A majority of my traditional students (those who are 18 and have come straight into college from high school) have no idea what’s happening with North Korea or why they should care. They seem oblivious to the threat—unable to understand why we would even consider this small country half a world away a threat.
I have listened to my students—even when they think I can’t hear (which is surprisingly quite often as they seem to assume there’s an invisible wall between them and me), and I have struggled to understand their seeming complacency or apathy or ignorance as regards North Korea.
As I thought about it some more, it occurred to me that in their lifetimes, America has always been the one and only superpower. The USSR dissolved before they were born—I don’t think they’ve ever seen a map or globe with a picture of it as it was. I imagine that it is difficult for them to grasp the idea of a country equally or perhaps more powerful than our own, for them to conceive of a world in which WWIII could break out at any moment—and the United States of America would be annihilated. Sure, they’ve had history classes. But for them, we’ve only ever been at war in the Middle east; it’s always been about the “war on terror” and never about competing political and/or economic ideologies. They were born after the Cold War ended. And while they seem to possess some knowledge of WWII, the term “Korean War” gets blank stares.
I wondered aloud to my husband if this might be in part because they are so generationally removed from it. My grandfather fought in the Korean War. Their grandparents were too young for that. My husband pointed out that he had no grandparents discussing their time in the Korean War with him and he still knows about it (Notably, my husband is now an amateur expert on North Korea, having watched every available documentary on the subject).
I also hear them throw around the words communist and socialist in ways that clearly show they have no concept of what those terms really mean. I’ll hear them repeat things they’ve heard from others, suggesting America is becoming a Socialist state. And I want to blame their education. After all, if I ask them to differentiate between those two terms, I get incomplete, confused, or inaccurate answers. If I ask them if they mean Marxist-Leninism, I get more blank stares. But I also recognize that again they have no context.
These young people may not be familiar with the tensions felt during the Cold War. But they should note the tensions increasing between North and South Korea. We all should. Because North Korea is our problem, too. The relations between North and South Korea are our problem, too. You may argue that we should stay out of the affairs of other countries, but we entered into a military alliance with South Korea in 1953. South Korea honored that alliance by helping us (quite substantially) during the Vietnam War. And we renewed our pledge to that alliance in 2009. That’s why North Korea is our problem. That’s why we should care.