Just how “scary” is it to live next to North Korea?

 

It’s been a month now since the news of Otto Warmbier’s horrific fate. I was part distraught, part fascinated by the footage of the sturdy-looking college student breaking down in tears before the North Korean authorities. Where the hell were they going to take him? What was he doing all those months afterwards? No photos exist of him in prison. The only photos that came after that dreaded court sentence are of him in a coma, with a breathing apparatus over his mouth.

 

A few days later he was dead.

 

I can understand why a story like this terrifies people – especially Americans – about North Korea. It sounds like a land where those who enter never return, even if they’re supposedly on a guided tour. Like some twilight zone of terror and human trafficking. The mysteriousness that surrounds it makes it all that scarier. It also makes for sensational news stories that people will read.

 

A question I get a lot is, “Wasn’t it scary to live next to North Korea?” My sister who still lives in South Korea today has also gotten this question from concerned people back in the US. Our mom bears the brunt of it. It’s usually her friends and colleagues who are worried. Sometimes it’s even made her worried. Sometimes.

 

Isn’t it scary to live next to a country with a blood bathed regime that is constantly threatening to blow you up?

 

Well, yeah, if you put it that way, it’s a little unnerving. I will admit that reality hung over me at times like a cloud, rumbling just enough to remind me it was there. It was stressful to read American (and British) news and see that North Korea was the headline story. And to tell people, “it’s all okay, nothing will happen” – you have to wonder how much you believe yourself versus how much you are trying to tell yourself, and of course tell them in order to comfort them.

 

But for the most part, I rarely even thought of North Korea while I lived in South Korea.

 

Basically it works like this: Life carries on, and you have to have to carry on with it. Your brain has this marvelous capacity to shut off certain imminent fears that you can do absolutely nothing about. You need to be able to wake up in the morning, go to work, have relationships, laugh, go to the movies, solve mundane problems and cook dinner. You have to think about the future and make plans based on what is rational and what is likely. Writing up a will for if you are blown to bits by North Korea is not as rational as saving money for your next vacation. Because the honest truth is, an attack from North Korea, however possible, is not likely.

 

I’m no whiz at foreign affairs, but you learn stuff by default, by osmosis, when you’re living in a certain country that concerns such affairs. You learn by hearing and observing what your South Korean colleagues are saying (or not saying). You find yourself studying the issue without realizing it because it’s of natural interest to you. You talk to some people in the US military and you get a feel for what’s going on. Not expert knowledge, but at least a feel.

 

And this is basically the answer to the “Aren’t-You-Scared-Of-North-Korea” question I’ve come up with over the last 5 years, of living in South Korea and in the US since:

 

If North Korea attacks the US or vice versa, there will be an ugly war and probably millions of deaths. No one wants that.   So there will be threats, there will be talk, but actual action is unlikely.

 

I know, it’s way oversimplified. I could go into more detail to explain how and what I mean by that – I could go into the dynamics that China and Japan play, or the shadowy world of North Korean politics. But like I said, I’m not an expert at all and that’s stuff you can find out for yourself if you care enough to research. This is simply the most logical conclusion I’ve come to that I have at the ready for when people ask me. Because they keep asking. I lived in South Korea, but in a lot of ways North Korea is more famous. Infamous. Oh well.

 

South Koreans, to put it frankly, are really too enmeshed in their own lives to seem bothered by the North. And they’re not enmeshed in trivial stuff, either. South Korean politics are pretty controversial and there was way more outrage about President Park Gun Hye and all her crooked deeds than there ever was about Fat Boy Kim. South Koreans do care about their neighbors across the border, but they seem to care way more about their own quality of life, political rights and immediate problems.   In my 4.5 years in South Korea I don’t recall a single South Korean person bringing up the situation with North Korea.

 

You have to wonder, though: Even though everyone is carrying on like life is normal, are they really not scared deep down?

 

So I have a confession to make. A year or two ago I got on Quora (always a bad idea if you’re not an professional at something) and I answered a question that went something like this: “Are South Korean people afraid of an attack by North Korea?”

 

I thought I had this one in the bag. I lived in South Korea, surely that gave me street cred, right? So rather arrogantly, without thinking, I wrote something like this: “No one in South Korea is worried about North Korea. They are too busy with their own lives!” I committed the cardinal sin of using an absolute statement.

