War Angst and Karaoke: Daily Life as Bizarre As it Gets in South Korea


In fact, the rest of the world pays more attention to the constantly simmering Korean conflict than the country itself, whose very existence would be threatened in the event of a war. While each new shady maneuver by the north creates headlines in the West, in the south reporting on Pyongyang's actions tends to be detached and routine by nature. Over the decades, the country has learned to treat the constant rhetoric coming from Pyongyang as empty threats. But perhaps it has also forgotten how to recognize real danger.

Depending on how you look at it, the current crisis began two, 19 or 60 years ago, while its low points are being reached today, in February, March and April of this year. The Korean War ended without a peace treaty 60 years ago, the "Great Leader Kim Il Sung" died 19 years ago and was succeeded by the "Dear Leader Kim Jong Il" and, when he died two years ago, the "Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un" came into power. Despite what we are told by the chattering experts in the broadcast media, almost nothing is known about Kim Jong Un. It is clear, however, that the Supreme Leader is in the process of shaping a new policy.

The world was shocked on Feb. 12, when North Korea conducted a third nuclear test. The incident triggered meetings and new sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, NATO sessions and a flurry of diplomatic activity. There were maneuvers over South Korea involving B-2 stealth bombers, US missiles were moved and the armies of the south and the north were placed on high alert, all within a few weeks.

North Korea abrogated various treaties and severed its hotline with the south, generals appeared in public, and Pyongyang promised a total nuclear war, one that would transform Seoul into a sea of flames. Missiles were tested, and North Korea aired propaganda videos that depicted Washington being bombed and Seoul being captured.

In March, the regime in Pyongyang threatened, for the first time in history, to launch a nuclear attack against the United States and South Korea, while the government in Seoul announced its intention to level Pyongyang. In early April, the north announced that it was restarting the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which was shut down six years ago. Foreigners in South Korea were advised to leave the country. Pyongyang barred South Korean access to the Kaesong industrial zone, and the South Korean government delivered its ultimatum.

The ultimatum expired without response on the Friday before last, while the streets and alleys of Gangnam and Seoul's Itaewon shopping district were filled with carefree consumers. The bars were full and the windows of restaurants were fogged up. No one seemed interested in the ultimatum or the closing of Kaesong. South Koreans were left cold by the fact that the north had initially withdrawn its 53,000 workers in the special economic zone on the North Korean side, while the south has now shuttered its 123 factories there. In fact, the closing of Kaesong marked a dramatic intensification of the conflict, a terrible setback, and yet no one is paying attention anymore. South Korea has other worries.

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