The news anchor on CNN International told me stealth bombers had been flying overhead last month. It’s a good thing he mentioned it; nobody else seemed to notice here in South Korea.
Eating toast, eggs and oatmeal, winking away at our coffee, my wife and I listened to the news as calmly as if we were back home in Olean. For almost two years, we’ve been working as public school teachers in Asan, a 40-minute high-speed train ride from Seoul, which North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has said he intends to ignite into a “sea of fire.”
One would be hard-pressed to have called us foolhardy that morning, though. You would have a better case calling it group-think.
None of my co-workers was buzzing about anything – despite the newspapers with pictures of the B-2 stacked in the teachers’ room. We had the same reaction when Kim Jong Il died last year. People at home talked about his passing more than anyone in the hermit country did. Some teachers mentioned it during lunch. My colleague’s firefighter husband told her they were on higher alert. That was it.
Does this seem odd to you? A Communist dictator claims he’s going to incinerate the capital of America’s “puppet state,” and no one bats an eye.
I often drink coffee and watch the kids play during my lunch break. It’s not uncommon to hear a thudding in the air. I look up from their soccer game to see a two-pronged military chopper flying around. It makes me think of home. I used to look up and see Mercy Flight helicopters whirring over my house. Not exactly the same. I look back down – the kids don’t even notice. They’re usually chasing their soccer ball after it bounces off the goal post.
We chat on Skype with my mother on Sunday evenings. No matter what I say, she always tells me how good it will be to have us safe on U.S. soil again.
“We’re fine,” I tell her. “Nobody’s worried here. It’s business as usual.”
Is that what they thought in 1950? In the beginning of the Korean War, North Korean troops stormed through South Korean territory in a veritable blitzkrieg. They captured Seoul in three days, and weren’t stopped until Busan, the very southern end of the peninsula.
Later in the summer, reinforced American, U.N. and South Korean troops began sprinting north as resistance crumbled. When they neared the border with China, Chinese forces intervened and pushed them back down. At the end of the Forgotten War, the border was reinstated where it had been to begin with. Since then, the two Korean brothers have lived at a stand-off. Sort of.
In 1976, U.S. and South Korean soldiers attempted to cut down a tree obstructing strategic vision in the Demilitarized Zone. In rebuttal, North Korean soldiers attacked with axes. In less than four minutes, two U.S. soldiers were killed and eight others (four U.S., four South Korean) were wounded. North Korean infiltration tunnels have been found as recently as 1990. Although the Armistice was signed in 1953, it’s claimed the tunnels weren’t started until 1972. This is not so very long ago.
And yet, maybe the most tragic part about the Korean War is that despite its brutality, people don’t even remember it’s still technically going on.
I met a man in an Olean bank before we expatriated. He asked if we were going to North Korea. Another person did not even realize there was more than one Korea. The Forgotten War. There are still people breathing who fought it.
The next generation of South Koreans doesn’t seem much better. Known as one of the most wired countries in the world, I have seen its kindergarten children sending text messages on smartphones before class begins. They whine and scream when they can’t play Angry Birds. Buses and subways are filled with the digital glow of smartphones, never more than inches from their owners’ faces. Just past the DMZ, people are starving.
What a different land these children will grow up in than the Korea of their parents and grandparents, whose country was so ravaged by war that a current staple soup, called budae jjigae, was born out of scraps from U.S. soldiers. Street corners abound with private academies for piano, English and dance lessons. Cosmetics stores fill in the gaps, mingled with McDonald’s, KT cellphone stores and the designer handbags to put it all in.
Look at it this way: the two most prevalent Korean figures in international headlines this year have been Psy and Kim Jong Un. These are the two Koreas: one is a warmonger, and the other can’t hear over the horse-dance clatter.
Western New York native John Loyd is a former reporter for the Olean Times Herald, now living in South Korea. He was a contributor for the book “Minutes to Midnight.”