 

A couple days went by, and a Quora user with equal street cred and a much more genteel background got on and called me out on this. “That is simply not true, how can you say no one cares or is worried…” he responded. I got a little dressing-down that day, in professional Quora-style. I made the most dignified acknowledgment I could and thought twice ever after about every comment I made in the public sphere.

 

Of course that person had a point: how could I know what all South Koreans were thinking deep inside? How could I know that any of them weren’t scared?

 

I would have to meet all 50 million South Koreans to answer that question accurately. I have assume that some of them do have worries. In the end, I can only speak from my own experience, and my experience – for what it’s worth – is that the South Koreans I knew were too busy with their own personal lives and messed up politics too worry about North Korea that much. If they did worry, they never talked about it. Not with me, anyway.

 

In fact, Yun Ho was less worried about North Korea than I was. We started dating in spring of 2013. Shortly afterwards the joint US-South Korea military training procedures began and that year the tensions were high. Every day BBC was featuring stories about the Dear Leader’s wrath and the regime’s hissy fits and threats of, “You had better stop this or else-!

 

It was getting to the point that the US government (overbearingly protective as usual) started suggesting that its citizens consider evacuating in case of an attack. I was distraught at the idea of leaving Yun after we had just started dating. I was even more distraught at the idea of him putting on his uniform and going into the reserve troops to fight. It sort of became this romantic, World War II situation that I was imagining myself a part of – now that I look at it in hindsight.

 

“Nothing’s going to happen,” Yun told me patiently. “This sort of thing happens all the time. There’s a big to-do, but nothing actually happens.

 

And he was right. Nothing did happen. I and my jittery fellow expats calmed down and got used to the routine.  Years passed and the joint military training started up again each spring. More threats. More talk of nuclear stuff. The factory in Kaesong shut down, DMZ tours would be suspended from time to time but otherwise, everything stayed the same. Yun was much more concerned about democracy in Seoul than in Pyongyang.   The South may look like a utopian paradise compared to the North, but beneath the shiny veneer is a lot of social and political ugliness. I got familiar with that ugliness as time went on and the problems of South Korea and my own personal life were at the forefront of my consciousness. I didn’t have time to also worry about North Korea.

 

Of course, that is still no guarantee that North Korea will not do something horrific. They could. Deep down, every South Korean knows this. Every able South Korean male has to commit to a minimum of two year’s military service to help the country prepare in case such an attack should happen. Above all, the South Korean soldiers are aware of the situation and they, if no one else, have to think about it. It all goes back to that survive and thrive instinct – life goes on. A bomb may go off but you can’t let that stop you from biking along the Han River or heading out the store for more kimchi, or getting married or cramming for the college entrance exam or hanging out in a game café with your friends.   Your brain knows how to be logical about this stuff, even if you don’t. You will go through the motions without even realizing it.

 

Over ten years ago I worked in a candy store. One day an Israeli couple came in. I was picking their brains and asking all about Israel and whether it was safe to go.

 

“Oh not right now!” the guy said. “Way too crazy right now.”

 

“Oh,” I said, a little disheartened. “How about a few months from now?”

 

“More like, two weeks from now.”

 

“But what about you two,” I pressed. “Aren’t you scared of the danger?”

 

They looked at each other and smiled. “No problem for us,” he told me. “You come visit in two weeks, but for us, it’s no big deal. We’re used to this shit.”

 

Now that I’ve lived in South Korea I think I understand what that couple was talking about. Israel is a dicier place than Korea, but the point remains.   Things usually look worse from the outside than they do on the inside. And even though there still is a real threat hanging overhead you have to carry on for sanity’s sake. You get used to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Long Goodbye to Korea

 

It’s been 6 months since Yun and I returned to the United States.  Seeing my parents outside the Phoenix Sky Harbor gate around midnight, with bleary eyes but smiling faces was a déjà vu experience.  Had I really been living in another country for 4 and a half years or was I just coming back from a trip to Disneyland?    Was this really “home for good,” or was this just another stage in part of a bigger journey?   

There were so many things to look forward to back in Arizona.  Blue skies and Mexican food, for one.  Yun would be able to pursue his career.  I would finally be able to spend Christmas with my family again.  Of course I was happy to be back.  Even so, I’d heard many tales about other expats who had a hard time transitioning out of the life in Korea.  They would often talk of the dreaded “reverse culture shock.”

