When one is sitting in an apartment some two hours south of the DMZ, Senator Lindsey Grahamâs assurance that any actual casualties will be kept âover thereâ reads, of course, as âover here.â War games, photos of missile systems and an unequivocal promise of âfire and furyâ land similarly close to home.
And yet, all the people in Seoul I spoke to about North Korea over the first few weeks of August revealed themselves to be both startlingly well informed (able to lucidly explain not just Kim Jong-unâs motivation â to protect himself and be taken seriously on the global stage â but also the larger stakes for the United States and China) and almost breathtakingly pragmatic.
One friend reported with a chuckle that her elderly mother had begun stockpiling bottled water in a corner of their apartment. âI donât have the heart to tell her: This is not the war you remember anymore. If the worst happens, weâre just gone. Wiped out. Weâre not going to be worrying about staying hydrated.â
Writing about the plight of a lover waiting for a beloved, Roland Barthes points out: âThe anxiety of waiting is not continuously violent; it has its matte moments; I am waiting, and everything around my waiting is stricken with unreality: in this cafe, I look at the others who come in, chat, joke, read calmly: they are not waiting.â
America is not used to waiting, at least not as a nation. While the dominant American narrative may well be one of striving, it is largely applied to the individual citizen; our identity is one of fruition rather than anticipation.
Korea, unlike the United States, has been waiting a long time. July marked the 64th anniversary of the armistice that ended â or, rather, paused â the Korean War, dividing the nation. The inevitability of a next step, along with its accompanying state of anticipation, has itself been woven into the fabric of South (and North) Korean nationhood since its inception.
None of which is to say, of course, that todayâs average South Korean citizen was somehow prepared for the unique alchemy of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, together at last. To be waiting for something does not necessarily make one ready for anything.
Over the past five months, the citizens of South Korea have impeached a president, held democratic elections to replace her and participated in tireless (if also, ultimately, fruitless) protests against the installation of the United States militaryâs Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system. The existential waiting that characterizes the South Korean experience is distinct from any sort of political stasis; it is something more like acceptance â an acceptance of the uncontrollable that allows for a redistribution of effort to where it is needed.
Indeed, this redistribution fits the narrative of South Koreaâs meteoric rate of development across all modes of production â industrial, technological, even cultural â over the past half-century. Think Samsung, think Hyundai and LG, think high-speed internet and K-Beauty and K-pop. Maybe all this is, in part, the result of approaching each day with an acceptance that the other shoe will, at some point, drop and that life must be lived, regardless.
Or maybe that is a bit of a stretch. Either way, one thing seems clear: Barthes is wrong about the others in the cafe, the ones who chat, joke, read calmly. Some of them are certainly waiting, too; they have simply accepted what they must and chosen to keep doing what they can.