Neighbours With Nukes

North Korea set off a nuclear detonation on Tuesday morning. Yawn.

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The Huffington Post needs to calm down. Kim Jong Un needs to be more excited.

Last month I was back home in Eastern Canada, having a family and friends get-together at my family home. During the evening as I chatted among the guests, I began to notice that I was being asked quite a lot about North Korea. What’s it like up there? How do South Koreans feel about the north? Is it tense?

I asked myself the same questions almost three years ago before I left for the first time to live in Seoul. After, all, being only 35 kilometres (15.5 miles) away from the most isolated and openly threatening nation in the world can’t be the most relaxed of situations. Korean staff members, and even parents, at my school periodically assured us that there was nothing to worry about. Pyongyang was constantly posturing itself, making idle threats and trying to stir up panic among the US/Korean alliance.

In November of 2010, only a few months after I started working in Seoul, the northern regime fired artillery at a small island off the coast of South Korea. Four people were killed, 19 injured. At the time, information was patchy: a Korean-American coworker popper her head in my classroom and blurted out, “Did you hear? North Korea’s firing missiles at us!” and then she disappeared. Obviously, her information was less than reliable, and somewhat vague to say the least. I learned two things in that moment. First, that one’s blood really can “run cold”, as the saying goes. An icy chill that seems to coarse through your veins. The second thing I learned was that despite the urge to grab the kids and run for the nearest bomb shelter (they’re everywhere in Seoul) one can, in fact, keep teaching vocabulary calmly to seven year olds.

Ask any foreigner living in Seoul: it’s true. There’s no air of panic, no nervousness in the air, no underlying tension in the everyday lives of Koreans. And why would there be? After 60 years of threats and curses, little has changed on the Korean peninsula. It’s not a concern.

I often check the news in between classes to try to keep up with what’s happening back in North America and with the rest of the world. It’s a bit strange to find out that while you were teaching your class, a maniacal dictatorship is setting of nuclear explosions underground not that far away from where your classroom sits. But the nervousness no longer hits me. This, as messed up as it may be, is completely normal.

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