The comments of these fellow expats raised questions in my mind.  Would I feel like I “belonged” or would my hometown feel alien somehow?    Would I be able to find a job?   Would the food be too greasy and salty?  One expat in some literary article spoke of suffocating isolation in his small hometown and complained that he didn’t like how personal and chatty servers in American restaurant were.  Fine, that was just silly.  But still.

It turned out my fears were mostly in vain.

The confidence I gained while living and working in Korea made my post-Korea experience in Arizona very different.  I got a job, a car and an apartment within one month of being back.  I wasn’t scared to go places and talk to people after almost 5 years of living in one of the most densely populated places on the planet.  Having lots of prior work experience made it much easier to adapt to new demands and situations at my new job.   And there was no language barrier either!

There were other more surprising ways in which Korea made life easier back in Arizona.  Hearing other languages like Spanish or Chinese at the grocery store wasn’t intimidating.  I was used to hearing a language I didn’t (fully) understand and I became much more sympathetic to expats living in the US after knowing what it was like to be one in Korea.  It wasn’t a conscious highhanded decision.  It was a natural reaction after living and traveling in foreign countries for a long time.  The world didn’t seem as big and overwhelming – just different wherever you went, which was part of the fun.

I thought about Korea, but I focused on the present situation and kept my head down and moved forward.  My brain seemed to be compartmentalizing: That was Korea, that’s what you did then – now you’re in Arizona, this is what you do now.  Yun bought some Korean ingredients at an Asian foods market and I bought seaweed crackers from Costco, but otherwise our diet was American.  We talked only once in a while about our memories in Korea.   Yun now spoke English to strangers and co workers.  It was sort of like living in another lifetime.

Sometimes I would remember Korea and it seemed like a dream.  Other times it seemed very real.  At about the 3 month point I began to miss Korea and felt pangs of nostalgia and bittersweetness about the places and people.  Leaving behind expat friends wasn’t as painful because I knew eventually they would leave too.  They weren’t part and parcel of it.  But the mountains, the cherry blossoms, the food, the lantern festivals, the neon lights, the music, and the Korean people were.

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My old route to work.

One of my favorite characters in fiction, Philip Marlowe, said, “to say goodbye is to die a little.”  Appropriately enough that comes from the novel The Long Goodbye.

Leaving Korea felt like a long goodbye.  Yun and I had planned for months how we would apply for his visa, send our things home, and travel Asia on our savings.  I knew Korea wasn’t “home,” but it had still become a part of me.  Even during our planning I couldn’t become detached from Korea.  The time went by faster than I’d hoped.  There would never be enough of it to explore the city, the countryside, and to eat another bowl of haejang gook.  Each year living there went by faster than the last.

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This is one of the things I’ll miss the most.

It seems natural for people to preserve their psyches by not thinking about what’s beyond their control.  If saying goodbye really does kill a little part of you then better not to dwell on it.  But did saying goodbye to Korea kill a part of me?  That sounds so…tragic.

Perhaps it’s the opposite.  Cheesy as it sounds, perhaps there’s a part of me that wasn’t there before thanks to Korea.  I’m a fuller person with a heart that belongs to two places.  Leaving Korea was sad, but it’s cool to know there’s a place on the other side of the world that is now comforting and familiar.  I can’t really imagine never going back.  Perhaps it’s not truly “goodbye” – it may well just be goodbye for now.

It’s Okay To Suck At Bike Riding

And other lessons I learned from Haruki Murakami

It’s not often that I have a special experience surrounding a book I read.  This one involves the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and what was probably the worst bike ride of my entire life.

September of last year Yun and I planned a do or die trip to Jeju Island, the so-called “Hawaii” of South Korea. We were leaving Korea soon and it didn’t seem right to do so before we paid a visit.   Why not go all out, we thought, and turn it into an epic bike trip. So with some thought we planned our itinerary, where we would stay, and how we would pack.

We didn’t exercise as much thought when it came to the weather.

About two days before the trip it occurred to me to check the weather status on Jeju Island. “Constant rain,” the Internet told me. All three days we would be there. All day long.

We shrugged it off. What’s a bit of rain, anyway? We figured. Isn’t that part of the adventure? A raincoat each and we’d be set. How bad could it be? (Here I take a moment to pause and exhale ever so slightly…)

When we arrived in Jeju City the rain was fairly mild. See, this is nothing! My psyche made a valiant attempt to see the glass half full. We hopped on a bus headed south and crashed that night at a “pension” (something like a Korean B&B, minus the breakfast part). We had ordered our rental bikes to be dropped off the next morning. And then the next morning came.

