Dispatches from South Korea

University alumni who are living and working in South Korea report on tensions in the Korean peninsula.

by Ian J Byrne

“This isnâÄôt StarCraft,” said Kim Tae-young, the former South Korean defense minister, referring to the current crisis on the Korean peninsula following the recent North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Tae-young resigned following criticism that the South Korean response to the attacks was too little too late.

True, the situation is not being handled by a group of South Korean youth playing their countryâÄôs “national sport” in a never-ending LAN party, but its implications are as serious as a cloaked Terran ghost with a nuke.

Tensions have been high following the Nov. 23 attacks that killed two civilians and two South Korean Marines on the island near the disputed Northern Limit Line. South Korea and the U.S. conducted joint naval exercises as a response, much to the dismay of North Korea. At the same time, North Korea has stepped up criticism of the South, saying their response shows that South Korea is “far from drawing a lesson from the deserved punishment.” In one of his first statements as South KoreaâÄôs new defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin said South Korea would carry out air strikes in response to any further North Korean attacks.

Any escalation leading to an armed conflict would be economically and politically catastrophic. While much attention is paid to how an armed conflict would affect economies and state relationships, how does the prospect of an armed conflict affect daily life on the ground in South Korea?

Through an e-mail exchange, I caught up with two University of Minnesota alumni currently living and working in the Seoul area. Vinny Pecchia, class of 2009, works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “It was surreal, my coworkers were all huddled around a computer reading about the story as it unfolded,” said Pecchia referring to the Nov. 23 attacks. “My first thought was that I would already be shipping out, and I just got here,” he said.

For the most part, his South Korean coworkers didnâÄôt seem to worry as much as his fellow American coworkers. “The women were a bit scared, more for their kids having to go to war,” Pecchia said.

John Morgan, class of 2009, is teaching English in Incheon, a city just to the west of the capital, Seoul. “The atmosphere was a bit tense after the attack, but it didnâÄôt last too long. It is odd because it affected me more than [the locals],” Morgan said. He attributed that to the fact South Koreans have become accustomed to living under the threat of a North Korean attack during the past 50 years.

However, he said that the people around him worry a lot more than they initially let on. “ThereâÄôs been a lot of gossip. People talk about the North Koreans bombing the area I live in and that war is imminent,” Morgan said. He noted that the South Koreans he has talked to about the situation get their information from the Internet and Japan.

“Having befriended some American and Korean soldiers, I feel comforted knowing there are incredibly competent people overseeing my safety,” he said. “It almost seems selfish how my idea is to run south in the event of an attack while they will be heading north.”

Morgan was told by the U.S. embassy to prepare for an emergency should rising tensions lead to an armed conflict. Pecchia has received instructions from the U.S. military to go to a port city in the south to evacuate the country in the event of an attack.

Due to its close proximity to the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, which separates the North from the South, Seoul would fall victim to North Korean artillery shells in the event of a military conflict. The shelling would destroy over 50 years of economic development.

North Korea has been pushing the limits of international patience the past few years. In Oct. 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear device. Following this, North Korea took part in the six-party talks and, for a bit, the road to North Korean disarmament looked promising. That all fell apart in April 2009, when North Korea conducted a missile test claiming it was a satellite launch. The international community condemned the move.

North Korea then withdrew from the six-party talks and expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from the country.

A year later, the South Korean naval ship Cheonan sunk, killing over 40 sailors. North Korea was blamed, beginning an escalation of tensions between North and South Korea that was capped by the Nov. 23 attack.

North KoreaâÄôs current political situation is to blame for its recent provocations. The ailing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il officially named his youngest son Kim Jong Un as his successor. Despite having absolutely no military experience, Kim Jong Un âÄî who is estimated to be 26 years old âÄî was promoted to a military position equivalent to a four-star general. Kim Jong Un is seen as inexperienced and lacks a power base within the country. Unfortunately for everybody, Kim Jong Un has to go about impressing the North Korean elite by sinking ships and shelling islands. These irresponsible actions further destabilize the already unstable Korean peninsula.

Despite the fear of a North Korean attack that hovers over South Korea, Morgan appreciates the overall South Korean acceptance of the situation. “There isnâÄôt much you can do other than live a normal life. I still go to the coffee shop and I still play screen golf. Life goes on as usual.”


Ian J Byrne welcomes comments at [email protected].