Foreigners to South Korea are often disconcerted by what they perceive as a bizarre, nationwide calm towards North Korea. Even as the possibility of yet another proxy war rears its ugly face, South Koreans seem to mundanely go about their everyday lives. I myself struggled to explain this nonchalance in a discussion with my high school history teacher. Utterly perplexed, he had asked me, "How are they so calm about this?"
Many think South Koreans, particularly the postwar generation, indifferent; after all, most of the country never directly experienced the war. The Korean War, which only dates 60 years back, seems to already have faded into mere echoes of a distant memory. Han Kang, author of Human Acts, perfectly captures this perplexing image of an eerily serene South Korea in her recent New York Times article, "While the U.S. Talks of War, South Korea Shudders":
"Even as the North tests nuclear weapons, even amid reports of a possible pre-emptive strike on North Korea by the United States, the schools, hospitals, bookshops, florists, theaters and cafes in the South all open their doors at the usual time. Small children climb into yellow school buses and wave at their parents through the windows; older students step into the buses in their uniforms, their hair still wet from washing; and lovers head to cafes carrying flowers and cake."
Han Kang continues, describing how South Koreans act as if they live on an island, not a peninsula. With North Korea's ever-differentiating language, dress, culture, and even physical appearance, perhaps it has become all too easy to forget that the 38th parallel is a manmade laceration. North Korea seems surreal, 'other,' almost imaginary – it might as well be dissipating from the minds of South Koreans. Right?
But this assumption could not be further from the truth. What one may see as indifference is internalized terror – this fear, this tension, this constant instability has seeped into the very bones of all South Koreans throughout our lives. Numbed, maybe. But seldom indifferent or unaware. South Koreans possess widely varying opinions on North Korea and how a relationship with their estranged sister should look like, if there even should be a relationship at all. Nevertheless, every single one of us has lived with the issue of North Korea throbbing, waiting, like a feverish heartbeat, alongside the pulse of our everyday lives.
Perhaps we are simply more experienced at dealing with such tension and pressure compared to the rest of the world, for better or for worse. Perhaps this facade of serenity has morphed into a national coping mechanism. But dread percolates through each moment of our lives with every new headline, every haphazard comment. Reality shakes us. We struggle to understand this reality: one that has been gnawing away at us from childhood when we first learned of the DMZ, one that we need not vocalize, at least within our own borders, because every Korean understands. It is in our blood, as horrifying and visceral as those scarlet drops, but an inseparable part of our national identity all the same.
Many believe that our tumultuous history with North Korea contributes to our "한," or "han," a term that roughly translates to "sorrow," "bitterness," or "resentment" that has coagulated and hardened within us. But here is what makes the word special – it is almost exclusively used by the South Korean people to describe their own affect. In other words, South Koreans, hyperaware of their own emotional and mental state, have a word that describes this sense of emptiness, instability, and disillusionment. So, no, it would be inaccurate to believe that the South Koreans are somehow unfeeling. We feel deeply, endlessly, our own desperation for relief from incessant emotional bombardment.
As Han Kang herself asks, where do we draw the line between savagery and dignity? Victory and peace? And will we ever take genuine care of that laceration at the 38th parallel? Will we ever treat it, bandage it, allow it to heal? Or will a new gash weep blood?