“What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish” - W. H. Auden.
On March 26 of this year a South Korean Navy ship carrying one hundred and four personnel sank off the west coast of the country, killing forty six seamen. A national investigation concluded that the incident was caused by a torpedo fired from a North Korean midget submarine. On November 23, North Korean artillery shelled an Incheon island with dozens of rounds, damaging houses and military infrastructure and killing four people. These two attacks framed my arrival in South Korea and for the first time in my life I found myself living in a country on the verge of war. At least, this was what the rest of the world was saying. It seemed the further from South Korea I looked, the more sensational, violent and imminent the situation became. Australia's ABC news was terrifying my parents with reports that Seoul was close to being evacuated; The New York Times insisted that the South was convinced another attack was close at hand; and the London Times touted claims that North Korea believed the US was dragging the entire peninsula to the very edge. Here, however, in the midst of what should have been the most tense social environment, people were going to work using the same transport routes, eating dinner in crowded restaurants in the city and barely sharing two words about “the war”. Furthermore, the news came through with a far calmer, balanced view of the situation. This appeared as a complicated reversal of what I expected and I wondered why countries so far removed were causing such hysteria when the one that should have been the most effected was keeping a level media head.
The first I heard of further hostilities between the two Koreas was two days after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. This information came from my mother via Facebook in a long paragraph where she described a report from the ABC news. Her exact words were as follows:
“News tonight pretty grim. Nth and Sth Korea on the brink of war. Very worried about you both as scary talk of Nth Korea having the capability to reduce Seoul to a fireball!! Please find out what is your best course of action if things escalate.”
These comments prompted me toward momentary panic and I immediately looked up online news reports in sources I recognised, starting with the Sydney Morning Herald. The first thing that caught my eye was a story entitled 'North Korea Gravely Concerns Gillard' and while it differed from other inflammatory news articles by concentrating on Australia's attitude toward the hostilities rather than the acts themselves, the heading struck me as ridiculously suggestive. Was it an attempt to create a bond between leader and people? Perhaps by seeing the concern of a personable figure of government, everyday Australians would start involving themselves in an issue that has been present for decades. What it did was make me realise that a story doesn't have to be directly incitive to disturb the water. An issue that has relatively little social effect on the country where it occurred was being made a social concern over six thousand kilometres away. And to top it off, when I asked Mum what she knew of the attack two weeks later she told me that each day any news on Korea was pushed further and further back to make room for the next big thing on page one. Finally there was just one thin column near the sports section, like an almost forgotten memory. One thin column for an entire country's pain.
Now, almost a month later, The Herald is taking a different angle: 'N Korea's Nuclear Capacity Worries Russia'. My immediate thought was, why now? Why after so many years of conflict and aggression from North Korea was Russia voicing its concern? Surely anything that finally worries Russia should be something I need to keep an eye on, particularly something with the capability to level my city. The text warned of North Korea's capacity to enrich uranium to use in the construction of nuclear weapons but this is information the world has had for years. There have been nuclear tests conducted from North Korea since 2006 and each time it happens we panic, check the state of our bunkers and call for immediate action against the North's leader. What I can't understand is why we don't recognise the threat at any other time. Why is it only spoken of when the North pokes it head clear and calls for attention? Are we that starved for drama that we let it build up to breaking point so we have more to frighten us?
I can only assume that the style of Seoul's media coverage of the North and South situation is due to Korean attitudes toward crisis. My editing position at Open Radio North Korea means that I have contact with an enormous number of reports dedicated to the relationship between the two countries and in each one I am alerted to their factual, un-biased and balanced portrayal. While working I read headlines like 'S. Korean Nuclear Envoy Rules Out Dialogue' and 'NK Leader Kim Jung-il Reveals Intention to Allow IAEA Nuke Inspection' and found the stories within refreshingly informative, dealing with the nuts and bolts of North Korea's internal workings and its connections to surrounding countries. Through these I learnt about its policies on international censorship, criminal justice and the trade embargo, to name a few. Others were focused on the political turbulence within the North's regime with direct reference to Kim Jung-il's lingering illness and his son's, Kim Jung-eun, ascension to power. I was fascinated, so why weren't other countries' media sources informing people about the way North Koreans live with the rest of the world? Where was the other side of the coin in the North's actions? My co-workers believe that the majority of aggressive gestures are the result of Jung-il “flexing his muscles” in preparation for his take-over. I shared a dialogue with the editor of the radio station about South Korean perspectives that was as illuminating as it was touching:
Me: Are you scared that North Korea will attack Seoul?
Hyun-seo: No. Things like this happen a lot but nothing comes of it.
Me: Do you think it could happen one day?
Hyun-seo: Maybe with the new leader.
Me: Would China help the North if they wanted to start a war?
Hyun-seo: They are allied with the North but no, they would not help them.
Me: What do you wish would happen to North Korea?
Hyun-seo: We want to take down the border. It's very sad for us because we want Korea to be one country. Their people are the same as us but they live very badly. It's a sad thing.
His words made me think more deeply about the two countries and how once upon a time there was no border or armed walls cutting them in half. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have Australia split down the middle and know that people just like me were tortured and suffering and dying and I couldn't do a thing about it except for wait. And of course I got a little angry. If we are a global community, why are these news stories sensationalising an all out war when they could be concentrating on the inner trauma of the Korean people en masse? Who actually cares enough to forego top-selling drama pieces and concentrate on the little known details that make this such a difficult position?
Now me, I'm not one to buy into unsubstantiated hype. Peer pressure had little effect on me and threats generally fell on deaf ears and so by surrounding myself with largely unconcerned Koreans, I felt that the threat of the North was something I needn't pay too much attention to. It was a learning experience; living in a country classified as teetering on the edge of war but seeing the everyday workings of its people. This isn't a war zone, this is a degree of tension that is ever present and constantly at flux. I personally doubt it will snap any time soon and I base my opinion on those around me. And of course as I wrote these last few words a scheduled air raid siren, one I had no idea was planned, started going off. I swallowed my words and readied myself to rush to the basement of the building only to receive a call from East telling me it was a drill and not to mind the low flying fighter planes. I end this article red-faced but hopeful.
Lara was incredibly frightened by the air raid sirens. Seriously.