SEOUL — For the first time in recent years it seems imaginable. We talk about what we would do, where we would go. Nothing tangible has changed, but these media reports, government statements, and vitriolic screeds on official websites gain momentum and the fear begins to permeate.
Waking up to a phone with an on-screen notification from the New York Times reading “U.S. says North Korea has nuclear-capable missiles” does not make you want to get out of bed, as alarming as it is.
The U.S. military runs drills with B-2 stealth bombers. They fly the sinister, black aircraft all the way from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, traveling more than 6,500 miles, to drop inert munitions on Korea. The military says it knows the bombers are the aircraft the North fears the most. There are nuclear submarines in the surrounding waters. Fighter jets overhead. It’s easy to start imagining how it would look, feel, and sound if missiles were screaming across the sky.
The politics of fear. One day we hear people are stocking up on ramen noodles and bottled water, withdrawing money from their bank accounts. That tourism to the country is way down.
Another day shop owners report sales are the same. Walking through the shopping district Myeong-dong on April 13, if tourism is down someone forgot to tell the Japanese and Chinese women with bags hooked on their arms from wrist to elbow.
Cyberattacks cripple broadcasters and banks. Everyone blames Pyongyang. One day the hackers’ IP addresses are traced to China, via North Korea. The next day they are reported to have come from somewhere in the South. Finally, the Seoul government issues a statement blaming the North, citing circumstantial evidence and conclusions and then the issue goes quiet. Fear floats in the air like the ones and zeroes of binary code.
People console themselves that the U.S. will protect them. That the U.S. missiles are better than the North Korean missiles. That they are so good they can hit another moving missile and blow it up before it hits this city, which is only 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone. People put their trust in things like satellite technology, radar and nuclear umbrellas.
A .gif is circulated online with a chubby Korean-looking kid, North Korea, trying to drop a cereal box into a shopping cart, South Korea, but before the box lands a basketball player, the United States, swats it to the floor.
The North threatens to attack on a certain day, say April 10th. It says it will turn this city into a sea of fire. It tells all the diplomats in Pyongyang to leave. It warns the foreigners here to leave in case of war. Those foreigners start getting emails and phone calls from family asking if they’re OK.
The day comes. Nothing happens. Maybe the stock market falls. Headlines read “Kospi down 1.3% on war jitters.” Analysts begin to speculate on another day. Kim Il Sung, the founder’s birthday, maybe. The biggest holiday of the year in the North. Or the week the U.S.-South Korea joint military drills wrap-up at the end of the month. The war correspondents don’t have anything to do. Maybe they go see Psy debut his follow-up to “Gangnam Style” instead.
We want something to keep us occupied. We romanticize conflict. We believe there’s an energy in the air. We don’t really confront the idea of dying in nuclear war — if we did the city would dissolve into chaos — but we like to talk about this being our last time eating, drinking, having sex. We need things to heighten the experience.
Although the idea of covering a battle as a correspondent is thrilling, dying in nuclear war would be one of the saddest ways imaginable. What would make you feel smaller than having some military general give an order, push a button and have you and your life disintegrated in an instant? Gone to make a political point. Gone in a bomb from a war no one wants to fight. See, even though it won’t happen, the mind considers it.
The people here believe that they live in a dangerous place, but they also don’t believe the danger will become real. They are proof of our ability to make our own reality fit whatever narrative we want to believe. We all want less anxiety in our lives. The only way to really fight the Big Fear is to block it out completely. It hasn’t happened before. It can’t happen now.