What Have We Done?

UPDATE (16 March 2011): Well, at least someone’s finally talking about wind currents as if it’s worth considering. I’m a little dubious about how much to trust the specific claims, but at least people are now talking about it… a little.

ORIGINAL POST: Well, here we are, a mere few weeks into the semester I think of as “the semester I ended up staying in Korea.” Last semester, North Korea began throwing a missile-fit (which is what happens when adult-children with missiles throw hissyfits) and bombed the crap out of a South Korean island, thereby elevating the tension in North-East Asia. And Miss Jiwaku and I kept saying, “We need to leave Korea.” I mean, sooner or later, that mess is bound to go south, right?

(Literally, go South.)

But for a variety of reasons–mostly health-related, but also tied to some pretty objectionable contract-offer process stuff, and mere preparation issues, we ended up staying, with me signing a two-year contract.

And what happens next? Well, if you haven’t heard, Japan’s having a meltdown, in more than one way. Preacher (and minion of hell) David Yong-gi Cho, (prime assbag) of Seoul’s Yeouido Full Gospel Church, is blaming the Japanese themselves for this “divine punishment.” Classy, as ever–he seems to do this sort of thing whenever disaster strikes, and one cannot help but wonder whether he is proof of the divine injustice of the world: good people get cancer and die everyday, and this “man” is still walking around, shitting platitudinous evils from his piehole whenever he sees a microphone?

What I think about people like Cho is that they are much worse than rabid animals. When a dog goes rabid, you can put it down it without a great deal of moral scruples, relatively speaking. (Yes, I cried at the end of Old Yeller, but Old Yeller was, in the end, a dog, not a human being.) Assholes like Cho are harder to deal with than rabid dogs because you cannot just shoot them: murder is murder, and I would be the last person to advocate any such thing. In fact, in case there is any doubt in my reader’s mind, I am not advocating Cho be taken out back of the church and put out of his (or, rather, our) misery. But what to do with a monster like this, much worse one who wears a suit and occupies a position of power and has attracted a mass of followers whose education and conditioning and mental/emotional problems predispose them to lapping up this fecal blathering wholesale?

Professor Jin Junggwon has a suggestion: that perhaps people could organize for a mini-Rapture of sorts, by launching Cho into space with the next Korean satellite to go up into space. Calling Cho a psychopath, he asks why, if God loves him so much, Cho hasn’t been spirited away in a Rapture in the eleven years since he convinced similarly mentally unbalanced morons to gather outside his church and pray for the second coming all the way till the inevitable anticlimax. Because, you know, if Jesus were to come back, Korea would be the place he’d do it. Of course. It’s not just cell phone designs that Korea rips off and rebrands; it’s also assbag religious extremisms of the West.

Then again, the Mayor of Tokyo said something not too different to Cho’s craptalk. Where do we find these people to follow?

And me, I’m wondering how it is I ended up agreeing to stay here another two years. (More or less, depending on whether a half-year sabbatical actually is available to me when I was told it is.) What’s the connection to Korea, you might ask? Well… we are right next door, after all.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m mostly just horrified that Tokyo and the rest of Japan are now in the position they’re in. But I was talking with another foreigner I know, who’s been here a long time, and this person pointed out to me that there are some potentially troubling issues in terms of whether the reassuring weather forecasts–those predicting that the radiation from the nuclear plant explosions are going to be blown out to sea–might not be telling the whole story. After all, wind patterns are complex, and even now there’s some talk of currents that will cause the ocean-bound air to circle back toward the Japanese islands… possibly even causing the radioactive crud to settle in a kind of holding pattern over Tokyo. Who’s to say they won’t head toward Korea, too? Or get mixed up in the Yellow Dust storms that seem to be getting worse every year here?

Now, listen here: I don’t know anything about meteorology, or climatology. I have no idea how possible these things are. I do, however, know that just a few days ago, the Japanese government told other governments that things were under control and they didn’t need help, thank you very much:

“We tried to airlift generators to Fukushima right at the beginning, but the Japanese refused our help,” the official said. “They are very proud.”

The U.S. now fears that a third reactor at the Fukishima plant could be in danger. Three of the six reactors shut down correctly when the earthquake hit, but the tsunami cut short the cooling sequence on three other reactors by knocking out emergency power.

“The Japanese had back-up generators, but they weren’t sealed as ours are,” the official said. “They have been bringing in these small batteries, but they only work for a few hours at a time.”

Without the back-up power, officials at Fukushima weren’t able to pump water into the reactors to keep the fuel covered, and had to vent steam from a cooling vessel on Saturday to prevent a catastrophic nuclear accident.

“We think they have a core meltdown in one of the reactors, but because the containment hasn’t been breached it won’t be anything like Three Mile Island,” the official said.

The U.S. offered to airlift water-sealed generators “as big as a house” to Fukushima during an all-night session at the White House on Friday, but the Japanese government refused the help.

I’m sorry, but “very proud” doesn’t cut it. One has nothing to be proud of in turning away needed help, and when you’re not sure you can handle something that may kill large numbers of people, and someone is offering you a hand, what is there to be proud of in saying no? Worse, from what I’ve read the media in Japan is pretty short on information, to the point that some people over there have been relying on the news reports from outside to figure out what to do. A number of expats in Japan have left, and others are struggling to figure out what to do.

The reason I bring up the Japanese government’s handling of the mess is that I don’t expect better from the Korean government.

Let alone the Korean media: there have been plenty of feelgood news reports on the woori nara (“our nation’s”) rescue teams sent over to help, but the issue of possible problems headed Korea’s way seem not to be on the radar, to be honest, and not up for any discussion. Not whatsoever. Now, don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great Koreans want to help. The fact that good people here want to help the victims in Japan, despite all the anti-Japanese propaganda still in the media here (and in popular sentiment), is a thing Koreans should take pride in.

