In S. Korea, quiet talk of exit plans

A recent poll - indicating that many students would leave if war broke out - raised eyebrows in Seoul.

Mr. Kim, a business executive here, considers his family "very patriotic." He attends club meetings, reads the papers, feels proud of Korea's rising stature in Asia.

But in the past few months - a time of rapid political change and a nuclear standoff with the North - Kim (not his real name) heard his wife counsel their son, who is studying in the US, on the phone: "Don't come back right now. Find a way to stay in the US."

Among the many undercurrents in this restless society, there's one that might be called "the discourse of departure" - an exit strategy.

Life in Korea is already highly competitive, and Koreans talk of many mood swings in this small, sea-locked state. But when tension or disillusionment surfaces - for example, over redeploying US troops, or inadequate education (a chronic complaint) - so does the discourse. Mainly it is heard among elites, the urban, the wealthy, or conservative older generations. But it also crops up among students seeking to go abroad and delay compulsory military service.

"Things seem tense for a couple weeks, then relax," says Kim. "You won't find it on the surface. 'Leaving' is what we say in dinner talks, inside families."

A poll of college students raised eyebrows around Seoul several weeks ago. Some 40 percent of students at Ewha Women's University said they would leave if a war broke out. At Yonsei University, 92 percent of students said they would forgo military service if possible.

Granted, such poll data don't tell the whole story. Those questions were asked as news of US troop changes hit the South Korean press, and took place in tandem with fears of US military strikes on North Korean nuclear facilities, something US officials have since said is not seriously under discussion.

Still, exit strategies tend to be thought of as a natural option to keep in reserve. Evidence shows that departures are rising, even if the overall numbers are low. In March, the Korean ministry of foreign affairs reported that while 720 persons emigrated in December, the February number rose to 926. Most émigrés were wealthy enough to afford the $200,000 to $300,000 security guarantee needed to get a fast-track, special visa.

"People aren't leaving like Hong Kong people left for Vancouver," prior to the British handover of the colony to mainland China, says a 32-year-old Seoul woman. "It's not like that. It is more what we think. But people are considering quick visas for places like New Zealand and Canada, more than before."

Nonetheless, compared with the nuclear crisis 10 years ago, the panic button in Seoul is covered with cobwebs. Longtime expatriates remember the hoarding of food in 1994, and genuine fear. One American tells of a colleague's wife who taught English to eight mid-level executives at the time. When she asked what they planned if war seemed certain, all said they were ready to leave.

"I think she was a little surprised at how matter of fact these guys were," the American remembers. "There wasn't a lot of talk about patriotism. They were ready to go."

To be sure, Koreans have been going abroad, or talking about it, for years. A sharp migration took place in 1998 after the Asian financial crisis. And the "dream" of prosperity overseas is part of Korean lore. Most cite better education or career development as a reason to depart. The term "wild geese fathers" is used for dads who send the family abroad and then visit periodically.

Yet Korea has a history of countless invasions, and has always been squeezed in the power plays of larger neighbors. This city sits under the threat of a mass artillery strike that could take the lives of 100,000 in the first hours - the legacy of the Korean War, which still echoes in collective memory.

Beyond that, protecting the family line is a central aspect of Confucian culture, experts say. That means: keep your sons alive, keep the family going.

Typically, families plan group language study abroad. The wealthy may buy vacation homes. The exit discourse pops up in e-mail groups. An industry is also devoted to procuring visas, and to securing places for children in Western preparatory schools.

"It is what we talk about, but not too loudly," an older research specialist in Seoul reports. Like most Koreans contacted, he won't be identified. "It is a North Korean scare, and related issues. It is a subterranean feeling of insecurity. If you are wealthy, you've got a plan, and maybe a plane ticket sitting in a drawer."

Few Koreans will say directly that "North Korea" or "security" is a rationale for leaving. Yet several who are thinking about a visa, admitted that security issues influence their thinking.

"My brother studies in Illinois, and my family feels he can develop there and work in his field," says a young woman in Pusan. "Also, we feel it is not stable here yet, the politics and economy, and there might be a North Korea problem."

Younger Koreans, educated during the past five years of the "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North, think that while education may be a reason to leave, doing so for security is unnecessary. "Anyone thinking about leaving because of North Korea - we think that is crazy," says one student.

Young Koreans feel new waves of national pride, hopes of unifying with the North, and they desire a more equal say-so with US authorities. But many in the upper middle class, or those who are older, are leveraging those feelings; conservatives say the Roh government is too soft on the neighboring North.

US plans to redeploy troops away from the DMZ - away from the mountain corridor through which the North invaded in the Korean war - add to concerns. The plans involve moving the 16,000-strong 2nd Infantry Division, despite the Roh government's hope that the US will wait until the nuclear issue with the North is solved.

"American troops have been on the DMZ since 1950, practically forever," says the research professional. "They've guarded the spot where the North invaded, and now they are planning to leave. Yes, it worries many people who would rather not say so."

A least as sensitive here is a striking division between liberals and conservatives. "A lot of rich people think Korea could follow the Argentine case," says the executive, who voted in 1997 for liberal Kim Dae Jung, but switched last year to conservative Lee Hoi-chang. "Some are taking their money abroad, and not investing as they should in Korean manufacturing. It's a social phenomenon of these times."

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