Tuesday, November 23, 2010: In the second worrisome incident since my arrival in Korea in February 2010, North Korea fired artillery shells at South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, killing two soldiers, wounding 17, and hurting 3 civilians. The South fired back and sent a fighter jet to the area.
The two Koreas are still technically at war — the Korean War ended only with a truce — and tension rose sharply in March of this year after Seoul accused the North of torpedoing one of its navy vessels, killing 46 sailors. North Korea said its wealthy neighbor started the fight.
Once again, as back in March, when I questioned my Korean colleagues about whether I should be worried about this attack, they shrugged off my concerns and said it was just more posturing by the North Koreans. I wasn’t really worried for myself, although earlier in the summer I had read in the book The Surrendered about the horrifying country-wide upheaval experienced during the Korean War. However, I was worried because my son Alex was due to arrive in Seoul on December 2. I experienced a great deal of anxiety about bringing him into the midst of a potentially dangerous situation. While my Korean colleagues were going about their daily lives, unconcerned by the turn of events, I was losing sleep over whether or not we should cancel Alex’s upcoming trip. I had been really looking forward to his visit and I wanted him to come, but if there was any danger of a full-out war erupting, I didn’t want him to come, obviously. I decided to wait it out and we could always just cancel at the last-minute if necessary.
At the beginning of the week when Alex was due to arrive, the U.S. and South Korea began another set of military drills, despite warnings from the South’s northern neighbor that it would attack if such drills were conducted. I for one was holding my breath in fear that North Korea would attack during the joint drills. The drills ended a day or two before Alex was due to arrive without incident. I took the bus to Incheon to pick him up, all the time, worried that war would break out at any minute.
Friends back home were writing to me on Facebook asking me if I was planning to leave the country. Again, for some bizarre reason, I wasn’t worried about myself and I had no intention of breaking my contract. The whole reason I came to Korea was to get one year of teaching experience in a foreign country so that I could go next to the Middle East. I wasn’t about to derail my plans. Although I did hear some English teachers did leave the peninsula during these problems, most of us just stayed put, believing the North was full of its usual bluster. It turned out this time that we were right. Alex did in fact end up coming and nothing else happened with North Korea for the duration of my stay. I wonder though if it’s just a matter of time. South Korea has everything to lose in such a confrontation and North has much to gain. I can’t help but worry about my South Korean friends, colleagues and students, along with my fellow English teachers.