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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Media, memes and megalomania . . .

My neighbor up North is omnipresent on media these days - in news and analysis articles, cartoons, spoofs, jokes, Internet memes and chatter on social networks. Friends and family members express their concern  for those of us in South Korea, media outlets interview other media outlets and those of us who choose to stay try to explain to those elsewhere who worry.

So, partly in response to those concerns, I've decided to take the media interviewing media silliness to the next level (this being a blog, after all) and interview the nearest media figure I could find - myself . . .

Flight of the Kiwi: So, what do you do and what connection do you have with Korea?

Tracie: I'm a journalist and writer who has been living in Korea intermittently since late 2000. Even when not here, I follow the local geo-politics and have long been fascinated by the North. I'm lucky to have many friends and colleagues who know as much as most outsiders get to know about our unfriendly neighbors, from many different perspectives.

North Korea is big news these days - what is the feeling on the ground?

It's interesting to read posts on people's facebook pages and talk with Korean and U.S. military friends. Many expats have been posting articles to reassure those at home, explaining that this type of behavior from the North has been going on for years and assuring them there is nothing to worry about. That is true, as far as it goes. Kim Jong-un is following in his father's footsteps in making bellicose threats toward the South and also, now, the United States.

In the past, such bad behavior has brought rewards. (See here for my carrot, stick, temper tantrum, candy theory of play thus far.)

However, there are differences this time. The first, and most unpredictable, is Jong-un, the third Kim to control the socialist nation. His father, though just as much of a megalomaniac, was to some degree a known entity. Jong-un is not. Anyone who thinks they can anticipate what he will do is at best misguided. The U.S. does not know, China does not know, South Korea does not know, I'd be surprised if his generals or even Jong-un himself knows fully how far he will go.

He is young and newly in power, a power many suspect he is still trying to shore up. One analysis is that all his rhetoric is for internal consumption - bluster and threaten the South and the U.S. during their annual joint exercises that he presents as practice for invasion, then, when the invasion does not happen, claim victory.

Others expect a provocation following the exercise, similar to those we saw in 2010, when a ROK Navy ship was torpedoed and a border island shelled, both resulting in the loss of South Korean lives. The South did not retaliate at that time but has pledged to do so next time. The question is whether the North believes this, or views it as a harried parent stating, yet again, "this is the absolute last time I am warning you." Any response could easily escalate.

Other differences are that the other players - South Korea and the U.S. of course, but also China and Japan, are finding the North's continued belligerence tiresome, at least. (China, which has long tolerated and supported the Norks, is showing signs of also having had enough of the bad behavior, but there are serious questions of how much control China still holds over the North.)

So, some people are probably underplaying the possible risk and others simply choosing not to accept it. Others are more concerned, but unable to do anything more than wait and see what happens. Personally, I'm hoping the next provocation will only be a missile test launch and not an attack, and tensions will then cool somewhat.

Why don't you, and others, leave?

I'm sure some have, as I've seen happen in earlier years when similar threats were made. For many Koreans, that is not an option. For the expats who choose to remain, there are many reasons. Employment, income, commitments, optimism, their own perception of the degree of risk. Remember, most teachers of English here are young with the sense of invulnerability that comes with youth. The more mature expats usually hold jobs far better than they might be able to get at home in the current economic climate.

For myself, I have work commitments, housing commitments, friends and volunteer work. Plus I'm a writer, and Korea is never short of stories.

For those who can leave, especially Korean citizens, how long should one go for? The problem of the Norks does not seem about to disappear any time soon, unless they badly miscalculate and do reignite the war, in which case it becomes a whole other problem.

How much of the current situation is being inflamed by media reports?

You're damned if you do, damned if you don't. In some ways, this is Jong-un's moment in the sun. People are taking note. Attention is being paid. For a megalomaniac wanting to sit at the big people's table, this must be a heady time.

But, this is newsworthy and it would be remiss not to report it. We're not talking about giving a platform to a small anarchist group here. This is a nation that, however primitive its infrastructure compared to its Southern neighbor, managed a successful rocket launch before the South, and which has at least limited nuclear capability. I've compared the Kim dynasty to toddlers throwing tantrums before, but perhaps the younger Kim's behavior is more similar to that of a young girl newly discovering her sexuality - so much power with no experience of how to focus or use it and no idea just how dangerous it can be to experiment with.

We also have a serious response from the U.S. to the threats, with the deployment of some very bad-ass materiel to the region. Again, it would be remiss not to report that.

Do you have any predictions?

None, except that the problem isn't going away anytime soon. And a fervent hope I'll remain safe to chronicle what happens from my perspective.

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