50 Miles From North Korea

The air raid siren stumbles to life over a few missed tones at 10 AM, filling the mostly empty and typically gray square with a palpable tension. I’m six floors up, but I wander to the window and peek through the blinds. The sound makes me look skyward, a Pavlovian response from my childhood in the outskirts of Tornado Alley in the US, searching the skies involuntarily for signs of a funnel cloud.

Then I remember that I live fifty miles from the DMZ.

If I were somehow able to cross the border in a straight line, I would find myself in Pyeong’yang in a mere 140. That’s less than the distance between New York City and Boston.

In Suwon, the scars of the civil war are not as apparent as one might think for a city that changed hands several times. I’ve come across a couple of marble monuments and attempted to read them with limited success. The children I teach can recite the succession of the ancient Silla kingdom, but cannot remember the dates of the war even though it happened a mere 60 years ago. Whenever I mention that my own grandfather was stationed in Incheon in the 1950s, they smile politely but then change the subject, bored.

Fifty miles is a short distance. If pressed, even I could cover it in one day on a bike (and I’m pretty out of shape). One might imagine that it’s super intense up here, and that only the chronically stupid or the categorically bad-ass would live so close to the border with a dictatorship that often threatens to “turn Seoul into a pit of blazing flames” or use their “fully modern and terrifying weapons.” North Korea is the Boy Who Cried Wolf of nations.

In the most intense moments one ought to be able to see the truth of the situation, right?

On April 13th, 2012, the world was openly and collectively freaking out over North Korea. A rocket launch that was decried by the US, South Korea, France, and many others as a ballistic missile test was underway. Japan put its military on high alert. All US military personnel were called back to base in the ROK. Updates ticked up on news screens around the world every fifteen minutes while everyone waited with bated breath. It was a global event. And fifty miles south?

I don’t even remember what I did that day. It was too routine. I actually had to Google “most recent North Korean missile test” to remember when it happened. Life fifty miles south of the aggressor continued at its usual (almost boring) pace. The only indication that something was different was that the jets roaring by my window running drills were doing so on a Friday instead of their usual Tuesday/Thursday schedule.

Given that the Korean civil war never actually ended, the armistice left unsigned by the South, by all accounts it should be a lot scarier to live in such proximity to the buffer zone between the two countries. It simply isn’t. All that attention from media outside the peninsula looks ridiculous when one has to be reminded that North Korea even exists (“Oh yeah, there’s a nuclear test supposedly this week. Want to get some coffee before work?”).

Still, the howling of the air raid siren in the white haze of the morning sends a tiny chill down my spine. Below, no one changes course. Not even the ajumma on her bicycle. They seem not even to hear it. The threat of war has hung over South Korea for so long that the drama is all lost. Life continues through the siren’s wail, normal as before. Normal as ever.

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