Staying in One Piece

When Sam and I announced our decision to move to the Republic of Korea, the first question people asked us was, “Do they have toilets there?” (Seriously) The second was, “Aren’t you scared of getting nuked?”

The DPRK was in the news at the time, as Kim Jung Un had just succeeded his father as  leader (though his dead grandfather is apparently still the president for all eternity). There was a huge amount of speculation about what kind of guy he’d turn out to be. All anybody knew for a long time was that he liked basketball. Now, we also know that he’s married and enjoys roller coasters. Also, he’s about as sane as his dad.

This week, North Korea once again crazied itself into the world’s headlines. Using its best comicbook prose, Kim Jong-un’s regime threatened its “arch-enemy” the US and their “puppet” South Korea with a nuclear attack. Again. (This despite the fact that their best chance of transporting a nuclear warhead probably involves carrying it by hand.) The reason? The newest round of UN sanctions.

I am no expert on North Korea, but its leaders seem to have a fairly consistent track record. They’re absolute bullies and self-inflated jerks until they need help (the DPRK’s suffered a string of natural disasters over the years and are also generally unable to feed their own people). They stop trying to blow up the world for a while in exchange for aide. Once more or less on their feet, they blame the aide provider for somehow falling through on the deal and resume their Nefarious Plans. Am I the only one who thinks this sounds like one of Marvel’s lesser plots?

So how dangerous is it to be their neighbor? Honestly, I have no idea. Am I scared? Not really. Should I be? It’s hard to say.

The two Koreas are, after all, still technically at war—the last sixty years have basically been a long cease-fire. But I haven’t noticed any tension on the ground. South Koreans have listened to Pyongyang's blustering threats for years and see no reason to get worked up now. Defectors from the North are greeted with sympathy. One of my grade schools did a special reunification class which included a North Korean cooking lesson. The big difference,it transpired, between North and South Korean cuisine is the shape of the dumplings—testimony that this is one people cut in two.

Overall, South Korea is incredibly safe. On the list of places in the world where I’m likely to get blown up, Chungju rates pretty low. It’s also a low-risk zone for kidnapping, ebola, and getting shot by idiots. Even my diet here is safer than at home, given that it’s 90 minutes by bus to a decent hamburger. Aside from car-dodging, I’m practically worry free.

The dangerous place to live is not next to North Korea but in it.  Two hundred thousand people live in forced-labor camps. From all accounts, these camps carry the classic trademarks of totalitarian cruelty: starvation, slavery, rape, executions. Even if you don’t piss off the government, though, life in the DPRK sounds harsh. It’s estimated that two million North Koreans have died of starvation in the last twenty years. That’s the same as the death toll from the Korean War.

So don’t worry about us. We can hop a plane out of here any time. It's not so easy for our neighbors in the north.