is undoubtedly an anxious, lamentable time, Kim Jong-il was pulling stunts like this when my students were born. As shocking as it may be, for most of them, it’s unsurprising. One of the foibles of conflict still rings true today: the kids are alright.
Now, enjoy this short audio clip of Sarah Palin promising support for our “North Korean allies” on Glenn Beck’s radio show.