I suppose I should take advantage of being in a country “on the brink of nuclear war” and write a thought-provoking, serious journalism-y kind of article.
I could tell you about how people are packing up all their possessions and booking flights out of the country. I could tell you about emergency drills being done in schools and public places. I could tell you about the grim, tense faces of the people on the streets. I could tell you about the almost tangible atmosphere of fear and tension, and the eerie silence in once lively towns.
Of course, it would all be utter bollocks.
The media has been doing its best to dramatise the situation and paint a sad picture of frightened South Koreans running around frantically and planning their escape as a cackling Kim Jong-il aims a big cannon in the direction of Seoul and prepares to fire. In truth, life is exactly the same as it was before Tuesday’s incident near the border.
I have been likening it to living in Northern Ireland all your life. Until I reached my twenties, I wasn’t actually aware that the name “Northern Ireland” carried a lot of negative connotations. I genuinely had no idea that, for most of the world, Northern Ireland was a scary, war-torn, dangerous land where battles raged and bombs exploded and people lived in fear and trembling. I knew, of course, that NI had had its Troubles, and still had plenty, but I really wasn’t aware that we were so terrifying to so many people. That people actually pitied us and saw us as “those poor people in that terrible country”, in the pitying, condescending way they talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, was news to me.
Because for me, Northern Ireland was simply my home. I’d never seen a gunman, never been caught in a bomb blast, never known that I was meant to be afraid. I played in the park, I went to school, I studied for exams, I giggled over boys with my friends… regardless of my own personal feelings about Northern Ireland and its politics, I had a perfectly normal, happy, safe childhood, in a perfectly average town, with perfectly ordinary people.
Then, when I was in my early 20s, I got involved with a church and a group of American missionaries in my home town, and learned for the first time how people viewed my country and the lives of those of us who called it our home. One of the couples in the group had brought their young daughter, who was maybe only a year old at the time. One morning, I sat in on a team meeting, and I was utterly baffled when the father of the small child began to justify his reasons for bringing her along to such a dangerous place. He spoke of how much criticism he’d received for this decision, and how he’d been in some amount of inner turmoil about whether to bring her or not. He felt as if people might judge him to be a bad father for bringing his little girl to Northern Ireland. He almost seemed tearful as he spoke of it, and you could tell he felt guilty about his decision.
I didn’t react, mainly because I was totally confused. I couldn’t even fathom why it was such a big deal to bring a toddler to Northern Ireland. Hadn’t I lived there my whole life? Hadn’t my friends and I been children, even babies, at some point? Weren’t there, in fact, people having babies there every day?! It took me quite some time to work out that he genuinely did fear that he was putting the child’s life at risk by bringing her to Northern Ireland, as if he was dragging her through battle trenches or strapping her into a fighter jet.
I don’t really know this guy, but he seemed perfectly nice. His guilt was real, because he really did believe that people risked their lives when they entered Northern Ireland. He saw only the history and the dramatised news stories and the pictures of bomb sites. He didn’t know that people of my generation had grown up not experiencing any of this, and that life was just going on for us as it was for people in his own country. Yes, there was the occasional ‘incident’, but it was just a part of life, and sure didn’t every country have its ‘incidents’?!
And I suppose that’s my point. We see the news stories and the pictures and the heart-stopping headlines, and it contributes to the image we have of a country. I know that I, for one, think immediately of bombs and guns when I hear “Afghanistan” or “Iraq”. For you, the word “Korea” may now bring to mind instant images of smoke billowing from a bombed island. For many people, “Northern Ireland” means car bombs and masked gunmen.
Yet to me, Northern Ireland is a safe place. Why? Because it’s my home. Because it’s familiar. Yes, to me it’s even safer than the USA – a place where people are allowed to own guns, and where everything is so big and overwhelming.
The people in South Korea feel the same way about their country. It’s home. It’s safe. It’s familiar. And just as we Northern Irish could spend our lives waiting in fear for the next IRA bombing, but choose not to, the South Koreans are not panicking about the threat from the north. It’s been there for so long, they’re used to it. You can’t live your life in a state of panic about what may or may not happen. Wherever you look, across the globe, in the countries whose names send shivers of fear running down your spine… in those very countries, there are ordinary people just like you walking down the street, and drinking coffee, and chatting with their friends, and making the dinner.
The IRA could bomb my home town. Kim Jong-il could launch an attack that starts World War III. A crazed gunman could walk into some American high school and shoot everyone in sight.
But for now, we’re OK. So let’s try not to panic.
If you were addressing humankind, and all its groups were listening, what advice would you give?
The best advice I think was given by Douglas Adams: DON’T PANIC.
– Arthur C. Clarke