THE COST OF DOING BUSINESS?

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I was in class last Tuesday when I got the news. I was teaching my usual interminable two hour slog to the same three listless college boys, retreading a lesson from a book that I have squeezed dry for the last five years, when my phone buzzed. I quickly glanced at the screen and saw that it was from my girlfriend:

“Ah… North Korea…”

Minhee, my girl, usually eschews politics in her frequent text messages. These missives most often deal instead with when or where we shall meet, what we’ll have for dinner, or more simple and heartfelt expressions, such as “I miss you” and “kiss.” The shuttered state to the North has never entered into our texting dialogues, and at once I knew that something was up.

“What do you mean?” I tapped back.

“Check the internet. I’m on the subway and some guy turned up the news loudly…”

I was in class last Tuesday when I got the news. I was teaching my usual interminable two hour slog to the same three listless college boys, retreading a lesson from a book that I have squeezed dry for the last five years, when my phone buzzed. I quickly glanced at the screen and saw that it was from my girlfriend:

“Ah… North Korea…”

Minhee, my girl, usually eschews politics in her frequent text messages. These missives most often deal instead with when or where we shall meet, what we’ll have for dinner, or more simple and heartfelt expressions, such as “I miss you” and “kiss.” The shuttered state to the North has never entered into our texting dialogues, and at once I knew that something was up.

“What do you mean?” I tapped back.

“Check the internet. I’m on the subway and some guy turned up the news loudly…”

“Ten minute break,” I told my students, and dashed to the nearby faculty office where I commandeered the first computer I could find. The homepage was set to Naver, a popular Korean portal (think Yahoo East). Usually Naver is filled with photographs of girl groups and soccer players, accompanied by seductive headlines written in Hangul. What I saw instead was a photograph of an island, from which rose several columns of black smoke.

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I gleaned what I could from the Korean headlines and quickly jumped over to the NY Times for an English-language version of the obvious shit that just went down. The story was short and sketchy on specifics, other than that North Korea had attacked the South’s Yeonpyeong island with ARTILLERY, killing a couple of marines and wounding several more. It wasn’t until the next day that we were to find out that two civilians were killed as well. Article quoted the time of the attack as 2:36 PM. It was now 4, less than 90 minutes after the first shell fell. Was the South going to hit back? Would the North bomb more targets? Was this it – the awakening of the spectre that lurks in the room every day on The Peninsula – the shitstorm, the great HOLY FUCK, the real resumption of the Korean War in all of its catastrophic glory?

I told my three students – all recently out of the army – to close their books get out of class, that their country was under attack. I then headed home and proceeded to have about six different hurried and sweat-inducing phone conversations with some of my expat buddies, as well as my girlfriend. We felt a bit safer as each moment went by and the air raid sirens didn’t blare, but one thing was for sure: North Korea had deliberately attacked the South – raining shells down on a civilian-occupied island. This was a brazen act of war, and coming on the heels of the sinking of the Cheonan last march (which sent 46 young sailors to their watery deaths), a dangerous and almost unthinkable provocation. But was I surprised? Could I be surprised by such a thing? After all, North and South Korea have technically been at war since 1950: an armistice ended the first round of the Korean War, but a peace treaty never followed. Tuesdays attack was a startling reminder of this fact.

Within a couple of hours I joined Sam, Nick Bibby, and Sir David Scraggs for some pints down at Rock and Roll Bar, where we watched the grim newscasters read from teleprompters, the usual backdrop of nighttime Seoul replaced by a massive photo of Yeonpyeong’s burning buildings. This wasn’t like before. Images of war were being splashed across the TV sets of an otherwise passive nation. This would be sure to inflame public opinion, which can be a dangerous business in a nation so susceptible to groupthink: I read today that 70% of South Koreans polled favor some kind of military action against the North. This is up from just 30% last March. Are they finally sick of eating shit?

“This is serious stuff, mate. The worst I’ve seen in eight years here,” said Sir David, staring at the crimson and amber colors on the screen. We nodded our heads and then got amazingly drunk.

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Angry South Korean hardliners burn the Kims in effigy, along with the NK flag.

* * *

That night, after my sixth or seventh pint, I had a long conversation with Angry Steve, who is always good to counsel during such times of strife and political instability. Angry’s up on the issues: He’s a thinker and a reader and his opinion matters. I pride myself in having smart friends, and he just may top the heap in many ways. We played out some scenarios, trying to predict which way this thing really could go, but in the end were left with no real answers. It’s fun to play at pundit, but in reality no one knows shit. Steve, as a reasonable cautious and practical man, predicted nothing would come of it:

“I don’t know, but the South just has TOO much to lose. Are they going to risk it all with some sort of revenge attack? Or is living with these provocations just the cost of doing business? I think the latter is much more likely.”

Most people seem to agree with Steve, that the South will suck it up yet again, keep making steel, cell phones, cars and semi-conductors, and brush off world perception that they’re the biggest bunch of pussies on the globe. But hey, who cares, as long as the money’s flowing? Right?

“You know the world is laughing at you guys?” I told my girlfriend during a late night chat last week. I was a bit boozed-up and feeling candid. “How long are you gonna let them pull this shit.”

“You may think that, but this is different…” She said. “We are carefully weighing our options and will act as we must.”

South Korea is kind of like a nouveau-riche family that recently bought a mansion in one of the nicest parts of town and has grown to be accepted by their other wealthy neighbors. North Korea is like the South’s poor, pissed-off, white-trash cousin that lives in a trailer park on the shitty side of the tracks. Sometimes North Korea gets drunk and onery and drives over to their snooty cousins’ house at 3 AM. They blast loud music, throw beer bottles out of their pickup and do donuts in the front yard. Sometimes they even take out a stop sign with their twelve guage. They’re a pain-in-the-ass and an embarrassment, but they are family. However, even family members are capable of killing each other.

* * *

Should I stay or should I go? That is the question. In the event of a breakout of open hostilities, do I stick it out or skedaddle? Will I even have a choice, or just be rounded up and shipped out? I do know that there are evacuation plans for American nationals in the event (I would say “unlikely event” but I don’t really believe that anymore) of war. There are several collection points around the country. The nearest one to Busan is at the Korean naval base in Jinhae, about 45 minutes away, providing that traffic isn’t totally evil.

I’ve decided that I would, or will, stay. This is my home now. This is where my life is. My parents are gone. My girl is here, as is my house, most all of my possessions, along with two adorable and tempermental cats. Busan is also far from the DMZ and cut off by a big-ass river. It was the only big city to not fall to the North the first time around; I doubt that they could make it here this time, if there is a this time. Also, as a writer, it’d be too good of a story to walk away from. Whether this is a ridiculous romantic notion, selfishness, or the height of naivete is for you to decide, but if the shit goes down, I’m staying put.

But will it go down? Will it come to that?

I don’t know the answer. None of us do. But my hunch is that something will break along the way. Small bouts of war may very well be the cost of doing business, but at one point that cost will be too high – more likely more emotionally exhorbinant than anything else – but that’ll be enough. When that happens, there will be no going back. I’d like to bank on peace winning out, but history gives us pretty lame odds as far as that’s concerned.

Stay tuned: this could get nasty.



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