Tuesday, April 09, 2013

We're all fine...here...now...Thank you. How are you?

I'm increasing my usual blogging frequency of a post every...few months...because I felt the current circumstances warranted an update, now that North Korea's rhetoric and threats have turned to the foreigners in South Korea, a demographic that happens to include my family.

You see, my family has planned more of the usual tomorrow: I'm teaching a bunch of classes, Lucas is going to school where they're making ham sandwiches for "Cooking Day", and Carlos is working out after I get home.  We'll bake a chicken and some pita bread for dinner. We may even watch a movie in the evening! However, if you checked the CNN headlines today, you might be concerned that we may be choosing the wrong course of action...

Based on this  headline, we would be better off staying home, purchasing airline tickets and packing for a hasty departure. But this is not the plan. Why? Because we believe there are other perspectives to look at besides the US media, which, after all, is based an entire continent away. The story is a bit different when you instead turn to local Korean news sources in English. For example, the Korea Times, this country's oldest English-language news source looks like this right now:

In this report, North Korea's young, fresh dictator is viewed as a combative character straining to prevent an Arab Spring redux with his own long-oppressed subjects. The writer Kim Tae-gyu explains:

“With the North revamping unease everyday with warlike rhetoric, tensions are very high on the Korean Peninsula. But the consensus is that the primary target audience of the tough talks is North Koreans,” said a Seoul analyst who asked not to be named.

“Kim seemingly wants to maximize the sense of impending crisis through recent provocative activities. Having standoffs with outsiders is a good way to reduce internal conflict.”
In other words, Kim Jong-eun is doing this to keep his population united in the cause of standing strong against the US and South Korean forces and fortifying their nuclear arsenal rather than paying attention to their own poverty and hunger.

Meanwhile, the Korea JoongAng Daily is concerned primarily with the economic consequences of North Korea's decision to tentatively shut down operations at the joint Korean industrial complex just north of the border.

No talk of mass evacuations, no urging foreigners to swarm their embassies or find bomb shelters. Why the drastically different treatment of the current situation?

Maybe some of the answer comes from the perspective detailed by Andrei Lankov, one of the worlds leading scholars and experts on Korean relations. Rather than ratings-hungry media and US military experts, I appreciate hearing from someone who has studied the peninsula in detail for decades and has lived for a significant amount of time on each side of the border.

In an interview last week, Mr. Lankov felt that North Korea's current threats would be best ignored. He points out that when North Korea has warned of attack, they never actually have, and when they've actually attacked, it was with no warning at all. When asked why he thinks it sounds so serious this time, he says:
For many years, actually for decades, North Korea has played the same trick, which until recently has worked well. First, they manufacture a crisis. They behave pretty much like they're behaving now. They drive tensions high. And sooner or later, the international community and the major players begin to feel unwell and tense and insecure. At that point, North Koreans suggest to start negotiations, and they extract aid and other concessions in exchange for their willingness to return to the status quo...This approach, these tactics have worked perfectly well for many, many years, but recently it's losing its efficiency, because the outside world, above all the United States, have finally learned how it usually works with North Korea and they are not really rushing with money and concessions. And this is what North Korea wants above all: money and concessions from the outside world. So, obviously, it's quite possible that the North Korean decision makers decided to go really seriously loud this time.
Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Seoul is maintaining its security message from last week, explaining that they perceive no imminent threat to US citizens located in South Korea. Carlos and I are registered with our respective embassies and we're watching for any information that would indicate the need to take action, but for now, we're fine!

So there it is, folks. That's why our main concerns at the moment center on the return of the warm weather (please!) and what family-friendly movies are on TV tomorrow night.

