Korea: A Case Study in Normalcy Bias

North Korea has nuclear weapons and leadership as ruthless, unpredictable, and unreasonable as any on Earth, and the bulk of her primary enemy's civilian population lives in a high concentration within spitting distance of the most militarized border in the history of demilitarized zones.  And yet that alarmingly vulnerable population, seemingly contrary to all logic, carries on with life as normal, with barely a glimmer of concern.  There is at least one lesson to be learned here: modern man, sated with luxury, is prepared to overlook anything in the name of preserving his comforting illusion of indestructible prosperity.

I have lived in South Korea for the past several years.  Not one of these years has passed without inflammatory rhetoric or behavior from the North.  This includes nuclear tests; the deadly torpedoing of a South Korean battleship; an inhabited South Korean island coming under deadly artillery fire; numerous threats against Seoul; the symbolic abandonment of the armistice agreement that formally ended the fighting, though not the war, in 1953; and most recently (as of this writing), the cutting off of a military hotline intended to ensure the safety of civilian workers crossing the border into an industrial complex on the northern side.

Today, the front page of my newspaper shows an impressive photo of a B-2 stealth bomber flying over the U.S. air base in Pyeongtaek, near Seoul -- a demonstration of strength from an American administration that is itself ruthless and unpredictable in many ways.  A few friends, in light of recent events, have told me to "be careful," or asked whether I'm all right these days.  To be honest, I never know how to reply to such friendly concern.  For life here in Korea does not look at all like the news headlines, and Koreans have shown an overwhelming desire to keep it that way.

Newspaper headlines aside, here is what the threat of renewed fighting in a war that never ended looks like from my vantage point on the south coast of this little peninsula:

University students, here in the land virtually formed out of mass protests, are heaving crates full of instant noodles and beverages onto a rented bus, preparing to depart for their departments' euphemistically named "membership training" -- i.e., a three-day rural excursion during which freshmen are initiated into the fine art of alcohol poisoning.  Meanwhile, in philosophy class, in answer to my question as to whether anyone in the room has been harmed by someone recently, one student volunteers that she was harmed by her mother, who forgot to bring home the girl's cosmetics last night, forcing her to come to class today without make-up. 

Now that PSY's "Gangnam Style" has, mercifully, faded away in favor of a dozen new catchy/empty K-pop hits of the week, the aural landscape is once again dominated by Korea's most ubiquitous sound -- namely, that of smartphones raining onto floors and pavements from a million careless hands in one of the most tech-crazed nations on Earth (home to both Samsung and LG).

Office workers continue to work absurdly long hours, so as not to appear lazy, and then go out drinking with co-workers, so as not to appear selfish.  Children are hustled from public school -- ill-conceived and development-stunting, as it is everywhere -- to after-school private academies, where middle-class parents shell out thousands of dollars a year to give their children a step up on the lowest-common-denominator learning provided by the government schools.  (This refusal simply to settle for the public school curriculum their taxes pay for is the most endearing quality of Korean parents, a quality sorely and sadly lacking in the West.) 

At dawn each day, older men and women converge on the exercise machines found in parks and on hiking trails throughout this mountainous country -- every one of them dressed in stylish hiking and exercise clothing.  (No Korean over the age of ten would be caught dead hiking through a mountain forest in blue jeans and a cotton shirt; one must meet nature outfitted from head to toe in brand-name microfiber.) 

Through the years, each time there is a flare-up with the North, I ask Koreans of my acquaintance how they feel about it.  In every case, they answer with a shrug of the shoulders, or at best a bemused shake of the head -- "same old, same old."  In the days after the February nuclear test, the TV news showed video of an anti-North "protest" in Seoul: a tiny handful of older people burning a North Korean flag on the street.  Only those old enough to have childhood memories of the worst days of the war and the immediate aftermath of the armistice tend to get riled up about the North anymore.

