Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It's More Expensive to Do Nothing

I'm not writing this to offer any insightful analysis about the attack on South Korea today, this is just an account of how I spent my afternoon and evening.

When my wife came into our office and said something terrible had happened while scrambling to put the news on the TV, a heavy sense of deja vu was already descending on me as she explained that Yeonpyeong Island was being shelled by the North Koreans. It wasn't a surprise; it's long been a potential target and was thought to be under threat recently due to the transition of power in North Korea and in the run-up to the G-20 meeting.

So it was the Cheonan all over again, except this time the attack was immediately more photogenic, and because of the proximity to North Korea's previous attack the thought briefly entered my head that this time, yes - maybe this time - the politicians in Seoul would respond militarily, and hit back against their attackers. Our attackers in fact, because I live here too.

If the North Korean sinking of the Cheonan taught me one thing, it's that you can't rely on the media or the military here to give you accurate information at times like these. And it isn't about media restrictions or secrecy - but rather it's speculation - sometimes wild speculation - dressed up as authoritative fact, seemingly for its own sake. And the media slips into it's Wag the Dog rolling file footage of ships firing their guns and soldiers running around purposefully. You can almost believe you're watching the war live, if a war was really going on.

This time we were told that South Korea had responded militarily, but later this was said to be with the firing of a singular 'K-9 155mm self-propelled howitzer', and the official announcing this declined to say whether North Korean territory had been hit. Which left me rather suspecting that they'd deliberately missed for fear of escalating the situation. Indeed, while the attack was apparently still under-way, President Lee Myung-bak was - truly or falsely - said to be desperately trying to calm the situation.

In the midst of such gravity, the situation tips into apparent farce. The South Korean government have responded to the ongoing attack... with a telegram. And before long the MBC network reported - with a deadly straight face - a South Korean military source complaining "Even though we sent a telegram, they are still firing." Meanwhile we watch South Korean houses burn on TV.

So if you were hoping the still active North Korean artillery positions were going to be targeted, this is the point at which your heart sinks - because you know the script from here on. The South Korean government vow 'stern retaliation' for any further provocations, but South Korea is like a man in a pub who is knocked to the floor by a bully, and gets up waving his finger saying, 'next time you hit me, I'm really going to get mad'. Punch - 'next time' - punch - 'next time' - punch... and so on. The depressing cycle of a country without any idea of what to do about a neighbour that sinks its ships and shells its civilians. Well, not that I do either.

There will be bluster and harsh words spoken by the government in Seoul but just like post-Cheonan they will never amount to much, and the North Koreans will spend tonight laughing at the weakness of their victims. Then they'll blame South Korea for starting it or claim it was an accident. And some in South Korea will even believe them. It's incredibly frustrating to watch, and even more frustrating to live here watching it all unfold.

South Korea is playing a long game, heads-in-the-sand hoping for a North Korean collapse to take the problem away from them. The old-Korea hands brush it off and say they've seen it all before but I believe they're wrong; this is no longer a conventional stand-off, but a nuclear one where only one side has the bombs. South Korea nestles under the U.S. nuclear shield, but if the day comes when North Korean nuclear missiles can reach American cities, or Tea-Party isolationists control Washington, how far can South Korea really rely on its old ally?

The Government in Seoul will try to brush this under the carpet and move on in the name of diplomacy or absurdity. But for tonight at least, the mood in Korea is sombre - and it's enforced - they've cancelled all the light entertainment shows.

And then there's me, and the butterfly effect from North Korea's attack today. I think radio programmes are like sausages. You might like them, but you never want to know how they are made. So you don't want to know how much work I put into preparing for a 10-minute slot I do on Busan e-FM every Wednesday. An hour ago I took a call telling me that tomorrow's topic - which was about festivals - was now predictably inappropriate, leaving me to prepare something entirely new at quite short notice. And it musn't be funny, which makes the task that much harder. So I'll probably talk about Korean apartments, because in my experience, they aren't something to laugh about. But it pains me to go on the air aiming to deliver a bland performance about a subject I will have to make as humourless as possible while not tackling the elephant in the room of what it's like for me to live as a foreigner in Korea at times like these. But I suppose we don't want to depress the listeners either.

It's nobody's fault that these media upheavals happen at times like these (well, apart from North Korea), and my problems are trivial in the scheme of things. Two men are dead, many more people are injured, people have lost their homes, and we can add them to the list of all the other victims of North Korea's unprovoked attacks. We can pretend their deaths will one day be avenged, but they won't. We'll agonise over our collective ineffectiveness for a few days and move on.

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