We Interrupt This Message: South Korea - an Update

Oh, if it were only this simple.

(Yeah, I realize they misspelled 'warmonger' but right now I'll take what I can get.)

I realize  that my next post is supposed to be part III of my Bali trip review, but I really feel that, given the present circumstances on the Korean Peninsula, I should probably interrupt my 'fun in Bali' series with a public service announcement and address a frequently-asked question:  How are you doing there in South Korea with the threat of what seems like an imminent nuclear war hanging over your head? And why, in God's name are you still there?

The real, honest-to-goodness answer is:  we're all doing just fine, but, yeah, I'll admit it - we're a little tense.   (Just a note:  if the 1.2 million expatriates in Seoul all packed up and left, it would cause serious problems in many aspects of the South Korean economy - which is exactly what Kim Jong Un wants to happen.  It would be an excellent way to damage the South Korean economy and force concessions from the international community without firing a single missile.  In some circles, this type of behaviour is known as bullying.)

Contrary to what the media would have you believe, my family and I are not hunkered down in subterranean bunkers, and we're not crushing each other pushing our way through the embassy gates to score that seat on the last transport out of the city.  We aren't crowding the highways with our cars (well, no more than usual) as we head desperately for points south, as far away from Pyeongyang and its missiles as we can get.  The children aren't carrying gas masks strapped to their backpacks, and there are no civil defense drills taking place (well, they always have them on the 15th of each month anyway, so I suppose that will happen as usual, but otherwise, nothing extra.)

Our Korean friends are their predictable polite, calm, implacable, stoic, hardworking selves.  If they're frightened or having panic attacks, or even worried, they're certainly not showing it to anyone.  Most of them shrug off the rhetoric coming out of Pyeongyang as the same old bluster that they've heard before so many times.  If they got themselves worked up every time North Korea rattled its sabers, it's doubtful they would be in the position they are now as one of the economic powerhouses of Asia.  

I admit that this is only the first time that I have ever lived in a nation where threats of nuclear annihilation are made on a near-quarterly basis, so it has taken some getting used to.  However, I pride myself on remaining calm under pressure (I am not very good under everyday circumstances, but give me a compound fracture or a set of keys locked in a car, and I will shine) and have done my best to emulate the cool matter-of-factness of my South Korean hosts.  

The Embassies - who have only heard these North Korean temper tantrums about a gazillion times- are all saying the same thing:  no change in status, no advice to leave the country, no travel advisories for people thinking about coming to Korea.  Situation normal.  Really.  Restaurants are full.  The streets are full of cars.  People are walking their dogs and kids are riding their bikes. School's in session.  No one is boarding up their windows with garbage bags and duct tape.

But for our friends and families who are worried, you should know this:  there are plans in place at every school, every company, and every organization that serves expats.  Plans for communication, plans for evacuation, plans for safety. Frankly, between my school, Son#2's school, MrL's company, and the United States Army, I am up to my ears in safety plans, evacuation routes, telephone chains, and emergency notification procedures.  (At this point, my biggest problem is just keeping all of them straight in my mind. Actually implementing something would probably be a walk in the park by comparison.) MrL's company has a plan, and the US Embassy has a plan, which, in turn, is coordinated with the US Military plan. We are enrolled in the State Department STEP program so that the State Department knows we are here and can contact us with timely information;  we have important papers and some supplies in a 'go bag', ready if we need it.  We have a family meeting place, contact people, and a family emergency plan.  And we have the added benefit of living within a quick walk of the US military base here in Seoul.

We are well-informed and well-prepared, and our companies/schools/organizations are doing their best to walk that fine line of assuring us that all is well  while also encouraging us to plan for every possible contingency.

So we're prepared for all contingencies - I mean, really, really, well-prepared.  Of course,  if the pattern of the last 40-odd years of my life holds true for me - it should turn out to have been all for nothing.

Believe me, I would be delighted.


Nance said…
Thanks for this update from South Korea proper. Believe me, the news coverage in the US is dire and, by your "in person" account, sensationalized. Our Cleveland paper today has a headline "South Korea Raises Its Threat Alert Level" on page two. Last night, on NBC Nightly News, the crux of the reporting was that Kim Jong-Un was making the US dance. Sigh.