A few weeks ago, I asked a Korean ROTC trainee from my southern province whether there was a greater sense of urgency in training these days.  "Not really," he said.  "My friend is in military service near Seoul, and he said they are on alert now, but here there is no difference."  Regarding the general issue of confrontation with the North, he judged the current situation to be "nothing special."

When the island of Yeonpyeong was hit with artillery in 2010, killing several people, the Drudge Report featured a dramatic picture of smoke rising from a civilian area in the wake of the attack, above the ominous headline, "It begins."  That night, I showed this Drudge page to a group of adult students, ranging in age from late twenties to early fifties.  With dropped jaws and raised eyebrows, they looked incredulously at this Western expression of alarm.  "What begins?" one person asked sardonically.  They could not see what Drudge was seeing, and what so many in the West were seeing, on that occasion or others. 

But why can't they see it?  For one thing, they live with it every day of their lives, and one cannot remain in a state of high emotional alert continuously.  Gradually, one simply learns to accommodate the constant reality, whatever it may be, in the name of remaining sane.  Same old, same old.

Furthermore, the threat, which at some subterranean level Koreans know is real -- all Korean men do two years of compulsory military service -- has not prevented South Korea from modernizing and prospering along its own lines.  From poor authoritarian state to manufacturing hub to high-tech super-economy (with a one-term limit on presidents) in just a couple of generations, Koreans do not feel the oppressive weight of simmering war in their daily lives; North Korean provocations are just passing news headlines here, no more pressing than this year's economic growth forecast, which literally shares top billing with the B-2 bomber drills in the newspaper I cited above.

But there is something more.  It has been my experience that most South Koreans do not perceive North Korea as an unequivocal enemy at all.  North Korea is, after all, Korea -- the half of Korea which was stolen by the communists.  In a racially homogeneous country, it is natural that Koreans view the population to the north as part of their nation.  One of the central campaign issues in every Korean election is the candidates' positions on "re-unification."  There is hardly a Korean, from my unscientific surveys, who does not believe that Korea will be united in his lifetime -- and who does not believe that the re-unification will be achieved peacefully.  The concerns here are primarily economic: the migration of poor, unskilled North Koreans into the major centers in and around Seoul will be a shock to the market, they suppose. 

Of course, the North Korean leadership is a different matter, but even in this regard there is a desire to minimize the concerns.  Sure, the dear leaders Kim are unstable and irrational -- but they are Koreans, after all, and therefore, so the implied story goes, they would not really want to destroy fellow Koreans.  I have heard some Korean young people speak with sympathy for the North's position in the conflict -- genuine communist propaganda maintains a presence here, particularly in universities, as one would expect.  In general, however, the more common sentiment seems to be that the North's leaders are merely confused, and, having painted themselves into a corner, will behave belligerently until they learn to trust their southern benefactors again -- similar to a child who throws a tantrum and is then slow to let go of his anger and rejoin the family for dinner.

In sum, South Koreans live under a serious threat from (what they perceive as) their own countrymen, who advocate a fully indoctrinated communist state ruled by means of a peculiar cult of personality, and who would impose that communist rule and indoctrination on the rest of the country in a minute if they thought they could get away with it.  The South Korean government has, intermittently, shown proper defiance towards the North, but the general population prefers, for the most part, to downplay and overlook the more disturbing aspects of the problem and get on with their daily lives: climbing the job ladder, buying the newest home they can afford, watching mind-numbing TV programs, and playing on their smartphones.  The key to their remarkable powers of denial is their sense, once again, that the threat is an internal Korean problem, and that, in the end, Koreans would never really want to harm other Koreans.

Sound familiar?  When Lincoln said that a nation of freemen could be destroyed only by suicide, and when Tocqueville predicted the slow death of American liberty through soft despotism, they were warning against what is now sometimes called the "normalcy bias" -- the mind's preference for denying significant but incremental changes in favor of the psychological comfort of believing that everything is essentially as it has been. 

