In 2007, I started my job as an English teacher in South Korea and spent my nights climbing the steep stairs to foreigner bars where teachers and US army soldiers drank and wrote their names in chalk on black painted walls. When you asked a soldier about a new Korean war, they’d snort. Then they’d see that you were new and straighten up on the stool or hold their pool cue beside them like a pitchfork and tell you that Seoul and its suburbs would be pummeled within hours. Not by a blooming mushroom cloud, but by artillery shells diving down from the sky like swarming locusts. These shells could also carry chemical and biological agents from one of the largest caches in the world. Fortified and shielded within the granite mountains on their side of the DMZ, thousands of North Korean artillery pieces would create an artillery “umbrella” that could hurl destruction nearly a hundred miles deep into South Korea, including most of the 25 million people living in and around Seoul. The umbrella would extend to the entirety of Korea and much of Japan when you include North Korea’s various kinds of ballistic missiles. Expert estimates of how many would die in the opening hours of war vary anywhere from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands. What is certain is a multitude would die well before smart bombs, missiles, or counter artillery could grace social media with blasting patriotic light on the granite hills. Even then it could take weeks to gut the artillery.
At this point the soldier would causally strike a pool ball, take a patient swig. Then they would finish with what I learned was the common knowledge of living in Korea, “after the shelling would come a million plus angry dudes with little to lose. They would go over us, the whole DMZ, like a speeding pickup truck over a speed bump. And they would keep going, brother, until petering out of gas. I’d be dead, without a doubt. And if you’re around for that, you would be too.”
I grew up in America but travelled back and forth to Korea to visit family. I saw the alleys of cracked wobbly bricks in front of my grandparents’ door develop to clean black asphalt and the toilets grow from squatty bowls in the tile floors to sit down toilets with robotic beeping bidets. After college I moved to South Korea in 2007 to learn Korean and pursue clichés of life experience, tapping into cultural roots, and — of course — earn some money. But I had not heard the sirens until I moved there, and they were so loud the windows rattled.
I was in Daegu, a city of two and half million people, four hours southeast of Seoul and the DMZ, the origin city of Samsung, and much of your clothes of the 80’s, and likely some of your socks today. It is also home to one of the US army bases in South Korea.
Cars froze. Sidewalks emptied. Cellphone shops with glossy faux-marble walls pulled the plugs from their sidewalk boomboxes and closed their doors. Then the sirens ceased. No honks, no blasting K-pop, no truck speakers chanting “fruit for sale,” no squealing high-schoolers or shouting food vendors, no sounds ricocheting off the jutting neon signs of tall downtown buildings, just silence in a city known for noise.
I hadn’t been in the country six months. I was still reporting excitedly to my friends about konglish t-shirt sightings with prints like The penis mightier than sword! when the sirens froze the city below my English academy window. I waited for the flash and the blooming mushroom cloud that American news had told me about. Would it be the Taepodong missiles that Kim Jong Il gazed at behind his aviator glasses in clips on CNN? The same ones we in college had snickered at as “Type-of-Dong?” Did the “sea of fire” begin on a weekday before lunch? At my empty casket funeral in America, would my friends whisper, “I told him so?”
“Is it the attack?” I asked the Korean TOEFL teacher at the photocopier.
He grabbed his copies. “Drill, dumb-dumb,” he said, then went to class.
For my second air raid drill I was climbing the stairs of a subway station. A pair of pimply soldiers with assault rifles slung over their shoulders stopped me and some old ladies at the exit. The sirens stopped and we peered up the stairs to the clear sky. For weeks conscripts had built sandbag machine gun nests on street corners, flanking doors of Seven Elevens as part of some big joint exercise with the Americans. Now we could hear the soldiers up on the street, yelling and jogging. And I thought, these women must be having flashbacks to the war days, of cities chewed to rubble and dust, of escaping refugees and battered soldiers and blood and blasts. They must had pangs in their hearts and MASH’s “Suicide is Painless” in their ears.
The women argued with the soldiers. I didn’t understand what they were saying and instead thought of them telling their memoirs of famine, pestilence, and war — the same kinds that my mother, an American immigrant, would tell me about my grandparents who only confessed after relentless questioning from my mother.
Then the old women pushed by the soldiers and waved off their feeble attempts to stop them. The soldiers didn’t pursue. We, the young, watched from the landing as the old women scaled the stairs with their polarized visors darkening, their puffy flower print pants rippling in the breeze, and their flags of pink vests brightening in the sunlight. They marched off to whatever was more important than an air raid drill.
In 2010, North Korea did attack. They shelled Yeonpyeong island, in the sea west of Seoul. Four died; 19 were wounded. The battery on the island returned fire and claimed that they had killed more than the North had.
The next few nights we non-soldiers worried and prophesied war in the bars. The US soldiers were nowhere to be found. Between games of pool a Canadian said earth trampling tanks shook his cupboards open on their way north. While grabbing darts from the board, a Brit said president Lee Myung-Bak vowed a full scale retaliatory strike and only Obama was holding him back. That night, I sat out on my balcony and thought I heard military helicopters from the army bases thumping and fading in the dark, heading north. That was my contribution. Later at a fried chicken joint I asked my girlfriend, a South Korean, about it.
“Same stupid shit,” she said. “Like always.”
If the Koreas make the news, it’s because the North did something. American news channels book hours of fear-dealing commentators, none of whom ever seem to have lived or worked in Korea or had been a citizen. Worried, they ask the same questions, What should America and China do? When will the North Korean madmen attack America and freedom?
Sometimes they go to a reporter on the streets of Seoul and ask, “How are they taking it?” In the unfocused background people hurry to catch buses, high school couples hold hands, vendors sell snacks and the elderly occupy the parks. The reporter disappointedly admits, “Well? It’s business as usual?”
