Beyond Borders

What it’s like living next to North Korea

2010-12-09 13:25
Lebogang Mogashoa is currently living in South Korea.

Lebogang Mogashoa is currently living in South Korea.

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Lebogang Mogashoa

Technically, South Korea is a country at war. The war with the north between 1950 and 1953 ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. More than 50 years on, conflict symbols are still part of daily life.

I have never met a soldier in South Africa but they’re everywhere here. The Seoul district of Itaewon is made unpleasant by its rowdy population of American soldiers.

It’s comments like, “Yo, my homeboy wanna grab yo ass,” from some of these burly, towering men - some of whom have actually been to Afghanistan - that make one skip the district in favour of something tamer. The United States Army Garrison in the Yongsan neighbourhood of Seoul is as normal a part of the cityscape as the ubiquitous neon lights.
Young Korean men in uniform - home for the weekend - carrying purses for their girlfriends are as typical as the subway. All males have to perform mandatory military service for two years. Pop bands go on hiatus, universities grant sabbaticals and relationships falter so men of age can perform their duties. Refusal to serve doesn’t go unpunished. One of my closest friends refused to join the military due to religious reasons and had to serve the equivalent period in prison.

Attacks barely register

Even with such vivid suggestions of war; military vehicles and aircrafts, soldiers actively training to protect South Korea in case the need arises, most of us forget about North Korea. For citizens the subject comes up once in a while during dinner conversations. For expats, we visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and joke about the North Korean propaganda village of Gijondong observed through binoculars boring into the country.

The recent attack on the South Korean island of Yeongpyeong barely registered for most of us, even though it was the second unprovoked hit this year. The first left 46 members of the sunken Cheonan navy ship dead.

Some parts of the world waited to see if South Korea would retaliate in a manner that might turn the tension malignant. But not much happened. We observed a nationwide moment of silent, wore ribbons to honour the lives of the Cheonan naval officers, North Korea received a stern warning and life continued.
The latest attack left about a thousand people affected by the artillery shells fired from the north. Two civilians were killed.

I was at work in the tiny office I share with two other co-workers when it happened. My regular co-teacher, Grace, was engrossed in an online shopping spree. It was Ja Young, my other co-worker, who reacted.

Would we scream?

“Oh no! North Korea has attacked Yeongpyeong Island.”

Grace took a sharp breath, the kind you’d make if you spilled a bit of water on your desk and continued her search for the perfect winter handbag. I went over to Ja Young’s computer to watch the breaking news report. I wondered what would happen if an unidentified weapon hit our suburb. Would we scream and run in confusion just like the people on the news? They covered their heads and ran from the burning spot but another fire erupted in the direction they were headed, creating momentary disorientation before they took another turn to, hopefully, safety.

I went back to my computer and awaited my friends’ reactions on Facebook. That’d be the real gauge of panic. The reactions took a while to show up, much slower than earlier in the year with the Cheonan incident. Relieved, I went back to wasting time on the internet.

It wasn’t until I started getting messages from friends and family that I wondered if things were different this time. From Germany, my friend Hellen said, “The whole world is in a panic that a war with your communists northern neighbours is about to erupt...but none of you are saying a word there...what’s going on? Are you in a safe place?” That’s when I started to read news reports, local and international.

From the information it really did seem we were just minutes away from all out war with the north. A few friends mentioned their panic after reading international reports but quickly relaxed because the mood of the country didn’t exactly match the representations.

Back and forth firings

Frankly, I didn’t know for sure South Korea wouldn’t fire shots back at North Korea, starting back and forth firings that become war. I have nothing concrete to lean onto for my constant confidence that things will be okay.

But, after a while, the dialogue between the countries starts to sound this way:
SK:  NK, you didn’t just hit me!
NK: Oh yes, I did.
SK: I’m going to fire things into the sea to demonstrate how powerful I am, so you never hit me again.
NK: If any of your demos even touch my water I’ll hit you again, harder.
SK goes ahead and demonstrates.
NK: Oh, you…you didn’t just do that.
On and on it goes.
My cynicism, or could it be called hope, doesn’t come from nowhere.

It started at the beginning of my first Korean stint in 2006. North Korea had just directed missiles into the Sea of Japan. I sat in my apartment channel-hopping on my new cable TV, excited about the insane availability of American reality shows and Korean soap operas.


A thunderous sound alarmed me out of my mental stupor. My first thought was, “North Korea is attacking and this time instead of the Sea of Japan, the missiles are hitting the South Korean mainland.” The military air craft sounds that followed convinced me something really bad was happening. I was still clueless to the fact that I lived close to a military base. Another layer of panic was added by an amplified voice. Korean language was still more foreign to me than it is now but there was no mistaking the voice’s urgency.

“Bring only the clothes on your back and come outside to be counted. We’re taking you all to the nearest bomb shelter. Foreigners don’t forget your passports, you will get access to your embassies at the safe location. Come one, come all.”

That’s what the gibberish amounted to as far I was concerned. I rushed out; a little surprised there weren’t any other people from the building running for their lives. Apart from the still urgent voice, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The streets were empty, save for one or two people unafraid of the heat and humidity. I turned the corner to find the voice came from a megaphone attached to a bakkie selling spanspek melons.

I would have gone mad had I reacted that way to every threat. The Americans and Brits I meet here initially ask scary questions about South Africa. Have you been to “dangerous” Johannesburg? Are car hijacks really that common? HIV/AIDS? Homophobic attacks? Rape?

In answering these questions with a series of, “Yes, but…” responses, I panic, wondering how we even survive in South Africa.

Almost like home

While it’s not a problem of the same proportions, the threat of living next to temperamental North Korea reminds me of how it is back home.

I know there are unpleasant or even deadly threats that may or may not manifest but they’re not going to stop me enjoying the best of the country. That’s how it is mostly, different problems, same coping mechanism.

- Read Lebogang's blog Ramen Ranch.

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