I have described in brief the current manifestation of the normalcy bias in South Korea, a description which never ceases to surprise my friends overseas who tell me to "be careful," and ask me about local reaction to the latest crisis on the peninsula.  In fact, strange as it may seem from the outside, South Korea's willful neglect of its danger is nothing compared to Western man's own embodiment of the same normalcy bias in the face of expanding progressive authoritarianism.  The injustices that provoked America's revolutionaries into extreme action, for example, often seem to pale in comparison with the sweep of modern soft despotism's broom through the entire range of natural rights, from life and property to association and speech.  For most of the West (all of it in most cases), the ownership of one's own labor and time is a relic of the distant past, as are the freedom to pursue one's physical preservation by any voluntary means possible, the freedom to raise one's own children as one sees fit, and the right to defend oneself against unjust government by any available practical means.

Koreans may be forgiven their bout of societal myopia; their nation has been on a rapid rise from destitution over the past several decades, hence their giddy feeling that nothing could break this momentum.  Apart from online chatting, the most common use of smartphones here is probably the camera function -- which Koreans almost always aim at themselves, rather than at the world around them.  There is symbolism in that.  (I recently taught a summer class on photo composition, which I began by remarking that our first lesson would be that a camera can actually be turned around.) 

The West is less forgivable in this respect.  For in the modern West, prosperity and freedom grew gradually, over centuries, and have been deteriorating gradually.  The drunkenness of perceived wealth and comfort is unreasonable and inexcusable in the West.  The willful blindness of a society in imminent danger cannot be explained away by observing that the threat, however "internal," is being held at arm's length, as is the perception in Korea.  On the contrary, the threat to the Western nations is anything but at arm's length.  It has all but hugged the life and dignity out of a civilization. 

The normalcy bias, the susceptibility to soft despotism, national suicide -- call it what you will -- is the disease of the modern world.  "Normalcy" is precisely what must be put on hiatus for a while, if modern man is to take stock of his real situation and begin the painful and, yes, dangerous task of preserving and restoring the inheritance of liberty and morality that has been almost entirely squandered by a prosperous world under siege by tyrannical men, but too lost in love with its "self-camera" function to notice.

North Korea has nuclear weapons and leadership as ruthless, unpredictable, and unreasonable as any on Earth, and the bulk of her primary enemy's civilian population lives in a high concentration within spitting distance of the most militarized border in the history of demilitarized zones.  And yet that alarmingly vulnerable population, seemingly contrary to all logic, carries on with life as normal, with barely a glimmer of concern.  There is at least one lesson to be learned here: modern man, sated with luxury, is prepared to overlook anything in the name of preserving his comforting illusion of indestructible prosperity.

I have lived in South Korea for the past several years.  Not one of these years has passed without inflammatory rhetoric or behavior from the North.  This includes nuclear tests; the deadly torpedoing of a South Korean battleship; an inhabited South Korean island coming under deadly artillery fire; numerous threats against Seoul; the symbolic abandonment of the armistice agreement that formally ended the fighting, though not the war, in 1953; and most recently (as of this writing), the cutting off of a military hotline intended to ensure the safety of civilian workers crossing the border into an industrial complex on the northern side.

Today, the front page of my newspaper shows an impressive photo of a B-2 stealth bomber flying over the U.S. air base in Pyeongtaek, near Seoul -- a demonstration of strength from an American administration that is itself ruthless and unpredictable in many ways.  A few friends, in light of recent events, have told me to "be careful," or asked whether I'm all right these days.  To be honest, I never know how to reply to such friendly concern.  For life here in Korea does not look at all like the news headlines, and Koreans have shown an overwhelming desire to keep it that way.

Newspaper headlines aside, here is what the threat of renewed fighting in a war that never ended looks like from my vantage point on the south coast of this little peninsula:

University students, here in the land virtually formed out of mass protests, are heaving crates full of instant noodles and beverages onto a rented bus, preparing to depart for their departments' euphemistically named "membership training" -- i.e., a three-day rural excursion during which freshmen are initiated into the fine art of alcohol poisoning.  Meanwhile, in philosophy class, in answer to my question as to whether anyone in the room has been harmed by someone recently, one student volunteers that she was harmed by her mother, who forgot to bring home the girl's cosmetics last night, forcing her to come to class today without make-up. 

