Seoul Man: 12 Months in Korea – #8: Provincialism – South Korea

Provincialism
January 2003

Riots. Nuclear War. Death. Destruction. Holocaust. If you rely on the western media for information, you would be forgiven for thinking that South Korea is about to implode in on itself. Daily anti-American riots, military installations being fire bombed, US citizens being assaulted and stabbed. The North are trying to activate a nuclear program while a million crack troops wait at the border, brainwashed and deadly.

Highly strung English teachers leave posts on message boards imploring fellow teachers to get out while they can. These scaremongers truly believe that the North is about to invade, and if the communists don’t get you, the South’s rioters will. Many of these people are convinced that Seoul will turn into another Saigon, with desperate kindergarten teachers clambering over the gates of the US embassy, feverishly trying to reach the last Marine helicopter before it leaves the roof of the stricken compound.

These frantic voices are, in reality, the lunatic minority of the uninformed. The North isn’t going to invade South Korea. The reason it’s trying to develop nuclear weapons is so it won’t have to invade. Kim Jong Il also knows he would be signing his own death warrant should actually use any of these weapons. The North is a mess and it’s leader is no fool (despite the western media trying to portray him as an unhinged madman). He knows he can get financial aid if he makes threats which he subsequently pulls back from; certainly more than he would have got if he hadn’t made those threats in the first place.

His timing is also no accident. The US is busy trying to redesign the Middle East, and don’t really have the resources to launch two major offensives at the same time. Just look at official US reaction to North Korea and Iraq. The US will invade Iraq even though as yet no evidence has been found of ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The North meanwhile has admitted that they are actively trying to acquire said weapons, yet Washington treats the North like it has failed a math test. It’s as certain that the States won’t invade North Korea as it is that they will invade Iraq.

Of course the situation with the North is just one reason why many teachers here are packing their bags and going home. There is a rising anti-American sentiment which has led many expats to feel threatened when walking out and about around Seoul. There have been a lot of anti-American demonstrations in Seoul recently, but you are more likely to get bored to death at one of these ‘demonstrations’ than actually get threatened physically.

The Koreans are just not convincing when it comes to outrage. Why? Because they simply don’t have enough to be outraged about. The US simply doesn’t affect their lives enough for them to be truly angry with America. The crocodile tears they shed for the two schoolgirls crushed by an American personnel carrier are just that, crocodile tears. When the actual incident happened in June, there was barely a whimper in the media. Why? Because the World Cup was on. The death of two innocent schoolgirls was not to get in the way of Korea showing itself off to the world. Real anger is spontaneous, it’s immediate. Real anger doesn’t take a break while the football is on.

The demonstrations themselves are a pathetic site. Placards of the two girls’ crushed bodies are everywhere, their memories hijacked for political gain. The atmosphere is not threatening, certainly not as threatening as similar demo’s I have seen in the Middle East. The biggest danger faced is getting candle smoke in your eye. Yes, the Koreans just don’t make for convincing activists. And lo and behold, since the election of Roh, the demonstrations have in the main, ceased. Some have argued that North Korean agitators were behind the demo’s, unseen subservients stoking up anti-American sentiment. If that was the case, then they have been remarkably loyal to the South’s leader in waiting.

Even the ‘violence’ against US servicemen has been remarkably tame. One soldier got grazed with a knife by three assailants. Yes, that’s right ‘grazed’. They couldn’t even stab him properly. Another guy got a few slaps on the subway. Hardly an anarchic situation. Koreans are an xenophobic race anyway, and the deaths of the schoolgirls have been used by many who just don’t like non-Koreans. As a recent article in the International Herald Tribune recently pointed out; “Although South Korea’s stated goal for this decade is to become the ‘Hong Kong of Northeast Asia’, it’s ambitions to become an international hub may stumble on what politely could be called provincialism”.

This ‘provincialism’ extends to the ESL industry. Try getting a job as a teacher if you are black. Or Hispanic. Or Asian. This is racism. It is a tolerated as it is widespread. Any job application needs to be accompanied with a passport photo. This is to ensure you are a nice, wholesome, healthy white. Heaven forbid an ethnic minority might be let loose in the classroom. Won’t somebody please think of the children? Ironically the most sought after teachers are American. “F**king USA…Go Home…F**king USA!!…oh, you are a teacher? You want a job?”

So, should any aspiring teachers decide to come over at the moment? The answer is yes. Due to the current ‘problems’ here, there are far less North Americans coming over. These frail creatures believe everything they read in rags like Newsweek and honestly believe they might get hit by a nuclear weapon while waiting for a bus. This has meant more jobs on offer, with better terms and conditions and less annoying Canadians with maple leaf tattoos and bandanas. So for all the bad press he gets, the teaching community in Korea owe Kim Jong Il a debt of gratitude.

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