[Viewpoint] Risky complacency or indifference?

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[Viewpoint] Risky complacency or indifference?

In light of the increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula and with North Korea upping its war rhetoric, I asked some of my students the other day what they thought of the current crisis. Surprisingly, few of them had much to say about any anxiety; the only notable exception was a young man from Russia, who said that his father had told him when you see your teachers packing their bags, that would be a good time to get out.

As far as I can see - other than the jittery financial market and the plummeting Korean won - it’s been “business as usual” the past few days. I’m surprised, and then I am not surprised, by this. As someone who has lived in Korea for the past 20 years, I’ve been down this “crisis” road before, most notably during the 1994 nuclear crisis, when one North Korean minister told his South Korean counterpart that “Seoul will be awash in a sea of flames.”

That kind of rhetoric and saber rattling scared a lot of people back in 1994. Rumors abounded, with stories of families of U.S. contractors told to get out of Korea and a run on water and ramen at local supermarkets. One embassy even advised students who were attending the Korean Language Institute at Yonsei University to return home.

In all of the crises with North Korea the past 20 years, I have never really seen my Korean friends, students or the population at large panic or worry about North Korea attacking. When I have asked people why, I’ve been told that they have become inured to such threats and perhaps believe that North Korea won’t try anything too rash or catastrophic.

However, North Korea has tried rash and catastrophic things numerous times. Since 1990, there have been several incidents, most notably the 1996 submarine incursion, three naval battles in the Yellow Sea (1999, 2002 and 2009), North Korean troops setting up a machine gun and other weapons inside the Joint Security Area in 1995, the abduction of two Korean farmers in the demilitarized zone by 12 North Korean soldiers in 1997, a firefight near the DMZ (also in 1997) and the arrest of two North Korean agents as far south as Puyo in October 1995. The Korean War might have stopped with the signing of the armistice in 1953, but the Cold War has been alive and well on the Korean Peninsula.

Many people here didn’t bat an eye when North Korea tested some of their missiles, threatened to start nuclear reactors, or kicked out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Of course, there’s been some public outcry against the North, usually by older Koreans and those who lived through the Korean War.

Perhaps it really is a combination of dangerous complacency and indifference. Here in Daejeon, none of my students seem to mind the deafening roar of ROK Air Force fighters flying overhead on training missions - a constant reminder of the uneasy peace that has existed on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War.

Although the presence of more than 28,000 U.S. forces on the peninsula is another reminder of that uneasy peace, most people have accepted their presence for better or worse. Ironically, some of the military bases occupy the same areas they were in more than 57 years ago, when the Korean War ended. And, in one of the largest cities in the world, Seoul, there is a very noticeable U.S. military presence - another reminder of the Korean War and the threat that the North has always posed.

The dangerous complacency and indifference actually got a little twisted during the 2002 World Cup. As South Koreans flocked to the streets to cheer when their team advanced to the quarter- and semifinals, a skirmish in the Yellow Sea resulted in the deaths of four South Korean sailors and injuries to 19 others. There was no public outcry; there were no demonstrations over the loss of South Korean lives; there was no demand for North Korea to apologize. Football took precedence.

Tragically, during the World Cup an accident resulted in the deaths of two middle-school girls, who were struck and killed by a U.S. Army vehicle. Although the military was quick to apologize and investigate, as well as offer compensation from both the military and individual military personnel, the news got lost in the World Cup coverage. It was only after the euphoria of the World Cup dissipated that angry netizens took to the streets demanding justice and retribution.

This afternoon, the sun poked through the clouds after a few days of dreary, rainy weather and it turned into a pleasant, late-May day. In my sophomore conversation class, most of the students were more concerned about their upcoming final and what they should and shouldn’t study than any talk of war. Overhead, a fighter roared across the sky. A student came in late and was worried that I hadn’t checked his attendance. Another student surreptitiously texted a friend and I had to tell her to put her phone away during class.

Business as usual.

*The writer is a professor at Woosong University and the SolBridge International Business School in Daejeon.

By Jeffrey Miller
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