Rain. Frenzied, relentless, pell mell. Half filled with dread, half mortified I couldn’t look Yun in the eye. The rental bike guy came with our bikes to the hotel lobby at around 9 am. Seeing our hesitation he asked, “You know how to use these…?”

“Well…”

It’s not that we didn’t know how to ride a bicycle. Rather it was at this moment we realized the second critical error we had made.

The bikes we had rented were…how to describe them?  Professional bikes. Bike enthusiast bikes.

The kind of bike with the hand bars one foot lower than the seat so that you’re bent forward like a yogi. The kind of hand bars that have little horns you have to grip on top so that it’s almost impossible to pull the brake without killing the muscles in your pointer finger. These were bikes meant for true athletes, meant for aerodynamic cruising around hairpin turns. They didn’t even have kickstands. My idea of a bike was (and still is) a low-rider with a fat, cushy seat and a big basket in front for carrying a thermos of lemonade. We both stared for a moment in silence.

The bike rental guy showed us how to adjust our seats (even the lowest setting still put us in the leaning yogi position) and with a brusque, I-don’t-have-time-for-this kind of attitude sauntered back out into the rain and drove off in his rental van.

The hotel manager watched us from behind the counter and said, “Are you guys really going to ride those things out there?” I don’t understand Korean all too well, but I can’t imagine what else he could’ve said. I’m pretty sure at that moment both Yun and I reconsidered what we were doing, but we had checked out of the room, paid for the bikes, and the ship had sailed.   We donned our helmets and our pitiful rain ponchos we’d bought at a convenience store and headed out.

Something to note about riding in the rain: there’s riding in the rain on a level surface. And then there’s riding in the rain uphill. And then there’s riding in the rain uphill in the wrong clothes.   And then there’s all of those factors, in addition to riding on a bike you have absolutely no experience with.

I did okay until it got to the uphill part. I tried to think of it as a whimsical sort of misadventure I could sort of laugh my way through. That’s when my thighs started to die.

I was wearing jeans – probably the worst thing you could wear in a rainstorm – and they were soaked to the core in seconds. Along with my muscles they resisted the upward pull of my legs as I pedaled. I was thoroughly out of humor by the time I reached the uphill peak, and my exchanges with Yun were few and terse.

Downhill, however, was a nightmare.   As you recall, the position of the bike forced me into a leaning forward position. This meant that in order to look up, my neck and shoulders experienced a terrific strain. But if I looked down I couldn’t see my path ahead, and in rainy conditions this was nothing short of suicide. In addition to that, the brake was near impossible to pull and I almost wiped out at one point. After a few moments of primal, childlike crying from shock I remounted and changed the position of my hands. I was now able to reach the brake easier, but at the cost of my hands and wrists being uncomfortable.

Over the few hours biking on the road along the south coast of Jeju Island we experienced little variation and a lot of monotony. When uphill became too painful for us we stopped to rest under a bus stop – otherwise we kept moving. When downhill became too painful we got off and walked. Any time delaying at a restaurant or store just meant more time until we reached our destination. Almost every second of riding the bike was miserable, but the anticipation of getting back on the bike was even worse. So we just kept going.

I have two distinct memories of that epically disastrous ride. The first was when we passed the “Health and Sex” museum that happened to be next to the road. I’m not sure why, but we stopped and took a photo. The museum name was too long to get in the shot, so in the photo is Yun, standing in a field, in his helmet and poncho, next to the giant letters “S-E-X.”

The second memory was another time I nearly wiped out, although I managed this time not to hyperventilate. The front end of my bike swerved this way and that, and I had just enough presence of mind to steer it and pull on the brakes before crashing into a fence. When I finally stopped and looked up there was a giant, brown cow standing a few yards in front of me.   Its huge, unblinking eyes directly met mine. The sight of me had probably stopped it in the middle of chewing its cud. Normally I find cows to be less than intelligent animals, but this one regarded me with an unmistakable expression of both wonderment and disgust. I quickly backed up and rode off, ashamed.

Through some sort of miracle we made it all the way to Seogwi-po City, the only largish town on the southern coast. To add insult to injury the first two hotels had no vacancy. Finally we found a decent place with a friendly and sympathetic clerk. We peeled off our clothes, showered, found a Laundromat, ate a dinner of pork barbecue and called the bike rental guys to come pick our bikes up early. They said they would be happy to, but it would take a while because they had to pick up some other bikes that their other clients had quit using. Gee, go figure.

