THE BANALITY OF NUCLEAR THREAT: My Time in Korea

THE BANALITY OF NUCLEAR THREAT: My Time in Korea

Just a few weeks ago I was packing my bags, preparing to head off on a little bit of an adventure in Asia. My brother, who has lived in South Korea for five years now, had invited me to visit him in Seoul, where he’s currently settled.

And although it meant missing one or two classes from my Communications & Public Relations course, I figured the travel experience would be worthwhile, despite it being my fourth visit to South Korea (and second visit in 2017!). Okay… So I love to travel, and I’m especially fascinated by Korea; its history, its culture, its economic dominance in Asia, and of course, its love for Kimchi (a sort of fermented cabbage delight).

But as I was packing, I couldn’t help be aware – even nervous – of the fact that I was about to spend two weeks essentially locked in the crosshairs of Seoul’s nuclear neighbour just 35 miles north of the city. At a time when tensions on the Korean peninsula are at an all-time high – North Korea’s recent ICB missile test, Trump’s twitter tirades and ‘declaration of war’, as well as the US Army’s show of strength dangerously close to the border of North Korea – a vacation in South Korea was seemingly ill-advised.

Closing my eyes, sticking my fingers in my ears, yelling “la-la-la-la-la-la-la”, I went anyway.

And what I found was remarkably the opposite to what I had expected before setting sail. I mean, I had been to Korea several times before, but not when relations had manifested into physical or visible acts of provocation. I was expecting to witness a subdued Korean people living in an atmosphere of extreme uneasiness, almost as if conflict could kick off at any moment between the two Koreas – or at least that’s how CNN portrayed it.

The reality however, couldn’t have been further from my expectation. I found a Korean people apparently unfazed by the recent hostilities on the peninsula. People I met were either happy to greet a tourist, or just too busy glued to their smartphones to even care. Nobody even bats an eye when a Korean soldier in uniform uses public transport. Their concerns appeared to be much simpler; a few minutes-late subway train was considered much more of a catastrophe than the threat of mass nuclear annihilation.

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Nosedive: Subway passengers using their smartphone on their commute.

Besides, my visit to South Korea coincided with Chuseok, a major thanksgiving festival and week-long public holiday for all Koreans. I’m told it’s a pretty big deal. So maybe spirits were relatively high, with people being simply too busy with family festivities to even fathom the possibility of all-out warfare.

Or maybe Koreans have become so accustomed to the threat of nuclear annihilation that it has now become part of the norm, almost banal. Similar to the violence during the Troubles; no matter how horrific the event, it just became expected and part of the daily narrative.

But as with any trip to South Korea, my brother and I visited the final frontier between North and South Korea: the Demilitarised Zone, or, ‘the DMZ’, if you’re cool.

Ironically named, the demilitarised zone demarcates the physical border between the two Koreas, and despite it intended to be a neutralised area, its actually the most heavily militarized border on the planet. So it’s a bit of a misnomer to say the least. Tourists are required to go through several security checks before embarking on the guided tour, and we were even made to sign a declaration of responsibility in the event of our deaths.

The tension on the DMZ is palpable. Soldiers from opposing Koreas engage in an incredibly tense standoff from the safe havens of their respective jurisdiction, and we were even lucky enough to hear the distant mumbles of propaganda music played by North Korean soldiers, in an attempt to intimidate tourists visiting from the Southern side of the DMZ.

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The Demilitarized Zone demarcates the physical border between North & South Korea. (22/09/17)

Upon returning (safely) from the DMZ, I asked my brother’s fiancé how Koreans really feel about the threat of conflict breaking out on the Korean peninsula and whether she thinks the U.S are helping or exacerbating the current situation. Sun Joo Choi, 35, from Boryeang, outside Seoul, told me,

“Most [South] Koreans really aren’t very concerned about the threat by North Korea. People having been living with this threat for so long that they no longer take it seriously. They are far more concerned about what is happening locally with our own politics in South Korea than they are with a rhetorical threat by Kim Jon Un. But the U.S are definitely not helping to resolve any tensions right now.”

