In North Korea, clueless and malevolent aliens
Back in the last century, my husband and I couldn’t resist the sitcom Third Rock from the Sun, which chronicled the misadventures of the Solomon family in small-town Ohio.
The very broad joke underlying the show was that the Solomons – Tom, Dick, Harry and Sally – were in truth extraterrestrials sent here from a distant world to study the inhabitants of our insignificant backwater of a planet.
The aliens in human form were played by a fine cast, headed by an irrepressible John Lithgow, and their cheerful cluelessness about any and all facets of actual real human beings and life was impossible to dislike. Unlike their ilk in so many movies and TV shows, the extraterrestrial Solomons were blissfully and endearingly benign.
Then there’s the leadership of North Korea.
In recent years I’ve thought of those who rule North Korea as sort of the evil doppelgängers of the Solomons. Clueless about the rest of humanity, yes, but hardly benign.
They’re malignant and malevolent aliens living in a reclusive, sealed society on a planet whose residents are as baffled by them as they seem to be by the rest of us.
And they have nukes.
This is what we’ve conveniently overlooked or downplayed in recent years when we’ve contemplated the country the sane world has begun to think of as the crazy uncle in the global attic. North Korea has been a carnival sideshow we’ve turned to for diversion when we’ve tired of worrying about “real” threats to the world – turmoil in the Middle East, for example, or climate change.
We’ve mocked the country’s ruling family – those clothes! those haircuts! – and its oddly empty cities and goose-stepping soldiers. We’ve scratched our collective heads when its leaders rail against their perceived “enemies” – why, we ask, would anyone on the planet even want North Korea? – and we’ve pitied the ordinary North Korean people who’ve been brainwashed and starved for decades.
Now we’re forcibly reminded. Nukes. And we’re forcibly reminded by the country’s latest dictator/strongman-with-a-bad-haircut, 30-year-old Kim Jong Un, who is almost totally unknown to the outside world. He reminded us by threatening – repeatedly and increasingly belligerently – that he would use said nukes. Against us. And against everyone else his missiles might actually be able to reach, including the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
Well! The crazy uncle in the attic finally has the world’s attention.
But to what end? Suddenly North Korea is front and center in our national consciousness. Korea “experts” whose phones haven’t rung in years are in demand. Would the North Koreans dare? Are they that crazy? Or canny? And above all, what do they want?
It’s bewildering. It’s scary. And it’s maddening.
For some of us of a certain age, after all, we’ve been here before. And we
don’t want to be here again. We especially don’t want children today to grow up spooked by nukes as a lot of us did.
I went through childhood in a time when all-out nuclear war – a war that threatened global annihilation – was deemed entirely possible. Two large enemy nations, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, were armed to the teeth with massive quantities of nuclear weapons pointed at each other. Only the certainty of mutual assured destruction – great phrase, eh? – kept either side from acting. Fear of nukes was pervasive if low-key.
Americans prepared for the worst, stocking public air raid shelters with bulk food staples. People with means built their own. Cities developed evacuation plans. Schoolchildren drilled, preparing for destruction.
And children see everything in very personal terms.
Would I be at school when the blinding flash – caused by a nuclear explosion – hit? Would I have time to duck and cover? Duck and cover was a lovely little exercise we practiced with regular drills. The idea was, when the flash came, to duck to the floor – under desks or in the inside hallway. Crouch, cover your head and neck, if necessary with your hand, and wait for the all-clear siren. I never was sure exactly how duck and cover might save us.
Or would I be at home? And where would my father be? If he was at work, would he ever get home?
We lived in an 1850s farmhouse with a small dirt-floored stone cellar, reachable only through an outside door. It was a nasty place, I thought, filled with musty, dank air and spiders. I hated and avoided it – but there was some comfort believing that its thick stone walls would keep us safe.
Trying to imagine how my parents and siblings – not to mention the dog – would fit was nearly impossible. And what if neighbors wanted shelter there as well? Better not to think about that. But of course I did. And I worried. Children might not tell others, but they worry, sometimes a lot.
As I grew up, my fears lessened. But they never went completely away.
And so I exalted when the cold war was over. That corrosive, all-consuming worry was gone, for me and with luck for future generations. Sure, there were still nuclear weapons that might go astray. And more recently we’ve had to deal with small groups of terrorists bent on mayhem, and they were and are capable of doing serious damage. But nuclear winter was off the table.
Now it’s not. Not really. North Korea’s store of nuclear weapons might be small, but so many countries – some notoriously unstable – also have nukes that there’s no telling where a war might end if it ever starts. Not even to mention the likelihood of a new arms race as neighbors of North Korea seek nuclear capability to protect themselves.
It’s way too late to stick the nuclear genie back in the bottle. Sadly, it’s probably too late to keep another generation of children from growing up fearing nuclear annihilation.
Mutual assured destruction, welcome back.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)