Monday, October 09, 2006


North Korea Can't Be Ignored Now

At about 10 a.m. on Monday (about 8 pm Sunday if you’re reading in America) this unabashed news-junkie decided to take a mid-day nap at my apartment here in Chuncheon. Before going to sleep, I checked the Drudge Report, which stated that North Korea had apparently “backed down” off its nuclear test threat. I went to sleep relieved, thinking the uncertainty which would be brought upon this country and all its residents in the event of detonation had been averted.

I woke up at about 1:30 p.m. and, out of habit, visited the New York Times web site, where the lead story said that North Korea was now claiming a successful nuclear test. The first thing I said out loud probably would look unsophisticated in print, but nothing else seemed appropriate at the time.

I teach three classes with adult students, most of whom are my age or younger, and display about the same interest in world events that Americans our age display (that is, nonexistent). They are too busy balancing their loaded university schedule with the various extra-curricular institutes they attend in the hopes that they will one day get a good job through their effort.

In class since Monday night this has been a not-uncommon exchange overheard between my students during their daily conversation practice time:

“Did you hear the news today about North Korea’s nuclear… (students often struggle with finding the right word to describe the event).”

“Yes I did. I think it’s a big problem.”

“So what did you do today before you came to this institute?”

“I came here directly from my university…”

And conversation time proceeds from there, just as it usually would.

South Korea’s uglier half to the north has been in the back of my mind since I arrived in this country last August. The occasional test of the air raid siren or hearing my students talk about military service (which is required for nearly all young men) prevents it from leaving my mind completely, but most days we’ve got too much work to do to think about it. Daily concerns about home and work have always trumped hypothetical concerns about a war.

Since yesterday afternoon, there is the sense that North Korea is now at the forefront of public’s thinking. It no longer is overshadowed by the daily grind, but neither does it obscure more typical concerns about meeting deadlines and keeping the peace at home. Kim Jong-il’s kingdom is now one of many concerns competing for their attention.

The government of South Korea began its “Sunshine Policy” toward North Korea during the tenure of president Kim Dae-jung, who served from 1998-2003. This policy has been continued under his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, who has often spoken of Japan’s claim to the Dokdo islets as if it were a greater threat to his country’s security. The reason that the South — not to mention China’s — propping up of the North is not without reason: a sudden collapse of Kim Jong-il’s government would place tremendous economic strain on both countries. Both countries seek greater recognition among the world’s economic powers, so the fall of North Korea would be a disaster, and not just to Kim Jong-il.

Until now, these countries have looked at North Korea through similar lenses. The industrious and well-behaved South has viewed it as an irrational twin brother whose actions are a threat to their reputation. Meanwhile, North Korea’s their more moderate ideological brethren in China have attempted to curb some of their more extremist actions, for fear that nuclear proliferation will set off an arms race involving Japan, South Korea, India and possibly more.

Both nations surely now feel that they have wasted considerable effort. This is especially true in South Korea, where the first nuclear warhead successfully loaded onto a North Korean missile, whenever that day may come, will most likely be aimed at Seoul as a bargaining chip.

Of course, a disaster may yet be prevented. But should this peninsula take steps toward war, foreigners like myself may yet be evacuated by our own governments. However, this would not be a war like Iraq, where American servicemen and thousands of Iraqis we will never know continue to die. A war here will claim the lives of even more, including those whose faces we know and whose names we’ll remember.

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