Can We Please Stop Talking About North Korea Already? | While the Western world obsessed over the possibility of nuclear war, South Koreans went about their lives as usual.
By Michael Fraiman
Four months after I moved to South Korea, Kim Jong-il died. I was teaching English, though not at that exact moment; it was in between classes and the school was mostly quiet. I thought this was huge news—potential for a new start on the peninsula, maybe a step closer to the “One Korea” so often dreamed of by Koreans old enough to remember when such a nation existed.
When my Korean co-teacher returned to the classroom, I asked him if he’d heard the news. “Hm? Oh, Kim Jong-il,” he replied after a moment. “Yes. He died.” That was it. There was no fanfare in the streets, no chatter in the hallways. Everything seemed normal.
Contrast this with an afternoon I’d experienced two months earlier, in early October. I was sitting at my desk, and that same co-teacher rushed in through my door. “Michael, did you hear the news?” he asked, excitedly pointing to his iPhone. “Steve Jobs died!”
If there’s one thing I learned while living in South Korea, it’s that they don’t expect much from their northern neighbours—good or bad. In the weeks that followed Kim Jong-un’s ascent, while Western media exploded with click-debate about the new dictator—will he be open-minded to peace? Will he lash out? Will he start a nuclear war?—South Koreans shrugged. At this point, the Kim regime most wants to maintain power, and the only way to ensure that is by leaving things status quo. Why start a war they can’t win?
Many South Koreans don’t expect things to change in their lifetime. And for many younger citizens I spoke with, they might even prefer it that way—reunification is a dream slowly dying, begrudged by millennial South Koreans who realize their country would suffer a horrible economic downturn if they suddenly had to support 25 million more impoverished citizens.
So while the nuclear debate resurfaced this past week—and, to be fair, no American president has ever seemed as likely to actually engage in nuclear warfare as Donald Trump, whose ego dictates political policy in a fashion equal parts hilarious and depressing—I found it all hard to take seriously. South Korean media reported a fraction of the so-called “news,” too, until President Moon Jae-in stepped in to unilaterally deny the possibility of war on the Korean peninsula.
Besides, there are more important things to focus on. While Kim and Trump hogged airwaves and Twitter feeds, a mudslide killed more than 400 people in Sierra Leone and the United Nations finally declared Somalia polio free. People are fighting actual Nazis in American streets, and Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park denied a permit to white supremacists who wanted to burn a cross atop the historically Ku Klux Klan–affiliated landmark.
There are real debates and proverbial wars going on in the world that affect our day-to-day lives. I’m not an expert on North Korea, but I expect change will happen very slowly. In the meantime, let’s not allow megalomaniac sociopaths to distract us so prominently with their hypothetical one.