On September 3, 2017, on leave from the military, I was strolling through a museum in Seoul with my family when my phone buzzed with a New York Times alert: “North Korea conducts its 6th nuclear test.” It was the latest in a series of provocations that had included ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests, straining relations with its neighbors and threatening the established order.
The monitor screen at the museum was also reporting this breaking news. A tremor was detected — “potential hydrogen bomb,” “complete ICBM.” As I processed the words flashing by, I checked my phone to make sure there was no recall from the military. If I was called back, I would only have an hour to be back at my duty station.
Other museumgoers took brief glances at the monitor and continued on with their tours. Every so often someone would pause for a minute or two, but most went on their merry ways. It reminded me once again of what had perplexed me the most during my military service in Korea: the Korean public’s nonchalance about the North Korean threat.
When I caught up with my father in the exhibit, I asked him about the ambivalence to the nuclear test I observed. He answered, “We have learned to live with it. If we react to every provocation, we won’t be able to live.”
American news outlets focus on the North Korean threat and paint a narrative of brinkmanship. A peninsula on the edge of war, one false move away from fire and brimstone. Whether war is imminent is difficult to judge, but news of South Korea tends to be channeled to readers in America via sensational or reactionary rhetoric that often cries danger.
After 10 years in America seeing South Korea through the window of Western media, I returned home to complete my military service in the winter of 2015. I was surprised to see that the alarm and concern I had expected were absent. Provocations were met only by brief pauses much like the ones I had witnessed at the museum; people moved on with their lives.
In contrast, my battle buddies were more concerned about the threats from the North. They had reason to be: The unit would go on alert when North Korea launched its missiles. But even they were seemingly unconcerned on a day-to-day basis. Most days, they were focused on finding better jobs and improving their English skills.
Yes, the media diligently reported on each nuclear test. Yes, the government issued statements condemning such tests. Yes, the military heightened its readiness after each test. However, the relative calm in South Korea remained unbroken after each provocation.
I have come to understand that the nonchalance stems from desensitization. After years of living under constant threat from the North, this abnormal circumstance has become the new normal in the South. Just as mutually assured destruction became the new normal during the Cold War, South Koreans have learned to live with ever-present dangers.
No one that I talked to in Korea doubts the certainty of destruction in the event of war. But South Koreans have made a choice. Instead of stockpiling canned goods and cowering in fear, Koreans choose to go to work day after day, start families and make plans for the future. Maybe this is the essence of living — why we do not react to every provocation. Life and fear cannot coexist, so Koreans have chosen life.
Now, dialogue is replacing war rhetoric on the Korean peninsula, and there are hopes that the Winter Olympics in Korea will bring a new phase of peace. As I return to Yale after completing my military service, I look back not at a nation on the edge of war but at a nation that perseveres. The Korea that I did not know is the one that I will remember, half a world away.
Sang Won Lee is a junior in Hopper College. He spent the past two years on leave from Yale, completing military service in South Korea. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .