When is the right time to escape from Korea?

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When is the right time to escape from Korea?

The e-mails started coming in about a week ago. The first one was a one-liner from my mom with the catchy subject heading: “Troops.” It read, “Is it time to leave the country?”

The warnings, prayers and plans have been pouring out of late as things heat up between the North and the South. Facebook and Twitter are alight with opinions on whether or not it’s time to think of an escape route ahead of a potential conflict. Rumors are circulating about warnings to National Assemblymen to get their families out of the country before June or July if they want to keep them safe. So is it really time to escape from the South for those who can?

For me, coming to Korea in the first place was a sort of escape, as it is for a lot of the expat mishmash that ends up here. A side door out of a scripted future, let’s say, a little life far from the demands of family, city and country. Living as an expat comes with a certain freedom from the obligations of home, wherever home may be.

Many people, however, stay in Korea longer than they intended, they lay down roots, and the place they came to escape becomes their home. And then leaving isn’t so easy.

The fabled return back home is a favorite topic among expats; we make plans over beers about how we’re going to pull off the eventual transition back to the place we came from. For some, this trip never materializes, because the longer you stay, the more difficult it is to pick up and start again.

But these days, there seems to be more reason than ever to start putting the long-discussed escape plans into action. Some people are planning a quick trip to Busan at the first hint of trouble, some are making mention of a dash to some quiet countryside getaway to be out of the firestorm that may rain down on Seoul. It seems like these people are forgetting that the main highways become massive parking lots whenever there is a reason for large groups of people to get out of the capital. And predicting the movements of North Korea is a fraught business even for the highest level of international expert, so it’s dubious that average people on the ground will have the forewarning to avoid the out flowing crush if the North’s military starts marching for Seoul.

Most of the Koreans I’ve spoken to have been hardened by years of escalation and deflation of tensions. The constant threats of war from above the DMZ have left them doubting that it will ever come to the worst-case scenario. They’ve been through the North Korean raid on the Blue House in 1968, the killing of a large part of the South Korean cabinet in a bomb attack in Myanmar in 1983, and the 1987 bombing of Korean Air flight 858. None of those events escalated into all-out war, a good reason not to worry this time.

All in all, people keep one eye on the headlines as they go about their business. You still have to keep your appointments, and you still have to show up at work. For the time being, this is just another in the regular stream of historic moments that is the norm here. You hope for the best as you set your alarm and go to bed, preparing yourself for what is hopefully a normal tomorrow.

By Richard Scott-Ashe [richardscottashe@gmail.com]
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