Now that PSY's "Gangnam Style" has, mercifully, faded away in favor of a dozen new catchy/empty K-pop hits of the week, the aural landscape is once again dominated by Korea's most ubiquitous sound -- namely, that of smartphones raining onto floors and pavements from a million careless hands in one of the most tech-crazed nations on Earth (home to both Samsung and LG).

Office workers continue to work absurdly long hours, so as not to appear lazy, and then go out drinking with co-workers, so as not to appear selfish.  Children are hustled from public school -- ill-conceived and development-stunting, as it is everywhere -- to after-school private academies, where middle-class parents shell out thousands of dollars a year to give their children a step up on the lowest-common-denominator learning provided by the government schools.  (This refusal simply to settle for the public school curriculum their taxes pay for is the most endearing quality of Korean parents, a quality sorely and sadly lacking in the West.) 

At dawn each day, older men and women converge on the exercise machines found in parks and on hiking trails throughout this mountainous country -- every one of them dressed in stylish hiking and exercise clothing.  (No Korean over the age of ten would be caught dead hiking through a mountain forest in blue jeans and a cotton shirt; one must meet nature outfitted from head to toe in brand-name microfiber.) 

Through the years, each time there is a flare-up with the North, I ask Koreans of my acquaintance how they feel about it.  In every case, they answer with a shrug of the shoulders, or at best a bemused shake of the head -- "same old, same old."  In the days after the February nuclear test, the TV news showed video of an anti-North "protest" in Seoul: a tiny handful of older people burning a North Korean flag on the street.  Only those old enough to have childhood memories of the worst days of the war and the immediate aftermath of the armistice tend to get riled up about the North anymore.

A few weeks ago, I asked a Korean ROTC trainee from my southern province whether there was a greater sense of urgency in training these days.  "Not really," he said.  "My friend is in military service near Seoul, and he said they are on alert now, but here there is no difference."  Regarding the general issue of confrontation with the North, he judged the current situation to be "nothing special."

When the island of Yeonpyeong was hit with artillery in 2010, killing several people, the Drudge Report featured a dramatic picture of smoke rising from a civilian area in the wake of the attack, above the ominous headline, "It begins."  That night, I showed this Drudge page to a group of adult students, ranging in age from late twenties to early fifties.  With dropped jaws and raised eyebrows, they looked incredulously at this Western expression of alarm.  "What begins?" one person asked sardonically.  They could not see what Drudge was seeing, and what so many in the West were seeing, on that occasion or others. 

But why can't they see it?  For one thing, they live with it every day of their lives, and one cannot remain in a state of high emotional alert continuously.  Gradually, one simply learns to accommodate the constant reality, whatever it may be, in the name of remaining sane.  Same old, same old.

Furthermore, the threat, which at some subterranean level Koreans know is real -- all Korean men do two years of compulsory military service -- has not prevented South Korea from modernizing and prospering along its own lines.  From poor authoritarian state to manufacturing hub to high-tech super-economy (with a one-term limit on presidents) in just a couple of generations, Koreans do not feel the oppressive weight of simmering war in their daily lives; North Korean provocations are just passing news headlines here, no more pressing than this year's economic growth forecast, which literally shares top billing with the B-2 bomber drills in the newspaper I cited above.

But there is something more.  It has been my experience that most South Koreans do not perceive North Korea as an unequivocal enemy at all.  North Korea is, after all, Korea -- the half of Korea which was stolen by the communists.  In a racially homogeneous country, it is natural that Koreans view the population to the north as part of their nation.  One of the central campaign issues in every Korean election is the candidates' positions on "re-unification."  There is hardly a Korean, from my unscientific surveys, who does not believe that Korea will be united in his lifetime -- and who does not believe that the re-unification will be achieved peacefully.  The concerns here are primarily economic: the migration of poor, unskilled North Koreans into the major centers in and around Seoul will be a shock to the market, they suppose. 