***

The next day of our Jeju Trip Yun and I were walking and riding in cabs instead of biking, but the memory of the day before still stung. After seeing a couple of waterfalls we found a coffee shop. It was another cold, wet day and we needed something warm, but we didn’t intend to stay long.

Unlike Seoul, the people of Jeju Island are rather friendly and casual. When I rattled off a stock-memorized sentence in Korean (“Do you happen to have hot chocolate?”) the barista became delighted and tried to start a conversation.

Oh dear.

I tried to muddle my way through her questions, grasping at any words I recognized and answering her as best as I could understand. Of course, I denied that I could speak Korean well, but this seemed to have no effect on her. She said something else I couldn’t understand, and came back a few moments later with a book in her hand. An English book. It was What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami.

“It’s one of my only English books, so you can read it,” she said, in essence. “This is a very special book to me.”

Gratefully I plopped down into a chair with my hot chocolate mug and it didn’t take me long to realize that Mr. Murakami’s book was strangely apropos to my whole Jeju misadventure. I lost track of time and soon had read the whole thing.

For the record, I have not read any Murakami novels. I am aware that he is a both a bestseller and a sort of darling of the critics, and maybe for that reason I felt a bias and didn’t bother. Illogical, I know. I guess I imagined he was someone pretentious and boring. And for all I know, his novels are that. But his memoir, Running (I’ll call it that for short) is anything but pretentious. And certainly anything but boring.

In a modest but riveting 127 pages Murakami matter-of-factly explains why he enjoys running long distances and how the self-discipline and enjoyment of it help him write novels. He shares pieces and glimpses of his life and his beginnings as both a writer and as a runner. I can’t tell if the self-effacing way he talks about his flaws and foibles is a Japanese cultural thing, personal modesty, subtle humor or all three – whatever it is, it’s delightful. His attitude is either genuine and honest, or so brilliantly contrived that it doesn’t matter if it’s not. He gives you the straight talk on marathons he’s run and the leg cramps, dehydration, crappy weather and other ignominies he’s suffered along the way.

The ecstatic moment for me on that rainy day in the coffee shop, though, was when he began to share his triathlon experiences. Guess which is his least favorite part in the triathlon. One lucky guess.

Murakami seems to feel almost as awkward on a bicycle as yours truly. I think I laughed out loud when he described the hunched leaning position as “a praying mantis with a raised head.”   “It’s next to impossible,” he tells us, and goes on to say that:

Sometimes it [cycling] strikes me as an intricate form of torture. In his book the triathlete Dave Scott wrote that of all the sports man has invented, cycling has got to be the most unpleasant of all. I totally agree.

 If a worldwide bestselling Japanese novelist and triathlete feels like cycling is “torture,” I guess I’m not quite such a baby after all. Not quite, anyway.

But Running is a memoir filled with so many more witty and straightforward insights than cycling. After all, it is mainly about running. And about inspiration. Above all, it is personal – he never claims to have found the ultimate answer to anything, but rather, shares his own experiences as an artist and as a runner, for what they’re worth.

One thing (among many) that I think Murakami hits on the head is the concept of pain – and by extension, effort we put into anything we do. That could also include writing a novel. Or overcoming the discomforts of traveling to a new destination:

It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive – or at least a partial sense of it.

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The glorious cliffs of Jusangjeolli.  Was it worth it?

I felt cranky, tired, dirty, soiled and grimy on that long bike ride. I felt pain both physical and figurative. And yet I certainly felt alive. It was the pursuit of that aliveness that gave me the mad impulse to go out in the rain anyway, even though the hotel manager and Yun and I knew it was folly. And while I will never get on one of those lousy praying mantis bikes again I can’t deny that there was a sort of triumph of overcoming.   Yun and I first felt a spark of that triumph when we managed to get our bikes all the way to the cliffs of Jusangjeolli and forget our misery for a few serene moments as we stared at those ranging waves rising towards the sky like something out of a 19th century Romantic painting.

Sometimes pain is worth it. And even when it’s not, it can make for a great story later.

The barista was kind enough to let me read Murakami’s memoir till the end, but she did rather anxiously let me know that I needed to give it back when I was finished. It was one of her few English language books, after all, and other patrons needed a chance to read it. Maybe some day another poor unfortunate soul on a praying mantis bike would stumble in and need some validation. Or not. Either way, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a book that goes wonderfully with hot chocolate, and it just might change your life.