So if that is true, that people aren’t at all fazed by North Korea’s nuclear programme, have the media got it wrong? Are they slightly misjudging the current public opinion in South Korea to the recent hostilities? Do they care more about the bread and butter issues than they do about North Korea? Or does a genuinely credible nuclear threat actually exist on the Korean peninsula as to warrant extensive media coverage?

Or maybe, more accurately, as the Guardian reported, some South Koreans are far more worried about the threat of U.S President Donald Trump, than they are their nearest neighbour.

 

Conán Meehan is an MSc Communications & Public Relations student and Executive Assistant for International Student Marketing & Recruitment at Ulster University. You can follow him on Twitter @ConanMeehan

Mayday – Why Theresa Should Have Taken Some Improv Classes

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ll have seen how badly Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference went.

First off let’s reiterate just how important the leader’s speech is at any political conference. It’s the only bit anyone outside the conference really pays attention to. In recent years they’ve become dull because party leaders simply cannot afford to mess up so they play it safe. If you want to find the last Leader’s conference speech that was as disastrous, you have to go back to 2003 and Iain Duncan Smith’s infamous “quiet man” speech.

Mrs May took to the stage with all the usual pressure and then some. This year’s was even more important as she recently led the party to  a disappointing General Election result, there’s tension in the cabinet and Brexit negotiations don’t seem to be going well.

With that in mind it couldn’t have gone worse.

You’ll have read about the voice loss. You’ll have read about the sign falling apart directly behind her. But the part of the speech that got the most coverage was undoubtedly when comedian Simon Brodkin gave Mrs May a P45, supposedly from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

P45

Look at that! That is brutal! It’s iconic and it’s going to follow Mrs May around for the rest of her political career. There’s not much she could have done about the sign falling apart and sure, she could have rested her voice to try and avoid the cough, but once it started she could only struggle through. The one thing she had full control over was (as the stoics tell us) her reaction to the stunt.

Ignoring the question of how a man got that close to the prime minister,  May’s reaction completely fed into the image of her as an unemotional character. By all accounts she is a very warm person but in this instant we can see a microcosm of how people perceive her. Distant. Staring ahead. Droning relentlessly on.

Eventually she took the P45 from the comedian, placed it gently on the floor and continued on with her speech. As he was escorted out by security, she tried a joke about Jeremy Corbyn but by then the whole thing had gone on too long and it didn’t really land.

While Mrs May is undoubtedly damning every comedian under the sun, any comedian worth their salt would be able to tell her how to have handled it. This guy was just a heckler. I’ve worked with loads of comedians and they all have their own ways of dealing with hecklers, because being heckled is a part of being a comedian, it’s a skill they have to learn. The best advice I’ve heard for hecklers is “cut them off early and use the crowd”.

To explain what that means, let’s imagine the situation had gone differently. Imagine if instead of trying to ignore the comedian, May had reached down, taken the P45 out of his hand and spoken directly to the crowd. Remember she’s addressing conference, this is her crowd, it’s the heckler who’s in enemy territory (this is the same with comedians and their hecklers). Now imagine May had said to the crowd something like “This man wants to hand me a P45, but I say we’ve got too much work left to do, are you with me?”

The crowd would have gone wild for it. If May had ripped up the P45 while she said it, the party faithful would have torn the roof off the place and the press coverage would have shown May as triumphant, not awkward; victorious, not embattled.

It’s easy to think of what you should have said in hindsight of course and if I’d been in May’s shoes I might have just cried when I saw that P45, but there was a moment where she could have turned it around, she just didn’t have the skills for it.

I think there’s a really important lesson to be learned here, one that has come up already in my studies and that’s the importance of creativity. Suggesting to the Prime Minister of the UK that she sit in on a comedy class would probably have you laughed out of the room, but  May has for a long time had the communication problem of seeming like she’s incapable of reacting to other people naturally and in that context comedy classes could be a creative solution to a genuine problem.

So my question is this; What’s the most creative/left field/wacky solution to a communication problem that’s worked in real life? Tweet, email or comment, I’ll update if I find any really good ones.

 

Jason Ashford is studying for a MSc in Communications and Public Relations with Political Lobbying at Ulster University. He can be found on Twitter @jasonashford89.