Korean Bogeyman


I’ve been having a recurring dream in which the Big One has happened. North Korea has gotten its Bad News Bears weaponized missile to fly across the ocean and hit Los Angeles. In this dream, I’m dressed in a cozier version of something *Mad Max*’s Furiosa might wear to daringly rescue enslaved concubines. Rather than surveying a desiccated landscape, though, I’m holed up with my family in a bombed-out Starbucks. We’re all surprisingly unconcerned about being aboveground, a bit c’est la vie that whatever fallout occurred outside this coffee shop has already done its worst.

The dream probably has taken root because I spend an inordinate amount of time before bed scouring the news and analyses about what might happen in the strange game of chicken between Rocket Man and the Dotard. I wonder about that, too, “the Dotard.” I wonder what translator or Babel app came up with that particular word — I try to think of what actual Korean word Kim Jong Un must have sputtered to end up at “dotard.”

I marvel at the Twitter tit-for-tat that two nominal world leaders engage in. Even stabs at the roughest sort of negotiation by his own appointed secretary of State are undermined by the Tweeter-in-Chief, as Trump tells Rex Tillerson “not to bother” with diplomacy. So where does that leave us? I find myself asking: Where is Guam exactly? Is LA the closest major city to Pyongyang in the continental United States? But it seems really far still, right? Right?

I’m a Korean-American Los Angeleno by way of Queens and Long Island, and I’ve had a lifetime of North Korea being the ultimate bogeyman. When I was growing up, people would ask if I was from North or South Korea, and I’d look at them as if they’d asked if I lived underwater or on land. Ummmm, I’d think, if I were North Korean, I wouldn’t be here at this bat mitzvah. But I’d just mutter, “South Korea … I was born here, but my parents are from South Korea.”

I was told apocryphal stories of the uncle who’d been stuck in the North but escaped in the nick of time across the border by running across a river. When I’d travel abroad, my mother would warn me not to speak Korean too loudly in crowds, or to let myself be kidnapped by North Korean agents, who apparently were posted in European cities to surveil suburban teen tours. But then when I did visit the demilitarized zone on a family trip to Korea a few years ago, led by an understandably firm and skittish tour guide (“No, sir, you cannot take a picture with one foot on each side”), I got chills as I saw up close the dynamited holes and small burrowed tunnels through which the North Koreans had tried to infiltrate the South during the war.

As an adult, I can’t deny the not-so-crazy rumors of Kim Jong Un’s crazy MO — he had his uncle executed by putting him in a cage with feral dogs (very Game of Thrones); he sent back a brain-dead American prisoner whose only alleged offense was to take down a poster to bring home as proof he’d been to the “hermit kingdom”; he kidnapped American journalists like Laura Ling, forcing an exasperated Bill Clinton to go and negotiate their safe passage home. And he even put a brazen public hit on his own half-brother — using a rare chemical nerve agent delivered by two young Asian girls-for-hire. You truly couldn’t make this stuff up, and that last one resulted in the biggest “I told you so” glare from my mother since teen-tour days.

I’m a mother now, too — of a two-year-old daughter. Most of the time, I’m thankful that she’s too young to understand anything about this, to know how scary a place the world is, and, even in her short life span, how much scarier it’s become. The closest thing my intrepid little girl has to fear is when she insists on coming inside because she can’t pinpoint where the sound of crickets is coming from. It breaks my heart because I know she doesn’t even know what to be afraid of yet, and that no matter how many times I tell her “You can do anything,” when it comes to literal matters of life and death, I can’t offer much.

I look up the emergency go bags on Amazon that contain powdered milk, dust masks, and traveler’s checks, but they don’t inspire confidence to sustain humanity in a major weather-related event, much less a nuclear cataclysm, so I don’t add to cart. I read about prefab steel bunkers that cost $40,000 and, more nail-bitingly, a Noah’s Ark–esque one run that admits members by invitation only. Applicants must have demonstrable skills in, you know, world-building. The chosen few have checked boxes for “engineer,” “survivalist,” “scientist,” “martial artist.” I ask my husband what he could do, and he says he can “put on plays,” that the arts are always needed, especially in a close-quarters post-doom communal quarry. That’s at least something.

I start to wonder if “survivalist” is a learnable skill, like coding.

So I go about it in my own amateur way — surviving — and more, enjoying life despite the dread that hums along at its own persistent pace. For my two-year-old who may double her age under this scary administration, mustn’t I be the one who says everything’s going to be just fine, even when I have no idea if that’s true? Is it saying “I don’t know if everything’s going to be just fine, but I sure hope so, since I really hope you don’t have to fight to be in the first wave of Mars colonizers escaping a post-nuclear Earth? “

I think a lot about what I could do better before I end up in that bombed-out coffee shop. I can march, sign petitions, set up my robo-calls, give money, and gather with like-minded citizens. Sure, there are those things. And closer to home, there are a lot of ways that I wish I were a better role model to my daughter — being more present; using my spare time to garden or cook stews; learning to crochet rather than cueing up Netflix.

But I won’t lie, and I won’t scare her. That’ll happen on its own. I’ll tell her the truth as best as I can make it out but let her know that reason and light, even if they seem far off and unresponsive, tend to win the day. And I pray for the world not to end anytime soon, and that if it does end, I’ll have done what I need to do and said what I need to say.

Today, at least, I have the power to teach that crickets aren’t scary, and that somehow feels like enough.

*Jane Cha Cutler is a producer living in Los Angeles.*