A good rule of thumb for Korea is to assume that half of what you see will be very familiar and half will look like something invented by Martians. You can find multitudes of Martian-like behaviors by examining the things Koreans fear and the things they couldn’t care less about.
Koreans do not like infectious diseases in the same sense that Glenn Beck does not like Nancy Pelosi. When I search for a descriptor, violent panic most often comes to mind. Fear of mad cow disease was so intense the ban on American beef only recently expired. I was asked quasi regularly if anyone I knew in America had died in the scourge of mad cow. Swine flu, or “shinjong influenza” as the worrying mothers were apt to mention every 14 seconds, was even more horrifying than mad cow. This resulted in millions of people walking the streets of Daegu with cotton masks, the sort you’d expect to see used against the Andromeda strain. Of course my friends were always astonished when I remarked that mad cow disease about as likely to kill you as falling meteors and that the dreaded swine flu had a fatality rate of between .01 and .03%.
However, they do not fear Kim Jong-il even one tenth as much as we do. Ask a Korean person if he or she fears invasion or nuclear bombardment and they will likely ask you from which country. Say North Korea and they will explain that the North is just making noise, like it always does. While my friends, family and family of friends were always sending us breathless letters and emails about the eminent doom from North Korea, my Korean friends usually didn’t know about the “international crisis” until either I or some other foreigner told them.
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