Posted by: bodking | May 26, 2010

The Troubles

I arrived in South Korea on March 23rd.  On March 26th the  corvette ROKS Cheonan was sunk in an unprovoked torpedo attack by the North Koreans.
Since then, the incident has dominated the Korean media.  The immediate coverage was about the search for survivors.  There were 56 survivors and 46 unaccounted for.  As an outsider, it seemed futile to search for survivors as long as the South Koreans did.  Icy waters at night aren’t easy places to survive.  But they did search for days – hoping in vain to find sailors in an air pocket of the sunken ship.  The search and rescue lasted 8 days in which several divers died looking for survivors.

The whole while, the government was extremely cautious to not blame the North Koreans, even though there were all sorts of stories of other ships in the area and of fishermen hearing machine gunning around the time of the sinking.  At one point the government said there was almost no chance the North was involved.  There was almost a state of denial based on wishful thinking that it wasn’t the North.
Midway through April, they South Koreans raised the sunken ship in two pieces.  In late April there was a massive funeral for the sailors who died.  This was on every channel.
I don’t speak Korean, so I don’t get a chance to talk to too many Koreans.  But I can often tell where people’s heads are at by what they’re watching on the TVs at the gym.  Most the of the time, they watch sports, game shows, or soap operas; but when the Cheonan was being raised and during the funeral, every screen was on the Cheonan.  The results of the official inquiry and the subsequent increase of tensions are just one chapter of this drama that’s been unfolding for two months.

The general feeling from the Koreans I have talked to (including some of my students) is that of sadness; sadness of the sailors’ deaths and sadness at the continued division of the country.
Most Koreans don’t look at the peninsula like most outsiders do.  Foreigners look at the peninsula and we see two countries.  Koreans look at it and see one country with one government in the North and one in the South.   They’re one people and they speak one language.  It’s hard to think that a very short distance from Seoul – maybe 20 miles, there is a Korea with no smoke filled PC rooms filled with 18 year olds playing Starcraft, there are no hofs serving cheap cold beer, no samgyeopsal restaurants, no Kimbap Cheonguk, no cell phone stores on every corner, no K-Pop, no girls in mini-skirts and really pointy high heels, there aren’t any guys with foppish kerchiefs or baseball stadiums filled with fans clapping thunder sticks – no, not even noraebang.  None of the things that, for me, have defined my time in Korea are present in the North.   But it’s the same country with the same people – the same Korean soul.  They’re just living totally different lives.

Back to the troubles – people aren’t terribly worried.  They’re concerned but no one believes Kim Jong Il when he makes his threats – he’s made scarier ones in the past (in the 90’s, he threatened to turn Seoul in to an ocean of fire) and he’ll probably always make them.  The tensions will have to escalate a lot before there will be shooting and I don’t think and most people here don’t think it will come to that.   Both sides have too much to lose (South Korea wants to keep its economy thriving and Kim Jong Il wants to stay in power).

Dae Han Min Guk….

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Responses

  1. Thank you for your enlightening article. I am relieved and sad for the Korean people. They are a beautiful people who live in a beautiful country. My prayer is that one day the country will be united.


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