An Indefinable Mood

Those who are watching the world news are likely discomfited by the action North Korea took today, or, rather, as it is now 24 Nov., yesterday afternoon on Korean time.

I’m finding it harder right now to get a bead on the mood here than at any point during the last eight years. During my evening class, essentially nothing class-related got done: we got together, talked about the situation, and students got calls from their mothers and friends who were trying to hash out plans for the night. Since a number of my students are from Incheon (the coastal city from which the island that got attacked is visible), some of them had parents asking them to come home so they could leave together for some other place (Jeju and Pohang came up); others were invited to stay at friends’ homes. A few shrugged and resigned themselves to going home either in Seoul or Incheon. All of this was enough to make me think people were in a panic.

But when Miss Jiwaku and I went grocery shopping, we found that the shop was not mobbed, nor was much of anything sold out. Indeed, the one item that was sold out was “Shin Ramyeon,” the top-selling brand of ramen noodles in Korea. We saw a few people buying huge bottles of water, but most people were buying far less than we were. (We got some vegetables, and other perishable stuff, but also some canned food. Never know when you might need it.) I was impressed to some degree by the lack of a mob at the shop, but also wondered whether people were perhaps just in denial about how serious the situation could end up being.

Certainly, some people were. Miss Jiwaku overheard a couple discussing it. The boy was explaining to the girl how the North Korean bombing was a pretty big deal. The girl responded, “Yeah, I heard they canceled all the TV dramas tonight.” But at the same time, I know young people whose parents have been telling them to expect roadblocks preventing southbound traffic if a war breaks out, and urging them to go to this or that safe place. (I’ve heard Jeonju a few times.)

It’s really hard to know what is coming: South Korea’s government statements send what looks, from the bits and pieces I’ve seen, like mixed signals, like saying, essentially, “Don’t do that again” and “These acts are unforgivable,” in the space of an hour or two. I’m hoping it’s just the translation and that in Korea, the signals are less mixed. Because I’m not just confused about how people in general feel about this: I’m also confused about what the powers that be are thinking of doing.

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