As an expat living in South Korea, the North Korean threat is always present. I would be stupid not to take notice.
Lately, the threats have been more jarring than in years past. However, like many Koreans, most of the expat community shrugs it off, likening the threats to whining from a petulant child.
However dismissive we are to news of Kim Jong-un's (김정은) newest tantrum, we quietly acknowledge that the threats are not completely empty. There is a danger of escalation. We simply keep an eye out for that email or phone call from the embassy telling us it's time to go (or hope we will have the luxury of time and notice to do so).
Why the relaxed attitude?
It's difficult to imagine unless you are familiar with life in the ROK. I now sit in our new apartment in Daegu, South Korea. The sounds of day-to-day activities come through the window. New construction going up, traffic from the main road is speeding by, people are walking their dogs and taking their lunch breaks: It's business per usual here in the ROK. Went shopping this morning and there was no rush for bottled water, kimchi and rice. The shelves are well stocked and the markets are busy with activity.
When you come into your own as an expat in South Korea, it's easy to forget about North Korea. Life here is blessed compared to the economically-deprived west. Our basic needs are met: food, shelter and medical care.
Most foreigner jobs provide housing, a decent monthly salary, pension, severance and medical insurance. After household bills, contributions to savings, and/or paying off debt, there is usually more than enough money left over to eat and drink to our hearts' content, shop as we please, and travel extensively.
Many of us from the U.S. secretly share the opinion that going home would be more horrifying than living with the constant North Korean threat. Back home there is: Lack of health care, lack of employment, high cost of living and, the dreaded, living with the parents. These points keep us happily settled in the ROK.
People back home frequently ask about the North Korean threat. Of course, I have to admit there is some relief in our recent move from Seoul to Daegu, but even still, I have a hard time putting a lot of energy worrying about a possible attack. A North Korean attack only exists in the world of 'what if'. I have problems that exist now and I need not be bothered with worrying about projected results from political rhetoric.
Drowning financially in a sea of medical bills and student loans is a very real thing for many people these days. Moreover, in the U.S., the possibility of being shot while working as an elementary teacher is an understandable anxiety. These are much more likely events than a North Korean invasion.
When people wonder how anyone could seek out work in the ROK, consider this: Most expats here are university grads with very little possibility of employment back home. Many have huge loan payments and no job prospects to help them chisel down that debt. Even if they do find a job in the U.S., how many jobs offer decent health insurance these days?
I'm not afraid of the possibility of being bombed, but I am afraid of going back home and being unemployed and/or sick without health insurance. That is more terrifying than anything Kim Jong-un spouts on about. I fear him much less than I fear the thought of being poor in the United States.
P.S. These days the biggest news in South Korea is a new fine for showing too much skin. Short skirts and bare shoulders is what the S.K. government is worried about these days, not their northern neighbors - but don't tell Kim Jong-un!
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