*P.S. Bonus points if you can identify the source of the quote that makes up the title of this post. :)

Monday, April 01, 2013

How South Korea is dealing with North Korea's threats

South Korean high schoolers' response to North Korea declaring war on the country where we live:
Play an elaborate game of playground tag and help the foreign kid build a sand volcano. 04/31/2013
I'm hoping to squeeze this post in during March in an attempt to build some kind of blogging momentum, but then again we all know that working full-time while raising two kids in a foreign country can kind of present some obstacles to that goal. So today I am planning to talk about the everyday South Korean response to North Korea's increasingly threatening rhetoric this past week.

But let's start with some good news, shall we!?

Just a few weeks ago, the US Department of State very quietly slipped in a new amendment into one of the policy manuals used by immigration officers. It just came to our attention last weekend. Basically, it is providing an exception for the lifetime ban that currently has us exiled from the US, in cases where the intending immigrant was a minor at the time of the false claim incident. It lays out some conditions that must be met, so it's not an automatic cure, but this is quite possibly the miracle we've been praying for. Our lawyer has been on top of this, and is ready to submit our arguments for why the exception should apply to us. Now all that stands in the way is me collecting the evidence of hardship for the waiver packet and then we should be on our way. We won't start any celebrations until Carlos has a visa in hand, but for the first time in all these years, it feels like there could be a tangible, realistic process for us. It might take a very long time, but anything is an improvement on a lifetime of exile. It's exciting. And overwhelming!

Carolina is officially a legal resident of South Korea
In more day-to-day news, life is kind of settling into a routine now for our family. I enjoyed about 75 days of maternity leave under Korea's generous maternity leave policies, during which time we busied ourselves learning how to work a newborn into the family routine, and spent time going to the US Embassy and Korean immigration to make sure this child is properly documented. Now that I'm back at work, she and Daddy have worked out a smooth and peaceful daily schedule, and save for some harried days at the beginning where she refused to drink from a bottle, there have been very few complications. I feel like my current attempts to navigate work, family, immigration, and my own basic physical needs (like sleep) present a massive challenge but so far I'm doing OK. Having a husband to help out makes a huge difference!

So the main purpose of this post is to present our perspective on the escalating tensions with North Korea. Being that we live about 45-50 miles from the country that's threatening to point missiles at my home country and at the country where we currently live, there could be reason for concern. I'm going to try to explain why I don't think too much concern needs to be spent on us.

For one thing, the treatment in the Western media may just be quite a few notches more shrill than it is in Korean media. Even the most foreigner-ized media outlet in Korea has taken a more same-as-always approach to these developments. Today's headline is not actually about North Korea's threats, but rather the verbal sparring going on over the joint North Korean-South Korean industrial complex just north of the border. The fact is, South Korea has been getting threatened by North Korea for decades, and everyone's really used to it being lots of talk, very little action. The picture at the top of this post pretty much embodies the reaction here.

For another thing, it's the Spring. This is when the US and Korean military forces do their big public military exercises every year. We remember this from last year. More jets and helicopters fly overhead, cargo choppers ferry supplies between bases, and apparently this year the US felt the need to do a B-2 bomber rehearsal. But the point is, this stuff is done every year, and every year North Korea decries the display of strength being flaunted by these exercises. Last year, we didn't hear about it as much because Kim Jong-un was freshly installed and probably too green to start the kindling on an international incident. Now that he's gotten comfy in his new role, it's time to start up the warmongering lest his subjects doubt his sincerity.

Panic. Just pandemonium in South Korea on Sunday. Oh, wait...
This New York Times article gets into some of the other things that may be of greater concern coming out of North Korea right now. Ultimately, the ones I most feel concerned for are the members of the US and Korean military, the people who live on base, the ones most likely to actually be impacted by any military skirmishes that come out of this. Also, the residents of the lesser-known islands closest to the border, where some of North Korea's demonstrations have resulted in the loss of regular citizens' lives. Finally, the North Korean people who have lived for generations in extreme poverty and near-starvation, pitted against each other for survival and forced to participate in public demonstrations of support for their leader or face torture, food deprivation, or even death. Those are the people most in need of our prayers for peace right now.