After a relatively quiet period, three items dominate Korean news all at once. The Korean people's reaction to these items can can be seen as a reflection of the Korean mentality in general.
I am sat at home on a Saturday afternoon writing up my memoirs, when I decide to flick onto the BBC website to see what is going on in the world. Surprisingly the main headline is from South Korea where the ex president is reported to have fallen off a mountain. The fact that this has occurred just over the mountain from where I sit writing, adds an eery edge to the afternoon. Within the short BBC article there is a brief mention of the presidents fraudulent past and a suspicion of suicide. Oh no, I think sarcastically, foul play in South Korea - how can that be?
As I am reading the article there is a knock on the door. I answer and am confronted by two Jehovah's witnesses. Before I have chance to politely decline their conversation, one of them has put his foot in the door. He smiles and invites himself in. Within seconds, I am sat on the settee talking about the book of Revelations to the pair of them. They pick up on my every word and throw biblical references at me to fit all strands of conversation, no matter how hard I try to divert it away from the bible. I tell them that I am a Buddhist in an attempt to throw them off the scent. They then question me on Buddhism and obviously they know more than me on the subject. I decide to play them at their own game and not for the first time in my life I become the interrogator. I've got them on the back foot now, I can smell fear in the air. Ha ha they want to leave I can feel it. They're not leaving now I'm having fun. I question them about their faith and how long they have been followers. As I thought, they have been followers since birth. I insinuate the possibility that they may have been brainwashed. They laugh and look at me with piteous eyes. It's that glare. You know, the one of a religious person who walks around with a permanent smile on his face because he has a secret and you're not in on it. It's that look, the "oh god bless you child" look. I inform them that their ex president has died. They do not seem too interested. These are sales people, no different from a double glazing salesman. They have a product and they will do their up most to sell it to you. Double glazing salesmen fix a gap in your windows, the Jehovah's Witnesses are trying to fix a gap in your life. I bore of the conversation and tell them that I have to rush off to see Terminator 4. As they are leaving the chief protagonist turns around and in a gloriously amusing Korean/Austrian accent says "I'll be back". I don't doubt it for a minute.
During the weekend I check the news and see that Kim Jong Il has been up to his tricks again. This time he has broken all his sanctions and carried out an underground nuclear test which is more powerful than the first H bomb on Hiroshima. The world is in uproar. The super powers are discussing how they will react to this latest act of defiance. Kim Jong Il loves to cause a rumpus. He's knocking on now and suffering from ill health. There is a big question mark over whether or not he will bow out in style i.e. taking half the world with him.
I go in to school on Monday, half expecting the conversation to be about Kim Jong Il, but as always the Southern half of the country fail to recognise him. It is very hard to get a conversation out of the South Koreans about Kim Jong. They are tired of his childish antics and do not believe for one minute that he will carry out his threats. They recognise, either rightly or wrongly, that he is playing with the Americans and it is my observation that some Koreans even admire him for this.
There is a definite gloom in the air and I am unsure what the source is. A few hours into the morning I ask Haemin (co teacher) if she had a nice weekend. Her response is a negative one, which prompts me to delve deeper. It turns out that she, like the rest of the population of South Korea have had an awful weekend because of the Ex President's suicide. I can only liken the feeling which surrounds the place to that which the UK experienced in 1997 when Diana left this mortal coil. This glum atmosphere continues throughout the week. In Changwon, as I imagine they have done in many other cities around South Korea, they have set up shrines. People queue up outside large tents to come and pay their last respects. They leave bouquets of flowers outside and then depart with their heads hung low.
The funeral takes place on Friday and is televised live. The people of Korea are glued to their screens and many hang flags out of their windows. A few weeks later and many of the flags are still hanging out of apartment windows. Given the Korean work ethic I am assuming this is out of respect and not laziness.
The final piece of news to hit the headlines in Korea and send shock waves through the land is that swine flu has eventually made it here. I have heard so many times over the past month that swine flu will not come to Korea. It appears that they are in denial of any of societies ills. Homosexuality is something that only happens in other countries, as is aids and drug abuse. Bad things seemingly do not happen in Korea and if they do they are because of the foreigners here.
I am first made aware that swine flu has hit Korea when my co teacher approaches me in a rather coy manner and hands me a letter. I take the letter from it's envelope and read it, as my co teacher rather tentatively looks on. The letter it turns out is a government health warning which all public schools have been instructed to pass on to their foreign teachers. I finish reading it and my co teacher politely asks me if I can stay from my friends this weekend. I can't believe it, they're all shitting bricks because they think that us "foreigners" are going to give them lurgee. I later find out that this same message has been given out to all the foreigners in public schools. There is also a story about an English teacher that has swine flu and has been locked in solitary confinement in his room in Gimhae. Apparently his girl friend is allowed to bring him food a few times a day.
There is a threat of all out nuclear warfare on their door step. The world is in major talks to see how to deal with the problem child of North Korea and all the while the Koreans are busy mourning their Ex President and trying to avoid the foreigner in case they get swine flu. The only people not trying to avoid us are the Jehovah's Witnesses.