One of the best perks of having friends and family all over the world — as so many of us do these days — is that you have an expanded worldview, and you always have places to stay when you travel. The downside is that any time there is a natural disaster of sorts — a major flood, landslide, tsunami, or earthquake — your stomach does somersaults with worry until you know that everyone is safe. Then there are the man-made disasters — or disasters waiting to happen — and this is why I have had a pit in my stomach over these last couple of weeks.
You would have to be living in a cave to be oblivious to the story of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and the war of words he has been unleashing upon the world, but particularly on his own brothers and sisters, fellow Koreans, who live in the southern part of the peninsula divided by the unhappy circumstance of ideology and a war that technically never ended.
As many of you may already know, I was born in Korea, immigrated to the United States at the age of four, and have had the opportunity to travel back several times, most recently last summer with Katie and Molly. My mother’s younger sister — my favorite aunt — lives just outside of Seoul with her husband, and they have two children and several grandchildren.
On my father’s side, also in Seoul, are his sister’s children and grandchildren. All over the country are many friends and colleagues — teachers in the central part of the country, writers and business people in the capital city, as well as all the rest of the warm and wonderful citizens of my homeland. They could all be directly in the bullseye of a dictator who commands his own people to call him Supreme Leader. Others would call him just plain wacko.
Not too far away — in terms of a missile strike capability — are my brother and his family in Singapore, close friends in Japan and China, a brother in Hawaii, and of course, Katie in California.
I also have a vast number of family in North Korea related to my father, who fled the country for the south after the Korean War. His older brother, apparently, had already committed himself to the Communist party by the time my father escaped, but he had to leave behind his mother and father and beloved older sister.
He never talked much about his family, but on the rare occasions that he told us about his sister, it broke my heart. My father would tell me how his sister gave him piggyback rides, cooked his favorite dishes, played tag, and laughed together with him. Their age difference was exactly the same as the one between Molly and Will. I know how much my two adore each other, and it saddens me to think about them being separated forever by an arbitrary line dividing a nation. But that’s exactly what happened with my dad and his sister. Most of his family, if they are still alive, have been living under three generations of ruthless dictators.
I was not alone in hoping that a new era of diplomacy with North Korea, even possible reunification in my father’s lifetime, would dawn when Kim’s father — iron-fisted Kim Jong Il — passed away in 2011. He had held the mantle of leadership since 1994, succeeding his father, Kim Il Sung, who founded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Kim Jong Un, the grandson, had attended a Swiss boarding school, gaining exposure to a more liberal, western point of view. He even loves Disneyland, for goodness sake. He has an attractive young wife. Surely they would want to have children and raise them in a world safe from nuclear missile attacks. What a disappointment he has proven to be.
I have asked people who have recently returned from Korea about the atmosphere there. Are residents of Seoul nervous, living on edge because of a man who has made threats about having missiles and his willingness to use them? The irony is that most Korean residents actually are quite dismissive of Kim’s angry rhetoric and have been living as per usual. They believe Kim is the equivalent of the boy who cried wolf, a pompous bully who is all bark and no bite.
One Korean friend shrugged off the escalating tensions and the incessant media coverage, saying the news must be slow these days because all the press outlets are just eating it up, hungry to report the latest salvos coming out of Pyongyang because they have little else to feed the 24/7 news beast.
I will continue to hope that all of this is, indeed, just hype. This is not the first time that Kim has grandstanded and shook his fist, but what is truly frightening to me is his unpredictability and callow youth. He may feel he has more to prove to his own people to demonstrate that he is worthy of the responsibilities of leadership passed along to him by his father and grandfather. Insecurity in a world leader is like a ticking time bomb — you never know what will light the match that will set it off.