Two and a half years ago, South Korean and American forces were conducting live-fire drills in the sea west of Korea near the island of Yeonpyeong when a cable from North Korea arrived asking if the drills were an attack. South Korean and American forces proceeded with the drills, firing south into the sea, away from North Korea. The North attacked, shelling Yeonpyeong and killing four South Koreans, including two civilians. The South returned fire and scrambled fighter jets. It seemed the peninsula was on the brink of war.
The following week, with tensions running high, South Korea and the United States continued the scheduled military drills in the West Sea. The North issued a statement warning the U.S. and South Korea to cancel the exercises and promising to fire on them if they continued.
I arrived at work that day with a brown paper bag in my briefcase. It contained my passport, $1,000 in cash, instructions from the U.S. Embassy on how to evacuate Seoul, and a transistor radio. I hadn’t listened to a transistor radio since I was a kid and I would sneak the radio into bed with me to hear the end of the White Sox game to see if Carlton Fisk would win it in the ninth by ripping a double down the left-field line. I would turn the radio on low and hold it up to my ear, listening to the roar of the crowd echo in the old Comiskey Park. Now I was carrying the same kind of radio, to tune in to news of war.
Live-fire drills were scheduled to start in early afternoon. As I met my colleagues in the lobby of our building to go to lunch, I didn’t know whether war would break out before we returned to our desks for the afternoon. Someone suggested a restaurant for lunch: Joo-Goo-Mee. The faces of my Korean colleagues lit up at the mention of the restaurant’s namesake, a squid-like sea creature that we would soon be grilling on our table, basting in red-pepper paste and devouring with garlic and lettuce wrappers.
You see, my colleagues were not worried at all. I guess this was normal for them. Every once in a while, the North Korean regime does something really bad, the South mostly just ignores it, and life goes on. Perhaps this is all pursuant to some kind of Korean understanding that I as a foreigner am not privy to.
And so it continues today. While the foreign press makes much of the North Korean threat, life in Seoul goes on. People here do not seem concerned. And I am becoming more like the Koreans, going about my business as usual. Yet I wonder if there is a danger that we are overlooking. The North Koreans sank a South Korean ship and shelled a South Korean island, yet they faced only limited retaliation. If a bully occasionally comes into your neighborhood and kills somebody, and your response is to offer him money to go away, don’t you think he’ll show up again? And next time, maybe he’ll kill more people and make more demands. Where is the line? We have seen that the South and the U.S. don’t respond when North Korea sinks a South Korean ship or attacks a South Korean island. Presumably massive retaliation would follow if the North launched a missile into Seoul. But what if the North Koreans attacked a suburb near the DMZ? Would that trigger massive retaliation, or just a few token shots back and then more bribes to the North Korean regime?