Watching North Korea

It looks like North Korea is serious about planning to test a nuclear bomb, possibly as soon as this weekend. All of the news stories on this subject keep repeating that such a move “could destabilize the region,” which seems a rather understated way of saying that relations between China, the two Koreas, Japan, the U.S. and Russia will be in a tailspin, and some kind of military response could follow. Disturbing.

Most people tend to forget that North and South Korea are technically still at war, as the truce that ended the fighting in the Korean War was just that — a truce, not a peace treaty. In working on my book, I have been thinking a lot recently about what it’s like to live with the specter of war constantly around you. In my experience, smaller misfortunes in Korea were more easily shrugged off — or at least accepted — as part of daily life. The country has a history of calamity and devastating loss — and those memories hovered over everything and made daily injustices, like arguments, or long lines, or fistfights, seem merely inconvenient. There was always some larger violence to be wary of: a building collapse, yearly monsoons, incursions from the North, and, of course, the possibility of continuing a war that never ended.

When I lived in Korea I was constantly stumbling across reminders that the country was technically at war, and in time I learned to shrug them off too, to see them as normal, even to not see them at all. For example:

My college roommate came to visit us in Korea, from Japan. She could not stay with us at our host family’s apartment, so we reserved a room at a hotel in downtown Seoul. The hotel was what guidebooks describe as “Western-style,” that is, the kind of mid-priced lodging you might find in any city in the world, with all of the same amenities.

We let ourselves into the room, dropped our bags on the beds and took a quick tour of our accommodation. Standard bathroom, two double beds, television, a window that looked out onto other windows, grimy alleys, gleaming high-rises. We could have been anywhere, and for that reason, the room had a reassuring quality. It felt like a vacation to stay — even three to a room — in the privacy of a hotel. No sneaking little boys trying to peer into our space, no host family, wanting to talk to us after we’d just finished a long day of teaching. No one would notice if we stayed out late. No one would comment if we slept in.

As I turned to open my bag after our quick tour, something caught my eye. By the entrance, instead of the standard map directing us to the closest emergency exit, there was a glass box hanging on the wall.

Inside was an olive green gas mask. The rubber-rimmed goggles stared at us, and it felt as though a sinister presence had come into the room. I studied the filter on the breathing apparatus and let myself imagine what horrors the mask was supposed to guard against. It took a few seconds for us to realize that there was only one mask for three pairs of lungs, and for a moment the mask and everything it represented sobered our giddiness at a getaway weekend, our stay with good friends in the anonymity of a Seoul hotel.

But in a flash, we shrugged, laughed it off and continued to get ready to go out to dinner. What else could be done?

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