It’s hard to feel like news matters in South Korea. Even in America I felt disconnected from things like the BP oil spill or health care reform, but Arizona being as bat-shit insane as it is, it was hard to feel disconnected from the immigration hubbub and resulting national (even international) fallout. In South Korea, the stakes are quite a bit higher, but it doesn’t feel like it. Before I left, plenty of family said something to the effect of South Korea being “under the gun” or “not a good place to go right now” or some such thing. Presumably this is because of the Cheonan sinking, but that’s hardly a unique turn of events on the peninsula. Even with North Korea threatening a “physical response” to last weekend’s joint US-ROK military exercises, it’s hard to feel threatened. It’s all old hat. What makes it different from the inside looking out is that the propaganda in the South never really went away, either. North Koreans will happily waitress in Cambodia to escape and the entire Asian community must stand with South Korea in its firm denunciation of the North. The last isn’t an unreasonable request, though, and it demonstrates South Korea’s peculiar position in Asian politics. China just wants to forget North Korea is even there, fearing a destabilization of the Kim Jong-il regime will lead to a mass refugee exodus over their borders. As a result, they tacitly do what they can to maintain its survival. No one wants to poke North Korea and see what happens, and it must frustrate the South to no end.

I can understand the frustration. Doing research into the history of North Korea revealed paths not taken, stubborn rhetoric, and a complete inability and unwillingness to back down. All of this, of course, is reinforced by Juche – it’s the entire point of Juche. It’s why North Korea survived when Eastern Europe fell. There can be no headway made, no concessions, no middle ground. All attempts have historically failed until the region ended up right back at square one. It’s happened at least twice in a big way since the mid-1990s, and it was interesting to hear about it from a State Department official who visited Jungwon a week ago. I asked him if any of the blame for the Agreed Framework’s disintegration lay with George W. Bush. He, a staunch Democrat, dismissed any blame for Bush and laid it squarely at the door of the DPRK’s agitation and refusal to end its nuclear program. But that failed to take into account the Bush administration’s icy, disinterested and condescending tone it instantly applied the second it came into office, souring relations with North Korea almost instantly. Or the Axis of Evil, possibly the biggest blunder of war-time rhetoric in the last fifty years.

But I digress. The most interesting aspect of this, at least when it comes to South Koreans, is the doublethink about it all. None of the college students I’ve talked to (and I know a few pretty well by now, at least as well as can be expected after three weeks with a language barrier) seem to care much about North Korea one way or the other. Yet all the men will go to, or already have gone to, boot camp. It’s everywhere in the news, it’s a rite of passage for young men (and an important test of a relationship with their young male or female partners), it’s the entire reason the United States military is present and American culture is so pervasive. But it’s rarely commented upon, at least by young people. It’s there and it’s not. Less an elephant in the room than two ideas in your head at once – war readiness and carefree youth. Nationalists trumpet unity in the press, but people under 30 really just want to go out and drink. And go shopping. And singing. And dancing. Normal under-3o stuff. Being one hundred miles from the most heavily fortified border on Earth, with enough conventional munitions pointed at your entire country to wipe it off the face of the planet, isn’t really worth dwelling upon.

And that makes a bit of sense. There’s too much to do already, like boycott Bill Murray for a better America or watch Arizona continue to descend into madness. But as an outsider, maybe I see something fascinating in the North that the South doesn’t see. I guess that’s objectivity for you. At the same time, there’s an ethnic and cultural identity spanning thousands of years between the two that’s stayed the hand of war for sixty years. As an American white mutt, that’s something I’ll never be privy to.

No matter where you’re looking from, though, there’s always somebody, somewhere, ready to start a war from their couch.

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