Have you ever been late for work because you have been stuck behind a slow moving tank? I have. A couple of times.
Eight months ago, I moved to the quiet, military town of Hwacheon in the Gangwon-do Province of South Korea to teach English in a local elementary school. Hwacheon is a small town with a population of 6,000 known for its nearby military base, and its annual ice fishing festival. Winding mountain roads, tree-covered hills, and the tranquil Bukhan River provide a picturesque landscape that attracts fishermen, bicyclists, and hikers.
However, Hwacheon has been thrust to the front line of an international crisis as the North Korean rhetoric continually threatens the South because it is located only nine miles from the Demilitarized Zone. The DMZ is 2.5 miles wide and stretches the width of the peninsula and remains the most fortified border in the world. Soldiers from the opposing countries have stared menacingly at each other for sixty years. The DMZ is still filled with hundreds of thousands of landmines, even after the 1953 cease fire of the Korean War.
Lately, the military presence in Hwacheon has clearly increased. The presence of the South Korean army is readily apparent. On a walk from my apartment to the grocery store, soldiers are ever-present with machine guns strapped around their shoulders with nearby bunkers constructed out of sandbags. More soldiers guard the busy intersections and main thoroughfares. Tanks have now appeared and move freely about the town, which makes the already congested streets more difficult to maneuver. Even my school has adapted to this increased military presence as the schedule been delayed several times when the school bus was stuck behind a column of slow-moving tanks.
Although I awake daily to emails from uneasy family and friends, the South Koreans are unintimidated by the North Korean nuclear threats. Even in this small town, the residents carry on with their daily lives despite the escalation of threats from the North. Korean families have not stock-piled bottled water, rice, or kimchi (a Korean food staple often made by fermenting cabbage underground for several weeks). Farmers continue to tend their crops, shops stay open until dark, and children still practice taekwondo after school.
The news reports from the U.S. seem far more concerned with North Korea’s military and the subsequent nuclear threat than the South Korean media.
The “crisis” is simply not a topic of discussion.
Only when asked, my Korean coworkers respond in broken-English that they have “no fears” and there is “no reason to be worried.” One colleague believes the continuous threats are “just North Korea tricking South Korea in order to get food and fuel.” Another colleague confidently added that, “South Korea does not fear North Korea. They cannot attack us again because we have the support of the rest of the world and the United States.”
They almost appear desensitized to the North’s frequent provocations and merely accept them as the price of sharing the same peninsula with a fanatical North Korean dictatorship. Even my elementary-aged students are not fazed by soldiers performing military drills on the school playground or hearing distant explosions sporadically throughout the day.
On April 9, North Korea advised that all 1.4 million foreigners living in South Korea should evacuate. The U.S. State Department issued a release stating that those living or traveling in South Korea need not take these special precautions. On April 10, Pentagon officials stated their belief that North Korea is planning to launch one or more ballistic missiles from its east coast. So here I remain, fighting my own battles with my students over learning nouns, verbs, and adjectives, in English, of course.
Despite the state of affairs, South Koreans are extremely optimistic for the future. Many hope for unification of the two countries. One co-worker told me that “North Korea has more fear than South Korea. Maybe in the future North Korea and South Korea can unite, but not now.” I hope he’s right.