But I'm glad to know you are well-prepared and as safe as possible. It's good to hear the Real Story.
I'm glad to hear it. I did hear a news report from North Korea that said that all looked normal there too, so it does sound like empty threats...but still.
MsCaroline said…
Nance -Well, *technically*, the US Army *did* raise the Threat Alert level from 'Watchcon 3' to 'Watchcon 2' (don't you just love military acronyms?) But as far as I can tell, that's the same as raising the terrorism threat in the US from green to blue or some equally vague progression through that terrorism Threat Rainbow they instituted after 9/11. But as far as I can tell, it's not until they get to Watchcon 1 that anyone would be paying any attention, and even then I think they go from 'Watchcon' to 'Threatcon' and start all over again at #3. We've got a few levels to go before you see any of the Koreans get rattled.
MsCaroline said…
nappy - as I understand it, they've been so busy in North Korea celebrating Kim Jong Il's birthday (or something like it)that no one may be even paying any attention to it. Of course, it's anyone's guess as to what the North Korean media tells its people, but still.
Wilma said…
Watchcon and Threatcon? Those are new ones on me. As far as I've ever heard from my Navy father and Air Force husband the only official threat indicator is called DEFCON and 2 is the highest it's ever been.

Stay safe, my friend. We're thinking of you all.
MsCaroline said…
I never heard of them before, either, and I was in Germany during the Cold War! I think they're conditions specific to Korea, actually: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WATCHCON

Thanks for the good thoughts. We appreciate them!
"I am not very good under everyday circumstances, but give me a compound fracture or a set of keys locked in a car, and I will shine." That is me to a T! My parents are somewhat worried about us being in China with regards to what is going on your way, but I say closer is better if they ever aim for the States... Glad to know you are prepared, and wish the actual "emergencies" ever went like the practice ones do! I'd close with "be safe" but it sounds like you're so safe a little danger might be a welcome change! ;)
Trish said…
It's reassuring to know you are prepared as best you can be if things escalate. It's great to hear how upbeat and sensible you are all being.
I have been watching the coverage here in the UK and not knowing whether to worry (clearly the man's a nutter) or to be all Korean and unflappable (is it all sound and fury signifying nothing?). Glad to hear your perspective and to know both that you are not worried and that you are all prepared. Can we go back to Bali now?
MsCaroline said…
Elizabeth - yes, it's hard to know which attitude to take, but I think it's safe to agree that the media's made it sound much worse than it really is. We were at dinner last night with 2 Korean friends and they both didn't even bring it up until we did - and then they both sort of rolled their eyes. The way I feel about it - it's probably nothing, but it can't hurt to be prepared! And, as for Bali - yes! Writing posts about it gives me a chance to sort of do it all over again...and it was so nice!
Stacy said…
A friend just posted a link to this article http://edition.cnn.com/2013/04/11/world/asia/irpt-north-korea-expat-concerns/index.html on Facebook, so I commented with the link to this post of yours. CNN has a link where you can share your thoughts. You should send them your link! Perhaps you can be an expat correspondent. :)
MsCaroline said…
Stacy - so strange that you posted this - I actually read that article a day or two ago and thought the same thing, but by the time I got myself registered as a contributor, I had run out of time and figuring out how to do iReporting fell off my to-do list. I was actually motivated by the fact that one of the expats quoted commented on the gas masks in the subways - they are always there, in case of fire in the subway, not because of the threat of war! Fortunately, a number of other comments addressed that point, so I don't feel so compelled to set things straight!
MsCaroline said…
Heather - well, God forbid anything 'really' happen, but yes, day after day of scary headlines does get old after a while. And it's too bad that I only shine in extreme circumstances - where is that calmness and quick thinking on an everyday basis?

Trish - well, we are definitely trying to emulate the South Koreans, who just don't let this stuff bother them. And it does help that I don't have much access to US tv or radio, and I don't speak Korean - unless I choose to read English language headlines online, I can live in a peaceful bubble!

Elizabeth- I am absolutely ready to return to Bali! In fact, thinking about it has been a welcome break from all the chaos in the news. I wish I could just magick myself right back to our little bungalow under the palm trees.

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