The Calm at the Eye of the Storm: South Korean Kids on the Threat of North Korea

Korean School Kids: Oblivious

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.


Yeonpyeong's Burning: Image by

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.


11 thoughts on “The Calm at the Eye of the Storm: South Korean Kids on the Threat of North Korea

  1. Seth says:

    Thoughtful post. I’ve been a bit scared about this situation, but then, I’ve been watching American News, which tends to be incredibly alarmist about everthing and has a tendency to extrapolate events such as this to WW III every time they happen. Thats not to say that this isn’t a serious event. North Korea will continue with provocative behavior such as this until they are spanked, just as a naughty child will push and push until finally punished.

    I hope your doing well man, see you soon. I’m sure that this event will pass by without incident, and lets hope so. Watch out for Buk-Han.

  2. Nick says:

    I’ve been meaning to ask you for your take on this for the past couple of days but now I don’t need to! Interesting to hear that there’s no sense of panic in a country that’s just a few miles from a nuclear-equipped, utterly insane military power. Agree that maybe it’s been overcooked in foreign media (keep thinking of the Day Today ‘IT’S WAR’ episode) but it’s still the biggest ‘fracas’ between the two countries since the war 50 years ago isn’t it? I doubt much more will happen now (and hope nothing ever does), but I reckon it’s the first desperate lashing out of a country that knows its days are numbered in the modern world.

  3. Milo says:

    Great post Finbarr, really interesting to hear how things are on the inside, as it were. These kind of incidents are pretty scary if you just hear a few snippets on the radio.

  4. Julie says:

    Great post Finbarr, it sums up the sort of attitudes to the situation I’ve been coming across too.

  5. FBermingham says:

    Cheers everyone. Nick, not the biggest fracas since the war, but the first time North Korea have attacked a Southern land target. Usually it’s just ships in the Yellow Sea that kop it!

  6. Paul says:

    good post Pinball, i was asking my high school kids will they go to war if it all kicks off, they are like ” we will go, but it wont happen” some of my kids have done their army service and are back to finish high school, crazy stuff

  7. Lindsay Nash says:

    Great post, Finbarr! Very good take on it and I love your perspective from Northern Ireland. Sending this to my family back home. And…..wanna share it with Say Kimchi News?

  8. Mark Hayden says:

    Cool post! I’m jealous. There wasn’t this much excitement when I was there. Anyway, I know exactly what you mean. Koreans are calm people. They have seen this before. It’s really amazing that they don’t get bent out of shape. I agree with Seth. The media in the USA is always trying to keep a military mindset.

  9. Broon says:

    difficult to know whether it was just a slip of the tongue from Sarah Palin or whether she actually isn’t sure which is which. problem is, she cannae see Korea from her window, so how is she supposed to know what’s going on in there?

    ps Finbarr sort yer RSS oot

  10. Nan says:

    Was the ‘You’ll be on the first plane home!’ comment from me?? Ha. Great post – know what you mean about how normal it was to grow up during the Troubles. I can remember the Brits landing their helicopter behind my auntie’s house and walking through her garden and house while my cousin’s birthday party was going on….much to our amusement of course!

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