Strittmatter: South Koreans not afraid

BY GUEST COLUMN | APRIL 17, 2013 5:00 AM

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Eight months ago, I moved to the quiet military town of Hwacheon in the Gangwon-do Province of South Korea to teach English in a local elementary school.

Hwacheon is a small town with a population of 6,000 known for its nearby military base and its annual ice fishing festival. Winding mountain roads, tree-covered hills, and the tranquil Bukhan River provide a picturesque landscape that attracts fishermen, bicyclists, and hikers.

However, Hwacheon has been thrust to the frontline of an international crisis as the North Korean rhetoric continually threatens the South because it is located only 9 miles from the Demilitarized Zone at the border of North and South Korea. The DMZ is 2.5 miles wide, stretches the width of the Korean Peninsula, and remains the most fortified border in the world. Soldiers from the opposing countries have stared menacingly at each other since the ceasefire that ended the Korean War in 1953.

Lately, the military presence in Hwacheon has clearly increased. On a walk from my apartment to the grocery store, soldiers are ever-present with machine guns strapped around their shoulders. Tanks have now appeared and move freely about the town, which makes the already congested streets more difficult to maneuver. Even my school has adapted to this increased military presence; the schedule has been delayed several times because the school bus was stuck behind a column of slow-moving tanks.

Although I awake daily to emails from uneasy family and friends, the South Koreans are not intimidated by the North Korean nuclear threats. Even in this small town, the residents carry on with their daily lives. Korean families have not stockpiled bottled water, rice, or kimchi (a Korean food staple often made by fermenting cabbage underground for several weeks). Farmers still tend to their crops, shops stay open until dark, and children still practice tae kwon do after school.
The news reports from the U.S. seem far more concerned with North Korea’s military and the subsequent nuclear threat than the South Korean media are. The “crisis” is simply not a topic of discussion.

Only when asked, my Korean coworkers respond in broken English that they have “no fears” and there is “no reason to be worried.” One colleague believes the continuous threats are “just North Korea tricking South Korea in order to get food and fuel.”  

Another colleague confidently added that, “South Korea does not fear North Korea. They cannot attack us again because we have the support of the rest of the world and the United States.”

They almost appear desensitized to the North’s frequent provocations and merely accept them as the price of sharing the same peninsula with a fanatical North Korean dictatorship. Even my elementary-age students are not fazed by soldiers performing military drills on the school playground or the distant explosions they hear sporadically throughout the day.

On April 9, North Korea advised that all 1.4 million foreigners living in South Korea should evacuate. The U.S. State Department issued a release stating that those living or traveling in South Korea need not take these special precautions.

So here I remain, fighting my own battles with my students over learning nouns, verbs, and adjectives — in English, of course.

Kate Strittmatter
Iowa resident

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