I had assumed I would be safe in peaceful little Wonju, a city around an hour and a half from Seoul by bus, but while we were eating sangyupsal and drinking soju together, a Korean friend of mine informed me that due to the myriad army bases stationed on the outskirts of Wonju, we would be one of the first places North Korea targeted.
Oh well, I thought, if it’s to be nuclear war then what’s the difference anyway? We continued eating and drinking and talking about nothing in particular.
This was two weeks ago, two weeks until I would finish my year’s contract teaching English in South Korea and return to Scotland. I was teaching English at a hagwon, a private school, in Wonju, a city of 2,50,000 but whose ambience and close proximity to the mountains and countryside gave it a far more intimate feel.
In my final class the following Monday I asked my middle school students what they thought of the escalating threats from the north. Six of the 10 students told me that they hoped North Korea would attack because they wanted to die. When I asked them why one student told me, “Because tired”.
A few other students muttered “Me too”. This reaction was typical of the middle school students I taught, who from the moment school finished would spend time dashing from one academy to another, in their parents’ crazed determination to send them to university. These responses were also depressingly reflective of a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
One Sunday afternoon as I sat in a taxi on my way to play football at a nearby park, a sequence of military vehicles drove by. In the back of each truck sat 20 or so young Korean men in uniform, clutching their weapons tightly to their chests, their expressionless faces betraying none of the histrionics typical of western news coverage. The taxi driver only glanced at them briefly as one after another truck rolled by, but I was transfixed.
This taxi driver seemed to encapsulate the sentiments of most Koreans I encountered. They did not seem afraid and dealt with the increasingly belligerent rhetoric with a serene apathy — or perhaps a mild disdain.
As we ate dinner together, I bored my Korean co-teachers with my questions and concerns, but they were either disinterested in the topic or were dismissive of the north and its supposed firepower. My concerns were laughed off.
Even if North Korea did attack, it’s doubtful the hagwons would close. A friend of mine who owns a hagwon had once tried to close his school for the day, as a snowstorm had dropped a foot of snow on the ground in just two hours. Numerous parents had phoned to complain and shouted at him until he relented and reopened the school.
In the final week before I left, a South African told me that his American girlfriend had said they should pack an emergency bag —“just in case”. We laughed it off as the typical reaction of a melodramatic American, but both admitted that we did not have any idea what we would do in the event of an attack.
That Saturday in Myeongdong, the busy shopping district in the centre of Seoul, the shops were still filled with sanguine and earnest consumers, no sign of an ‘emergency bag’ being filled.
So I came to my final night in Korea. After I finished my final class and was humbled by the grace, generosity and kindness of the students, I stood outside my hagwon in the pleasant warmth of a Korean spring night. I embraced my director, and we exchanged amiable sentiments of thanks and gratitude. I told her to stay safe and to keep her family safe. And she smiled as she said: “Nick, no worry. Nick go to home. Sleep peaceful. See you again.”