Life Under the Button:

The Go-Bag, Kim Jong Un and Me

John Cowie, Contributor
2 November 2018

November 27, 2010 was the most frightening day in my time here in Korea. 

Just after lunch, sitting at my desk at work, the news reports started. There was an ongoing artillery battle between the two Koreas on an island called Yeonpyeong, about 50 miles off the coast of Incheon. Some unremarkable island I’d never heard of.

Obviously, war didn’t break out, but it looked for a while like it was a concrete and immediate possibility. There have been several episodes like that in the last fifteen years, but this one kicked my hypothalamic, visceral fight-or-flight response into gear, and fueled earnest questions about my mortality. My home is less than 20 miles from the border and anxieties become distinctly rational at such a distance.   

The aftermath was, as I’ve come to understand, predictable. There was a great deal of diplomatic saber rattling, some posturing, some vague commitments, but nothing more. Some people I knew went home that week for good. I didn’t. Instead, I placed a small and rather unspectacular black canvas bag in a cabinet near the front door, where it has remained ever since.

Go Bag,

Cowie, J

It contains all the documents necessary to prove the legitimacy of his marriage to a Korean national, and his daughter’s parentage.

My “go bag”, my satchel of things necessary for a hasty and likely disorganized flight from war. Its contents are not quite as exciting as some thrillers: there are no false passports, stacks of foreign currency, nor pistols with silencers; just passports, and the documents needed to satisfy the American authorities of my wife’s connection as a Korean citizen to my daughter and me. 

It usually happens in springtime, either March or April, the geopolitical drama. That’s when the American and South Korean forces have their joint exercises, and the North seems to take particular exception to it. There hasn’t been a year without threats of annihilation, promises of fire and ash, assurances that the North would vanquish any foe. 

Some years are more serious than others, and the ideological bearings of the American or Korean leaders have had no significant effect upon this. The leadership of the both North and South has changed in my time here with little difference, it’s the same every year.

Early on in my time here, I learned to regulate my anxiety. You can watch the local population’s reaction to all the posturing the way you watch flight attendants on a turbulent flight. If their eyes get a little too wide, you know it’s time to worry. It’s almost never time to worry, but there’ve been some exceptions.

Early on in my time here, I learned to regulate my anxiety.

Some examples? Well, there was the sinking of a South Korean Navy vessel, the killing of a South Korean tourist in a North Korean resort who wandered off the correct trail. (There was until this incident a resort just inside North Korea which South Koreans could visit.)

There was the time foreigners were advised to evacuate Korea by Jong Un himself, several nuclear tests of course, the opening of floodgates by the North on a dam near the border, and their penchant for sending surveillance drones.

Then there are the nearly countless threats to lay waste to South Korea.  Just last year Pyeongyang was ordered evacuated in preparation for war. Oh, and Jong Un had his brother assassinated in Malaysia, on foreign soil, to supposedly quash the threat of the Chinese installing him in his place. It’s exhausting—all this paranoia and impending doom.

I wasn’t around for the Cuban Missile crisis, but I can imagine it’s something like that, just more frequent for the Koreans. It’s usually fine here. If it wasn’t, I’d leave, but it does affect your outlook.

There have been rather dramatic and in hindsight, funny, stories.

Guard Tower,

Cowie, J

A guard tower complete with machine gun. These are found at regular intervals all along Korean beaches.

When I first arrived here in 2002, and up until 2008 or so, they used to run monthly civil defense drills. These included the air raid sirens I was familiar with from war movies—loud, very loud speakers everywhere blaring in unison. The first few times I heard them I felt the primal predisposition to flight over fight.

Also, I live near a resort on the sea which has frequent fireworks displays, and more than once during politically tense periods this has sent me into panic, however briefly, thinking it was artillery.  Those stories are funny because I thought I was going to be blown up, but after all, wasn’t.

I‘m not a conspiracy theorist, but do believe there’s an element of fear-mongering, distortion, and exploitation by the media. I find a war on the Korean Peninsula to be highly unlikely. While North Korea has the capacity to cause horrific damage, there’s almost no scenario in which it would not be suicidal to them. There seems to be a polished formula that allows them to seem irrational enough to start a conflict in order to gain economic concessions and validation as a player on the world stage.

Bomb Shelter, Robert Paul, V.B

A bomb shelter sign

What’s also unclear is whether it’s part of North Korean military doctrine to target civilian areas. The news certainly makes it seem that way, but I’ve found little reliable information on this. South Korea is a small country, only about the size of Indiana, so it’s sort of irrelevant because of the concentration of military installations in such a small area. If a conflict occurred suddenly, there would be little chance for evacuation given my distance to any American facility, the only hope would be waiting it out somewhere underground. (The basement parking level of my apartment is clearly marked as a bomb shelter.)

However unlikely and however irrational, it is still possible, and it’s horrifying to imagine. I’m at peace with my own mortality but prefer my end to come loaded on morphine in a hospital bed surrounded by loved ones saying flattering things to me a long time from now, rather than screaming and on fire. I don’t have any plans to leave Korea at this time, but the thought does occur with some regularity.

There have been some encouraging events this year, a few meetings between the South Korean president and Kim, the summit with Trump and Kim, the very recent agreement to remove the landmines on the DMZ, and finally the unspoken yet conspicuous laundering of Kim’s image in the media, humanizing him and helping him seem less despoty and murdery.

The sobering reality of this is knowing that even living in the center of this geopolitical insanity, it is probable that I am safer here than America.

His smiling and flattering pictures in recent media coverage makes him a bit more palatable to the public, (lending some support to Chomsky’s propaganda model). While it’s refreshing not to have had my existence threatened for the last few months, I’m skeptical and convinced it’ll become imperiled once again as the pattern seems to demand. 

Every few weeks or so, I check my little go bag in the entryway. Not in paranoia, not in fear, nor in response to events. I’m simply compelled as the provider and protector of my family in this immensely volatile but otherwise quiet and peaceful, resourcefully insignificant, and territorially diminutive recess of the world. 

I hope for peace here. I hope to live well and laugh often. I hope the world takes better turns than it has in the past. The sobering reality of this is knowing that even living in the center of this geopolitical insanity, it is probable that I am safer here than America. Yes, it’s a nice place, and the likelihood of being blown up is very small.

My little bag, however, is ready should its time come.

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