Tuesday, November 23, 2010

All We Are Saying...

Facebook is probably my number one source for news, not going to lie. I woke up to find no less than a bajillion links to this story: North Korea takes aim at South Korea with hour-long shelling.

When I was getting ready to leave for South Korea, one of the topics people brought up the most was their wacky neighbor to the north. "Are you going to North or South Korea?" "Isn't it dangerous?" (Runner-up: "Don't they eat dog there?") After all, in the US we're under a constant barrage of "oh, that wacky Kim Jeong-il!" updates. Far more so than in South Korea, actually—when they launched that torpedo/failed nuclear device/failed satellite or whatever last year, I actually found out from an American. South Koreans, we reason, should live under more or less a constant cloud of fear, given their location next to one of the so-called Axis of Evil countries.

And yet, they don't. Stories that made the front page back home, or headlined the international section of the paper, barely got a second glance in SK. Why? One argument that a lot of my fellow teachers put out was simply head-in-the-sand thinking, that South Koreans simply refused (for whatever reason) to acknowledge how dangerous their nothern counterpart was.

Personally, I didn't buy that, and I still don't. Jong-min, currently doing his compulsory patriotic duty, assured me that on a scale of 1 - 10, with 1 being flatly impossible and 10 being altogether certain, that high brass in the ROK army rates an invasion by North Korea as "a 2 or 3." (This even after the infmaous Cheonan sinking.) I don't think armies typically have their heads in the sand. I think after fifty-odd years of unease, tension, and sabre-rattling, you just adjust to a new normal. You have to, in order to survive. Extended periods of stress are just unmanageable in terms of psychological well-being.

Even with this, most reports aren't linking this new shelling to a potential full-scale assault. The BBC (referenced earlier) suggests that it's an attempt at power consolidation, as an ailing Kim Jeong-Il prepares to hand things over to Kim Jeong-un. In addition to power consolidation, The Daily NK theorizes that the attack could be an attempt at forcing dialogue with the United States. An anonymous claim within the article even suggests that the dialogue attempt isn't with the US but with the ROK—striving for "an appeasement policy by raising inter-Korean and military conflict." You know how when you were little, you got your way by repeatedly annoying your older sibling/cousin/friend/whatever? Now imagine instead of poking them or repeating everything they say, you have military shells. Of course, I'm always skeptical of claims that come from anonymous sources. Nonetheless, at the moment I'll entertain it for seeming reasonable.

Does this change my decision to go back to Korea? No. I tend to agree with the ROK army's stance on "a 2 or 3." I think Kim Jeong-il is perfectly aware of the fact that anything approaching a full-scale assault would end with his ass being handed to him on a platter. He may have one of the largest standing armies in the world, but as Napoleon taught us, "an army marches on its stomach." The food situation in North Korea is, and has been, so dire that the average North Korean is now 6 inches shorter than their democratic counterpart. Likewise, the DPRK's strongest ally has been tepid at best in their support of the Kim dynasty as of late—it seems they don't want a repeat performance of their involvement in the Korean war.

Not to mention all of these incidents are taking place relatively far north of where I would be in Korea, along disputed borders and waters. Here is a map:

(Admittedly the action is slowly creeping southwards! Maybe I should be worried. :O )

(An armchair international studies student is me!)

Unfortunately, though these skirmishes are minor when compared with the Beowulf clusterfuck that is full-scale war, they still take their toll. Two South Korean Marines are dead as a result of this latest incident; three civilians and fourteen more Marines are injured, though how badly the BBC doesn't say. This is in addition to the forty-six sailors killed in the sinking of the Cheonan last March, and however many North Koreans suffered through the ROK's returned fire. My thoughts and well-wishes are with all of them, South and North, especially as we approach the winter holidays—Christmas as well as Lunar New Year. I don't see how a reconciliation would be possible any time soon, but at the least we can hope that Kim Jeong-il/Kim Jeong-un will move away from a strategy that punishes people who have nothing to do with political policy.

And since the title of this entry is a not-so-subtle nod to John Lennon, I leave you with this spectacular rendition of another Lennon classic:

(The sound quality is awful, but Pavarotti is still Pavarotti.)

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