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Alumnus offers on-the-ground observations of Korean current events

November 30, 2010


Beloit's international news junkies are surely paying attention to the situation currently unfolding between North and South Korea (the two countries exchanged fire last Tuesday, Nov. 23) but few have the same vantage point of Jesse Lord'07 (pictured below). He has a front-row seat on the conflict, having lived and worked in South Korea for several years and currently residing "well within artillery range" of the North Korean border.

Jesse Lord 

Below, he offers his perspectives as an American on the ground in South Korea. You can see Lord's photographic impressions of Korea and Japan at his Flickr account; he shot today's featured photo.

What brought you to South Korea, and how long have you lived there? My arrival in South Korea involved little pre-meditation. After graduating from Beloit as a modern language major, I moved to Japan to teach English while improving my Japanese. My general goal at the time was to move on to other employment in Japan once my language skills were up to par. Unfortunately, the school/company I worked for stopped paying their employees around the time I arrived, and went bankrupt after a few months. Unpaid, accumulating debt, and financially unable to fly back to the U.S., I accepted a teaching position in neighboring South Korea.

I have been based in South Korea for the past three years, although I continue to visit Japan a few times a year. I now teach at a public high school just north of Seoul.

Where in South Korea do you live, and how close is it to Yeonpyeong Island? I live in Goyang City, a north-western suburb of Seoul similar in population to San Fransisco. My home is around 15 miles from the North Korean border, well within artillery range. Yeonpyeong Island lies around 50 miles west of here.

What was the reaction to the initial exchange of fire? There has always been a sense of tension between the North and South, although this tension usually takes its place with the rest of life's background noise. It's like the ever-nagging feeling that a paper is due at the end of the semester. Most days, you might ignore that fact and carry on with more pressing cares.

That said, the last year has seen an unusual amount of strain between these neighbors. The sinking of the Cheonan battleship this March, an act often pinned on the North, remains fresh in memory as citizens take in the new events on Yeonpyeong Island. However, the initial reaction this November seemed more jaded than before. TVs in homes, shops, and restaurants remained tuned in to the event all day, although there were few developments to be reported on.

Perhaps most surprising to me was the sharp, militant tone of voice taken on by most newscasters, in contrast to the hapless shrugs and sighs of shop owners and customers.

How would you describe the current atmosphere, both for yourself and among your friends/coworkers? Are people worried? Unconcerned?
 Although people are obviously worried, the above-mentioned passiveness, perhaps spurred on by a sense of hopelessness, seems to be the prevailing mood amongst both friends and coworkers.

"What do you think are the chances of war?" a coworker asked me today. That's a tough question to answer without having a time frame to think in. It has always been, and remains my opinion, that the Korean situation will be diffused in ways other than a conventional war - whether this be a simple petering-out of interests, external influence, or something like a people's revolution in the North. But still, I am no prophet, and so I answered my coworker’s question with a hazarded guess of "a 15-10-or-5 percent chance... but not now."

Most people whom I talk to are more upset with President Lee Myeong-Bak than anyone or anything else. Seeing his Hollywood reaction on the day of the Yeongpyeong events (the President hammed it up with a black-leather bomber jacket for the occasion), the same coworker mentioned above remarked, "Don't be an a--." Students generally dislike their leader, whom they often dub "The Rat."

Yes, people are worried. This was the first time since 1953 that South Korean civilians were killed in such a conflict. But with no resolution in sight, most seem either reluctant or unable to get too worked up.

Are you concerned about the situation, especially as it seems the tension continues to ratchet between the two countries? Tension between these two countries waxes and wanes more often than the moon. The actions of the North are invariably shrouded in mystery, and thus appear quite fickle to the outside observer. Nonetheless, as a transfer of power (from father to son) looms imminent in the North, one can't help but presume that the recent ruckus is motivated by an inwardly-focused political agenda in the North. I can’t imagine Dad starting a war and then passing it on to his 20-something son. Certainly all sorts of folks would scramble for power in that situation.

Or maybe Kim Jong-il has become reckless in what could be his final months.

In the mean time, Beijing watches the South Korean and US navies conduct military drills in the Yellow Sea. Picture the Chinese navy flexing their muscle in the Gulf of Mexico. In any case, the Chinese would have to be incredibly passive not to get involved here. But I don’t see strong military involvement as a great likelihood.

All in all, it's hard to know what to worry about. Sometimes I feel that I know as little about the U.S. government as I do about the regime up in Pyeong-yang. If events do come to a head, I have my hopes set on progressive change for all parties involved - and that's nearly everyone.