Lessons from the #missilethreat

Place Seoul
Text Eric Stinton
Art Kyle Baird
Thread North Korea

Since I moved to Seoul four years ago, I’ve grown used to the hysterical concern that my family and friends back in Hawaiʻi have expressed about my new neighbor to the North. The hysteria has only intensified post-Trump, with every fiery sound byte and furious tweet manifesting into another frantic phone call asking if I’m sure I don’t want to move home yet.

It was a strange sort of role reversal when I woke up on an otherwise regular Sunday morning to discover that, while I was asleep, an intercontinental ballistic missile had been launched, was inbound to Hawaiʻi, and it wasn’t a drill. No texts or voice messages were on my phone, and the worst-case scenario billowed in my mind like a mushroom cloud. A quick Internet search informed me, however, that the warning was a mistake. Gratefulness and relief washed over me. Harrowing stories of parents calling their kids to say goodbye slowly turned into memes poking fun at the whole situation. Everything was fine. Everyone was fine.

A latent restlessness lingered around my apartment, though; one that soon transformed into anger: anger at the people who have recklessly suggested military action against North Korea with oxymoronic verbiage like “preventive strikes,” as if igniting a war is somehow a prevention of one; anger at the bumbling idiocy of American leadership, which is more preoccupied with how war with North Korea will affect Trump’s approval ratings than how it will affect human beings; anger at the people who are willfully ignorant enough to believe that threatening “total annihilation” is smart diplomacy; anger that all of the hawkish posturing, however serious or unserious it may be, could have imploded due to a stupid human error. As New York Times writer Max Fisher pointed out, the confusion of the false missile alert could have easily been interpreted by North Korea as a cover for imminent American military action—the same military action that has been threatened for months. If the situation was unclear to Americans, imagine how unclear it must have been for North Koreans.

Yet anger subsides, giving way to more instructive feelings. For 38 minutes, the people of Hawaiʻi—and everyone around the world connected to them—understood the looming menace that South Koreans have lived with for decades. That should be cause for reflection. The longer I’ve been in Seoul, the more I realize how little the average American thinks about South Koreans. Even though Korea is one of America’s largest trading partners and most vital allies, there remains a buoyant indifference to how America’s actions affect its citizens. There are those who believe that if America goes to war with North Korea, and South Koreans pay for it with their lives, then tough luck; they had it coming. Then there are those who oppose war, not because of the millions of Koreans that could die in the crosshairs of Trump-Kim “button” envy, but because of the thousands of American soldiers that might. Non-Americans are an afterthought, if they’re a thought at all.

In the minds of many, South Korea is little more than a producer of catchy pop music and a prism through which to view North Korea. Yet despite the fixation on Pyongyang, an even deeper lack of understanding persists. Even though there’s no shortage of phenomenal North Korea reporting, a large swath of Americans have no conception of the difference between North Korean people and the North Korean regime. Even my friends and family, who have somewhat of an interest in the Koreas by virtue of my living here, speak of North Korea as a singular, totalitarian thing. It’s not exactly their fault, either. The distinction between the people and the government is slippery and amorphous, especially since the vast majority of people have never had personal interaction with a North Korean.

I’ve had the chance to speak with some escapees, and each time I did, I was left with a profound sense of gratitude and humility. The courage it takes to flee a dictatorship is well-understood, but the courage it takes to live within one is equally immense. Imagine a life where your government—supposedly your most trusted source of information—constantly reiterates that some soulless foreign devil is waiting on the horizon to attack; that any moment a ballistic missile threat could be inbound and that you may have to seek immediate shelter. It’s not a drill; it’s never a drill.

For 38 painfully long, terrible minutes, Hawaiʻi residents got a glimpse into life on both sides of the DMZ. Even though Hawaiʻi is the most isolated part of America, the lessons of the false missile alert should hit close to home. There are lessons to be learned in leadership and diplomacy and policy, and those are important beyond description. But for most of us, there are lessons to be learned in empathy: lessons about the intrinsic value of human life, even when it’s someone else’s. Everything was fine. Everybody was fine. The simple relief of that sentiment should be something to remember and something to aspire to.


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