Of course, the North Korean leadership is a different matter, but even in this regard there is a desire to minimize the concerns.  Sure, the dear leaders Kim are unstable and irrational -- but they are Koreans, after all, and therefore, so the implied story goes, they would not really want to destroy fellow Koreans.  I have heard some Korean young people speak with sympathy for the North's position in the conflict -- genuine communist propaganda maintains a presence here, particularly in universities, as one would expect.  In general, however, the more common sentiment seems to be that the North's leaders are merely confused, and, having painted themselves into a corner, will behave belligerently until they learn to trust their southern benefactors again -- similar to a child who throws a tantrum and is then slow to let go of his anger and rejoin the family for dinner.

In sum, South Koreans live under a serious threat from (what they perceive as) their own countrymen, who advocate a fully indoctrinated communist state ruled by means of a peculiar cult of personality, and who would impose that communist rule and indoctrination on the rest of the country in a minute if they thought they could get away with it.  The South Korean government has, intermittently, shown proper defiance towards the North, but the general population prefers, for the most part, to downplay and overlook the more disturbing aspects of the problem and get on with their daily lives: climbing the job ladder, buying the newest home they can afford, watching mind-numbing TV programs, and playing on their smartphones.  The key to their remarkable powers of denial is their sense, once again, that the threat is an internal Korean problem, and that, in the end, Koreans would never really want to harm other Koreans.

Sound familiar?  When Lincoln said that a nation of freemen could be destroyed only by suicide, and when Tocqueville predicted the slow death of American liberty through soft despotism, they were warning against what is now sometimes called the "normalcy bias" -- the mind's preference for denying significant but incremental changes in favor of the psychological comfort of believing that everything is essentially as it has been. 

I have described in brief the current manifestation of the normalcy bias in South Korea, a description which never ceases to surprise my friends overseas who tell me to "be careful," and ask me about local reaction to the latest crisis on the peninsula.  In fact, strange as it may seem from the outside, South Korea's willful neglect of its danger is nothing compared to Western man's own embodiment of the same normalcy bias in the face of expanding progressive authoritarianism.  The injustices that provoked America's revolutionaries into extreme action, for example, often seem to pale in comparison with the sweep of modern soft despotism's broom through the entire range of natural rights, from life and property to association and speech.  For most of the West (all of it in most cases), the ownership of one's own labor and time is a relic of the distant past, as are the freedom to pursue one's physical preservation by any voluntary means possible, the freedom to raise one's own children as one sees fit, and the right to defend oneself against unjust government by any available practical means.

Koreans may be forgiven their bout of societal myopia; their nation has been on a rapid rise from destitution over the past several decades, hence their giddy feeling that nothing could break this momentum.  Apart from online chatting, the most common use of smartphones here is probably the camera function -- which Koreans almost always aim at themselves, rather than at the world around them.  There is symbolism in that.  (I recently taught a summer class on photo composition, which I began by remarking that our first lesson would be that a camera can actually be turned around.) 

The West is less forgivable in this respect.  For in the modern West, prosperity and freedom grew gradually, over centuries, and have been deteriorating gradually.  The drunkenness of perceived wealth and comfort is unreasonable and inexcusable in the West.  The willful blindness of a society in imminent danger cannot be explained away by observing that the threat, however "internal," is being held at arm's length, as is the perception in Korea.  On the contrary, the threat to the Western nations is anything but at arm's length.  It has all but hugged the life and dignity out of a civilization. 

The normalcy bias, the susceptibility to soft despotism, national suicide -- call it what you will -- is the disease of the modern world.  "Normalcy" is precisely what must be put on hiatus for a while, if modern man is to take stock of his real situation and begin the painful and, yes, dangerous task of preserving and restoring the inheritance of liberty and morality that has been almost entirely squandered by a prosperous world under siege by tyrannical men, but too lost in love with its "self-camera" function to notice.