But I have to wonder just how clearly the rescue workers have been warned about the risks in terms of radiation exposure (much less, say, provided with potassium iodide tablets, for example). The scary pictures of nuclear explosions and wreckage are news, yeah. What about the question of whether Korea’s at risk? I mean, this is a major crisis in the neighborhood, and I doubt somehow the French would be going along assuming nothing’s going to happen if reactors were melting down in Southern England. They might feel relief hearing that wind patterns will probably blow the toxic poisons out into the ocean, but I’m pretty sure the question, “What if they don’t?” would be coming up.

But I’ll be frank: I’m far more worried about the government than the media–to whatever degree the two are separable here. In all honesty, I simply don’t trust the Korean government to be any more straightforward than the Japanese government with its citizens, or in honestly and straightforwardly confronting whatever it needs to, should things turn crisisward. I don’t expect the Korean government to put the safety and welfare of its own people (much less “foreign scum” like me) before its concerns like how bad news will affect the currency and economy. Yes, yes, I suspect I would be as distrustful of any government, but it’s not as if the Korean government has been particularly compassionate to its people, or has a tradition of being held particularly responsible by its citizens for such values. Or, even, particularly organized.

My honest feeling is that expecting the Korean government to be prepared–that alone–is probably unrealistic. An old friend of mine (who has lived here for a very long time) once commented that most institutions in Korea are two steps away from collapse, and everyone’s basically okay with that because it’s not a mere one step away. Korean society is good at a number of things, but long-term, thoughtful preparation carried out early and before the contingency arises simply isn’t one of those things. Korea sometimes looks like a great big mass of last-minute crisis management, like that’s the only way anything seems to get handled here at all. However, the thing that troubles me is that Korean society doesn’t even excel in medium-term preparation. Things are unfailingly carried out at the last-minute, if they are to be done at all. Now, there are things that can be done at the last minute, like submitting a business proposal or processing some administrative documents. But plenty of things cannot be done at the last minute, and if that’s the only mode you really have for handling things, then you are bound to fail to handle certain kinds of problems well.

If the only way one handles crises is through last-minute preparations that are never carried out until it’s obvious they need to be, one will discover that most of the time it’s simply too late to actually prepare in a meaningful way at all. The problem there is that most of the crises we’re likely to face in this century are increasingly of this sort: the kind we need some lead time to deal with. Science and technology are developing quickly, but so are the potential problems we face.

So last minute scrambling is not how one deals successfully with potential catastrophes. But then, life is cheap here here in this corner of the world. That’s just how it works in Northeast Asia–obviously in Japan as well as in China and Korea, or Japan would have asked for help sooner. (They are willing now that things have gone bad quickly.) But until the moment of too-late, of oh-shit-this-is-a-disaster, there’s too much face-saving necessary for people to bluntly level with you. There’s too much authoritarian, “Shush now and quit asking questions and we’ll tell you what to do when you need to know,” that still dominates discussions from the smallest to the biggest issues. It’s possible to swallow a lot, but nobody in his or her right mind, and who actually knows from experience that it doesn’t have to be that way, could willingly accept such conditions forever.

And so, as self-absorbed as this may sound, I’m taking all this scary mess as a reminder of what these two years are for. They are for the exit plan: formulate, prepare, carry out, and transition to whatever’s next. Preferably a place that approaches crises and problems and preparation differently. Hopefully a place where life is less cheap, and where one can at least expect a modicum of forethought and responsibility from the government that one must live under.

I only hope things hold together long enough around here for the timeline to be stable, because compression into a shorter timeframe would be extremely lossy. Doable, yes. But regrettably lossy.

6 thoughts on “What Have We Done?

  1. I think the official who referred to the Japanese as “proud” when they refused assistance was using the word properly, but not clearly. I would have recommended using “prideful” instead.

    (Which might have been undiplomatic, but it would have been less ambiguous. And the ambiguity might have been included for diplomatic reasons.)

  2. Bruce,

    I was aware of the intended meaning of the word, I just was shifting to the other sense to make my own point… pride goeth before a bad fall, and all that. It’s easy to snicker at a prideful foll; it’s harder to stomach a prideful organization when it’s holding the lives of millions of people (in multiple countries) in its hands, and it bases its decisions even in part on that pride.

    Such pride as that is a luxury no government should ever be allowed to afford itself.

  3. I’d I thought I’d mention that, at least in my neck of the woods, the speed at which Korean rescue workers arrived at the scene of the tsunami to help has been seen with great appreciation by Japanese folks.

    This means that if we can jettison the politicians and reporters* somehow, the world may become a better place for all of us.

    * Or at least get the reporters back to doing their job of keeping politicians honest.

  4. William,

    That’s cool. I think you’re right about the world being a better place if only we could jettison politicians, and get reporters to do their proper job.

    I am happy to know Korean rescue teams showed up quickly; I’m worried about whether the Korean government has done anything in terms of coordinating anything at all in terms of their safety should we see a full-meltdown.

    What is your neck of the woods again? I was wondering how you were doing but your Twitter activity seemed normal.

  5. I DIED!

    Hah! I never get tired of typing that.

    Anyway, I live over a thousand kilometers from it all in Miyazaki-Ken. Shinmoedake is still active and dumps some ash weekly. But that’s about all Japan is doing to try to kill me.

    1. Ha, my first zombie commenter!

      I’m glad you’re so far from the mess. Not taking up the States on that offer to evac you for free, then, I suppose. (Or was that only open to Americans in Tokyo?)

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