The Cold War In Miniature
I was in quite a good mood early this afternoon as I went on a sprightly walk down the sunny street to get some lunch, stepping around SUVs jammed right up against the glass entrances of flower shops, cafes, and convenience stores. One karaoke place displays a giant, grainy image of young naked Nordic children playing in a band, with their little uncircumcised penises clearly visible. I remember a young woman tucking herself out of sight behind a rectangular pillar of cement. The world was finally looking up.
In Korea you must always laugh and cringe as you say this, but I went to gimbap chongook, or gimbap heaven, a chain restaurant that serves quick, cheap, passable Korean food to individual customers—the last part is the most important because in this communal society most restaurants will refuse to serve you unless you go with a friend. And as I was diving into my bibimbap, or rice mixed with vegetables and kimchi, and lapping it up, and groaning in joyous paroxysms, all while trying to understand the conversation of some loud middle-aged Korean men—the only words I could make out were first!, second!, third!—and while watching a single jaundiced (yellow-eyed) waitress rush about to serve quite a catch of maybe fifteen patrons, with another single woman working in the kitchen to feed them, the news came on, and for once we weren’t looking at the same videos of factory-bred cattle, hideous modern government buildings, and middle-aged suited technocrats.
I had gotten up to pay at that point. The old waitress took a minute or two to get to me, and as I waited, and as she rushed about, the television began playing something that had been produced in North Korea. Reporters and anchors from that country always sound completely ridiculous to us: the whining, wailing, deep-throated elderly voice of this ajumma is what I heard, sitting before a backdrop of pine trees and Mount Baekdu, the Olympus of Korea, where Dangun (the Adam of all Koreans) as well as Kim Jong Il, were born. There were a few words beneath, switching back and forth, but I could make one of them out: 사망, samang, death—okay, who has died? No, it couldn’t be, impossible…
The text switched back, and there it was, written in Hangul: 김정일. Kim Jong Il. Dead. Everyone had gone quiet by then. The moment millions of people had been waiting for and talking about had finally arrived. Any change in North Korea was impossible while that man lived; his death may mean nothing, but at least now there is some chance, some opportunity, for reform.
“Oh my god,” I said, fairly loudly, in the relative silence. A war could start any minute! The man had died mere moments ago!
I checked my phone, ready to call A., but she had texted me first. KIM JONG IL IS DEAD. Then, a moment later: I KILLED HIM. I rushed home through the chill of the sunny street that was completely normal before but now drenched in significance. I won’t forget the car that pulled out, the two college students I saw walking toward me…
After returning, dancing, eating, jumping, and singing a certain song from The Wizard of Oz, came the facebook posting. This was the silly joy that I would remember with some bitterness after I found myself penned up in a freezing concentration camp. Gyeongju is relatively safe, but we’re planning to go to Seoul on Thursday for our baby’s first modeling shoot, and I told A. that I won’t be going without this on my head—and proceeded to don a steel pot. I remembered jokes about the obscenely loud farting of my father-in-law. He would fart, the house would shake, and his mother would say the war is starting.
Speculation of any kind is almost pointless (although this piece is a lot of fun) because we appear to know more about the far side of the moon than North Korea, but we should hope for the best (a unified Korea) and prepare for the worst (war with China). It seems that the Dear Heavenly Amazingly Fuckingly Great Leader actually died several days ago, and that whoever is in charge now—some believe it to be this anonymous man (it is almost certainly not the very young but anointed successor)—decided to keep the story under wraps while presumably getting things ready for the big announcement. Because North Korea is a dictatorship, they were probably purging people left and right.
The strangest thing about South Korea, mentioned in this great article, one of the greatest I have ever read about the two Koreas, is that people here don’t seem to care that much about the North. Americans probably care a lot more. Life here goes on as if nothing has happened. To be sure, people are talking, and thinking, but they’re not raiding grocery stores, and they’re not stocking up on weapons, because something fucks up in North Korea at least once a year, and I think that after five decades of yearly fuckups you really just have to throw your hands up and relax. Seoul could be leveled any minute. Toxic gas could start raining down from the sky here, above sacred Gyeongju, any second. But it’s been like that forever, and I can’t think of any country that has knowingly committed suicide in history—the people up North may be crazy, but they’re not suicide bombers, and they know that they will be destroyed moments after they order the destruction of the South. M.A.D kept the US and the USSR at bay for decades, and the same is true here, because Korea is the Cold War in miniature.
And I was getting excited about recent reports that the North was on its last legs, something that people have been saying for twenty, thirty years. India will go on, is the line repeated in a slim volume by the despised V.S. Naipaul, and I think the same goes for North Korea.
Speculation is useless. We can’t be sure of anything. But I can be sure that there will be plenty of speculation, and plenty of alternately lame and amusing jokes, at the faculty meeting tomorrow afternoon.
Assuming, of course, that there is a tomorrow afternoon.