I awoke on the morning of North Korea’s most recent nuclear test to a string of worried texts from friends and family back home in South Africa and the distant drawl of US fighter jets. I expected my morning jog to be impeded by hordes of people, bags packed, fleeing an ill-fated city. However, as I ran my familiar route, it appeared that the news of Pyongyang’s latest provocation had changed nothing.
The elderly owner of a small pizzeria sat outside practicing guitar, as he always does. The married couple who run the corner 7-Eleven were outside sweeping the street in front of their store as usual – and the local coffee shop was, as always, packed with students preparing for assignments.
The international furore couldn’t seem more out of place than here in Dongtan, a town just south of Seoul and a cab ride away from the US-run Osan military base. Children rollerskated and zipped around on Heelys under the watchful gaze of their grandparents, their parents already hard at work. Traffic slowly churned through the streets, only to be met by a plethora of red traffic lights. Life remained the same, for better and worse.
Such is everyday South Korea, where I came earlier this year to teach. Even as tensions have ratcheted up, the potential for nuclear war isn’t even on the same scale of importance as season six’s finale of Show Me the Money (a Korean rap talent show).
South Korea simulates attack on North Korea’s nuclear sites
Part of this attitude stems from South Korea’s particular history. For people living here, the past 60 years since the end of the Korean War have been awash with threats of nuclear attack and of more conventional conflict. Desensitisation is forgivable, then, if perhaps not sensible to foreign eyes. Life continues as normal, however hysterical the rhetoric from over the border. As a Korean co-worker of mine recently put it: “We’ve been at war for ages; it’s just war. We still have to work, the same as usual.”
Thus, even after the testing of Kim Jong-un’s hydrogen bomb (with 10 times the power of the nuclear bombs that decimated Japanese cities in 1945), the question on everyone’s lips here was whether or not the rapper Hangzoo deserved his Show Me the Money victory, rather than whether Kim’s new weapon posed any real threat to the southerly end of the Korean peninsula. While Japan practices evacuation drills, China monitors radiation levels, and America flexes its military muscle, South Korea works.
The junior and middle school philosophy and literature class that I teach is a fine example of this. The students, aged from 11 to 15-years-old, could not care less about events 100 miles north of their desks. Their main worries turn out to be homework and eggs.
Homework may seem rather unimportant in the grand scheme of things but it is frightfully different from the West – and a much more serious business. My students needed to finish reading chapters on Nietzsche and Pyrrho as well as getting to their various other subjects, not forgetting their broader school homework. Flute or other instrument practice awaits most of them too. Our class ends at 10pm (yes, 10pm!) every Tuesday and Thursday.
US: North Korea could be met with ‘massive military response’
The anxiety about eggs is closer to home, at once more prosaic and yet more vital. It is, after all, a staple in many Korean dishes, and a favourite food to many of the boys. Yet the price of eggs has surged after a recent strain of avian flu.
Still, this apparent lack of worry about the North does not mean people are wholly unconcerned about recent events. Yet stronger emotions and anxiety seem to be felt primarily towards the West and a trigger-happy tweeter in America who seems to be stirring the pot.
“I dislike the way the rest of the world seems to think about South Korea,” Wendy, the captain of our under-18 debating team, tells me. “The image that everyone gets is that we’re weak and that we need the help of America – that they need to save us. But we’ve been doing this for a long time and we’re still OK. Donald Trump and everything he says, that is what’s making this worse.”
The statements emanating from the United States (or more particularly the White House) – and constant talk of war in Western media – has certainly made the situation here more complicated. The unpredictability in the present scenario comes from Trump and his helter-skelter style of government and not from the North, where you know what you are going to get: threats.
In pictures: North Korea military drill
Moon Jae-in, elected President of South Korea a few months ago, came into office with the hope of strengthening relations with North Korea. Unfortunately, the past few months have seen his aspiration turn into a distant dream, undermined by Kim Jong-un’s belligerence but also by Donald Trump’s late night social media missives.
Walk along the crowded streets of Gangnam district in Seoul, between the tents and canopies erected along the Han River, or look around late at night on a heaving Hongdae street, and you will see a hardworking country continuing as normal. The secretive state to the north is paid no obvious heed. For South Koreans, it remains the neighbour which has cried nuclear wolf before, and will do so again. The latest threats are regarded as just as hollow as the previous ones.
Here’s hoping the locals are right.