However, there’s an undertone to the usual. Below the sizzling meat in restaurants there’s a bass hum, similar to families whispering about their estranged — an uncle Donnie who bankrupted another business. A cousin Stevie who is a closeted racist and robbed a Burger King. We all know the bad kinfolk tone that echoes shame and drips fatigue within a husk of hope.
The usual business has included nightmares of North Korean commando squads attacking the Blue House [South Korea’s White House] in an attempt to kill the South Korean President [dictator] Park Chung Hee, burrowed invasion tunnels under the DMZ, bombed diplomatic delegations, bombed planes, DMZ firefights, kidnappings, assassinations, and more.
What is often lost on journalists who cover this story every time North Korea does something is that these very real threats fueled the fear needed to support dictators, keeping South Korea locked into cycle of one authoritarian leader after another. The enemy will come for you, your children, your stuff. Only the dictator can save you. Only he can make Korea safe again. The drills reminded them: once nearly every month, the people huddled in shelters after the siren wails while the army and police marched the streets and fighters screamed through the air.
But fear gets stale and wears out. It numbs. Once that happens in a country claiming to be a Republic, the people start demanding real civil rights and real elections. By the close of the ‘80s, South Koreans had fought through smoking teargas and police skirmish lines and created a fledgling democracy. South Koreans continues to scrape away the stains of dictators from the halls of government, most recently with the impeachment and arrest of President Park Geun-hye the daughter of the long time dictator Park Chung Hee.
The scars of fear still remain, like the sirens, like Yeonpyeong Island. Yet, I’ve never met or read about a Korean “prepper,” stocking jars of kimchi and bags of rice in a homemade bunker. Instead the city of Seoul and its suburbs continue to grow under the artillery umbrella. It is not because people don’t realize what could happen: everyone sees the air-raid shelter signs in the subways, the billboards of hotlines to report suspicious activity, and all Korean men are have mandatory military service.
Maybe it’s the distance from the nightmare. Only grandparents remember what it was like to flee back and forth during war. Even then, when that generation utters “the enemy,” they don’t mean the North Koreans, they mean the Japanese. And for them having seen such drastic growth after the wildfires of war, mostly for the better, it might seem silly to hide again in the shelters for a drill in a time when the threat barely flickers like when they were growing up.
It could be the sense of lingering powerlessness. As Korea was being torn apart by the Americans and the Soviets after World War Two, Koreans had a saying that they were merely “a shrimp among whales.” A people that once was helpless to define its own fate, from colonization, from cold war influence, perhaps got into a habit of believing helplessness.
However, I suspect Koreans realize too well what happens when you allow your society to be dictated by fear. They prepare, yes, but the people, especially the younger generations, don’t fearmonger as a pastime. They’re busy working, living. They are suspicious of anything that sounds like government propaganda. They have learned.
There is also the deeper scar. Korean men feel its ache during their military service every time they aim their rifles down the shooting range and see the targets: photos of North Korean soldiers who look so much like their brothers, uncles, cousins, themselves.
Whenever Americans become enamored with Korean culture, they often point to the term “han” (한), which vaguely translates as the “helpless unrelenting sorrow of the Korean people.” It seems romantic or poetic to the American ear.
Now imagine you’re 18, going to the shooting range daily. Stare down the sights of your rifle. See the photos of your cousin, aunt, uncle, mother, father, sister, and brother, and fire, so that one day you won’t flinch to kill family if you need to. This is “han.”
Many Americans I meet feel obligated to tell me that North and South Korea are still technically at war, which is true. North Korea is unpredictable with its constant threats to both South Korea and its allies. Americans also like to point out that Americans would win any conflict with the North Koreans, and that it was foolish for me to have lived in South Korea, or to allow family to remain in such danger. Oddly, this is the very thing Koreans cautioned me before I moved back to the US: America is dangerous, with its shootings and madmen.
For me, thoughts of impending war mostly subsided by 2011, when I too moved within the artillery umbrella of Seoul. I lived in an apartment by a World Cup Stadium and a park with a horseshoe shaped hill. The park seemed to have a lot to do with the war, rusted oil storage tanks sheltered inside the horseshoe, mossy pill boxes along the trail that rode the crest, trees engulfing rusted coils of barbed wire. After a few years Seoul city decided to update the park with new exercise machines along the trails, a parking lot beside the oil tanks and wooden boards to seal the pillboxes and topped them with flowerbeds. In that way, I suppose the threat became more distant, gentrified, at least for me.
Yet, twice a year there were drills. I can’t remember them beyond the vague notion that that they happened. I was at work. I was in my apartment. I shouldn’t go outside for 20 or 30 minutes. I stayed in and continued living my life. That was it. In retrospect I did keep my passport and wad of US bills hidden in one spot if I had to leave in a hurry. I did know where the nearest subway was, but the fear that I had accepted from American TV lost its power.
The last drill before I left in the summer of 2016 stuck me on a bus. I listened as the engines shut off and the car horns silenced and watched the sidewalk trees sway with the breeze. Twice a year, the cities quiet, without panic, without searching the horizons of flashes or locusts of shells, it’s just a drill. And Koreans know what it is for, they know it deeply.
They also know that North Koreans are the only other people on Earth who speaks and writes their language. Koreans talk about unification, peacefully. Sometimes it seems, in their core, they believe it can happen. This is the great Korean hope. Almost a secret hope that can not carry faith in a country where practicality and convenience took precedence over sentiment and beauty in its race to become part of the developed world. (Korean cityscapes can attest to that.) It is a hope that distances more when they consider the many non-Korean players influencing the game.