We dont want to talk about North Korea, my students say. We want to talk about music or movies.
Im an ESL instructor at a university in a small city in South Korea. And Im frequently made painfully aware that most young people today are uninterested in politics. Pop culture is their real passion, and the currency of pop culture is physical attractiveness. When I go to the maze of bars, restaurants and shops that is at the south end of the university campus and pass the bulb-lit merchant wagons that sell pirated cassettes, the music is usually by singers chosen as much for their looks as their talent.
This is so much the way of the world that it feels tendentious to point it out. But, I must; pop culture is like a drug. As the clouds of war gather in the Middle East, not many people in Korea seem especially perturbed. Most are simply happily living their lives. But, underneath, there is pervasive unease in this country over the possibility that unless the regime in North Korea falls of its own volition, there will, at some point, be war in this region of the world as well.
This explains in large measure the antagonism that Koreans often feel toward the U.S. government and George Bushi. The relationship between Americans and South Koreans is enormously complex. America in fact, North America generally is seen as a kind of utopia. And Americans as individuals are both liked and cherished; Americaphilia runs as strongly here as Americaphobia. But there is a distinction made between the American government and American people. For the most part, current U.S. policy is seen as actually being opposed to the interests of peace. After all, the current U.S. administration has staked its prestige on fighting an axis of evil, and needs an enemy in North Korea. This, then, is the theory proffered for why the administration has taken steps to squelch the Sunshine Policy of North/South reconciliation.
While the atmosphere here is at the moment peaceful, there is an awareness that new forces are at work politically. In terms of foreign policy, weve entered a new age an age in which waging punitive war is considered morally acceptable. No matter how the current crises with Iraq and North Korea play out, there will remain the risk that a war will be initiated simply because another country is labelled bad.
North Korea has been so demonized in the press that it almost seems like a nation of aliens. One of the most impenetrable countries on Earth, it largely as a result of the strident rhetoric produced by its official media has managed to create the impression that it is populated by robots. (Mainstream news media frequently refer to North Korea as Stalinist, starving, and dictatorial, but leave regular people out of the picture.) But one thing Koreans will repeatedly tell you is that they are one people. Ethnically, the people in the North and South are very homogeneous, as is often the case in older civilizations. To a Westerner, brought up in a culture that emphasizes individuality, this last point might not seem especially relevant after all, people are people wherever you go, and nations are such large entities that you will find huge amounts of diversity of personality types in any group.
However, there is something Korean about Koreans. And it is a highly attractive quality. Koreans are charismatic; they are often gracious and kind. They are also very physically attractive. Of course, physical attractiveness is the quality that is most admired by contemporary culture.
Its hard to imagine the death of someone you care about. Its agonizing to imagine the murder of someone you love. As part of my duties as a teacher, I present a lecture called ABC News. ABC News is standard corporate discourse masquerading as objective truth. And recently, of course, there have been a plethora of stories on Iraq and (note the connection) terrorism.
Often a talking head will appear in these broadcasts, speaking with telegenic pithiness about some aspect of waging war. One expert I recently saw was Michael OHanlon, military policy analyst with the Brookings Institute. He talks in dry, impersonal tones about the logistical challenges of waging a war this year against Iraq. But he could be talking about waging war against anyone, anywhere. If the crisis with North Korea heats up, countless Michael OHanlons describing countless invasion scenarios will spring up on the television sets of the Western world. And as a viewer, its typical to accept these sorts of ideas and this sort of language as perfectly normal. I see this in my students. They accept the subliminal message of these broadcasts that every now and then a war between a major power and a much weaker country is inevitable.
The visual discourse of TV news only magnifies this phenomenon. With its footage of warplanes performing exercises, tanks and armoured personnel carriers on manoeuvres, the TV news creates a kind of excitement over the prospect of war. Furthermore, its worth noting that there is nothing nation-specific about this phenomenon. I was recently talking with a fellow teacher a Californian about the nature of the news, and he commented to me with wry understatement that it is almost as if the major news agencies were cheering the war effort on. When I remarked to him that this was equally true of the TV news in Canada, he was momentarily surprised. But not really. TV news has for the most part become internationally uniform in its coded messages. War as thrill, war as diversion, and war as entertainment all these are possible when the enemy doesnt exist for you as tangible flesh and blood.
But once youve lived in a country, you cant think of it merely as an abstraction. You care about its people because, for you, they are people. If there was more of a market for English teachers there and I had gone to Iraq and developed personal bonds with some of the people in that country, I would be physically sick upon hearing the kinds of morally corrupt proposals that are being bandied about these days. Im not talking about moral outrage that occurs easily enough. Im talking about a sensation of physical upset, an almost crazed wish that reality be different from what it is. The abstract language of experts, while putatively disinterested, actually excuses hidden forms of brutality. The U.S. government has helped to contaminate Iraqs water supply by using U.N. sanctions to prevent the delivery of water treatment replacement parts and essential chemicals. In other words, sanctions were exploited in an attempt to cause suffering among Iraqi civilians, and, presumably, destabilize the country.
And now its leaders want to wage a war in the Middle East, a war against terrorism, that, in the long run, it probably cannot win. But tens of thousands more will die before this is realized. In the meantime, invading Iraq and killing its people in order to save them is discussed much as pacification programs were during the early stages of the Vietnam War.
So could it happen here? Could there be another war on the Korean peninsula? According to a recent BBC report, the United States appears to be backing away from a military confrontation with North Korea. Implicit in this report is the suggestion that the White House discussed attacking North Korea as a possible scenario. Its easy to see why such a scenario would be considered untenable: Seoul is extremely close to the de-militarized zone; too many people would die. Its well-known (and has been for several years) that the North possesses some nuclear weapons. And because North Korea also possesses large conventional forces, and the capital of South Korea is less than 50 km from the demilitarized zone, civilian casualties would be huge. This doesnt mean such a war couldnt be waged. Weve come to see war as brief and relatively safe. A bloodless war against a faceless enemy would be psychologically acceptable to many North Americans.
So yes, the United States government could, if the situation deteriorated enough, sell such a war to its public especially if it could convince Americans that such a war could be easily won with the assistance of anti-missile defences and a blitzkrieg against the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.
But such a war would very likely involve bombing Pyongyang. Remember it? Its the capital of that alien country with the hysterical propaganda. How many would shed a tear for loss of life there?
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