[OUTLOOK]Barking dog, belligerent presidentPeople want their lives to be normal, and in the strangest conditions they will insist that life is normal. I have repeatedly seen this in areas that journalists call “strife-torn.”
“It’s all media exaggeration, really,” I was told when I went to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the 1980s. The Irish Republican Army and the various Protestant Loyalist groups were bombing and assassinating each other, sometimes maiming or killing innocents who got caught in the crossfire.
But life was “normal,” I was told, because just last week my informant had dared, for the first time in a year, to go out to a movie at night.
Beirut in 1982 had undergone seven years of civil war, and now Palestinian encampments in the city were under siege by the invading Israeli Army. Car bombs rigged by extremist groups exploded in the streets, and foreigners were in danger of being kidnapped and held for ransom.
Nobody thought this exactly “normal,” but people did their best to go about their days normally. I remember a matron, stylishly dressed in crisp sunlight yellow, evidently planning a party and calmly directing a butcher in cutting up a beef carcass on a garbage-strewn street, stepping daintily aside in her stiletto heels to keep them out of the blood.
Well, bully for the movie-goers and party-givers, I say. In times of danger, you can get on with life or surrender to fear. After all the talk about how post-Sept. 11 life in the United States “could never be the same,” I was heartened to see on a visit last summer that in fact life was pretty much the same. I was told repeatedly, “We’ve stopped thinking about it, unless something reminds us.”
Which brings us to Korea. We are blessedly free of strife or terror, so why shouldn’t life be normal?
Well, for one thing, our unfriendly neighbor to the North keeps threatening to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire.” But that’s an old dog that has barked many times, and has not bitten since 1950, discounting the odd kidnapping or skirmish in the Yellow Sea. We hardly pay attention any more; we know that nothing will come of it, unless belligerent President Bush provokes something.
Should we worry about the barking dog, or the belligerent president? Or the anti-Americanism that appears to have subsided in Korea but has been noticed abroad?
Outside Korea, there seems to be a good deal of worry. Lately I am getting lots of anxious e-mails from friends in other parts of the world: What’s it like there? Do you face a lot of hostility? Will you be evacuated? Will there be war?
I reply in the calm, Olympian tones of the pundit, unable given my own work to blame “media exaggeration,” but reassuring my friends that Koreans are mostly sweethearts and that the one starting point everybody seems to agree upon about North Korea, unlike Iraq, is that there must be no war.
Am I kidding myself? Seoul is no Belfast or Beirut, but it was striking in those places that outsiders seemed to understand the situation better than those who had to live with it.
I am confident that anti-Americanism poses no threat to Westerners living in Korea. But what about the barking dog and the belligerent president? George Bush and Kim Jong-il are human, and humans sometimes miscalculate, and miscalculations sometimes start wars.
The “peaceful dialogue” we all want envisions either that the North will give up its nukes for a high enough price, or that the United States will tolerate a nuclear North Korea. But what if the nukes themselves are what Mr. Kim wants as his security guarantee? What if Mr. Bush calculates that Mr. Kim wouldn’t dare a suicidal response to a “surgical” strike on North Korean nuclear facilities?
It is notable, if unsurprising, that South Koreans trust their enemy Mr. Kim and only worry about their ally Mr. Bush’s competency to keep us out of war. Americans are rather the reverse; although many are critical of Mr. Bush’s policy approach to North Korea, most are confident that it won’t come to war ― unless Mr. Kim does something crazy. Perhaps that is reassuring: If both sides are right about the leaders they know best, there is nothing to worry about.
But what if the Belfast-Beirut effect applies, and skeptical outsiders have the clearer view? What if both the Korean mistrust of Mr. Bush and the uneasiness of Americans about Mr. Kim are well founded?
Then again, we live here regardless, so what can we do about it? Pack a bag? No ― go to a movie, give a party.
* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Hal Piper