“Koreans to Become Extinct by 2750” was the eye-popping headline about a simulation commissioned by the National Assembly of South Korea. The National Assembly Research Service forecast that, based on current trends, South Korea’s population of 50 million would shrink to 10 million by 2136 and become extinct by 2750.
Methodological questions aside, my first thought when I read the story: 2749 is going to be one helluva year on the Korean peninsula.
If you enjoy clips of Korean politicians fighting over parliamentary procedures, then imagine the glorious fisticuffs and flying kicks over who allowed Koreans to go extinct. The handful of Koreans remaining will protest against the other half of Koreans remaining. The “chattering class” (today’s Netizens) of conspiracy theorists will connect-the-dots to the USA or Japan.
I'd have my popcorn ready, singing an updated version of Prince's “1999” song: “2-7-4-9, Party Over, Oops, Out of Time!” We will miss the 2749 show, but we have had front row seats to yet another sneak preview.
In case you hadn’t heard, the MERS virus hit South Korea. Numerous schools, businesses, events, and celebrations got shut down, canceled or toned down. It changed Korea, at least for a few weeks. I even had to wait in line at public restrooms for the chance to wash my hands. It seemed that the Doomsday Clock had hit midnight in Korea. Forget 2750 ― it seemed that Koreans wouldn’t make it out of 2015.
In Korea, you first fix the blame, then the problem. The first question: Who was to blame for MERS threatening to annihilate Koreans 735 years ahead of the simulation’s schedule? The second, after it became clear that MERS was not going to annihilate Koreans prematurely: Who was responsible for scaring everyone into thinking Korean life was coming to an end in 2015?
Of course, the president got blamed for allowing the virus in. The rulers here always get blamed. I’ve heard that, historically, Koreans even blamed kings for droughts. Former president Kim Young-sam was said to be “bad luck” because of tragedies that struck during his administration (primarily, collapses of the Sampoong Department Store and Seongsu Grand Bridge).
A Korea Times staff editorial suggested that the president “needs to stay around the anti-MERS headquarters.” To do what? In the movie version, the president would dramatically walk in, issue stern commands while brow-beating workers caught napping or smoking, and look really presidential as the proper solemn soundtrack music played in the background.
Some Korean politicians, used to taking credit for the sun coming up, may be tempted to explain that they lack control over the weather or viruses. It must be easier to bow for the cameras and ask for forgiveness.
In the “if it bleeds, it leads” world of news, we must be frightened into following the latest updates, our “social homework” so we can be part of scuttlebutt at school, the office and Social Media. In the book “The News,” Alain de Botton notes that people can feel relevant by following the news. We may struggle to get people we know to take us seriously, but we can Tweet how the world ought to be.
Climate change experts, doomsday cults, and others make predictions about when the world will come to an end. Centuries ago, the Mayans supposedly chose December 21, 2012, which was turned into a popular movie. (Parenthetically, if the world had ended four days before Christmas, it would have been a relief for those of us who hate last-minute holiday shopping).
Reporters and politicians can’t operate at room temperature, there is always catastrophe around a corner humanity avoids turning at the last moment. De Botton writes: “A bad avian flu may disrupt international travel and defeat known drugs for a while, but research laboratories will eventually understand and contain it.”
Then came beautiful headlines backing de Botton’s stoicism: “No MERS deaths for two days,” then “No new MERS cases reported.” How often do we get such “no dogs bit men today” stories?
About three dozen people in Korea have succumbed to MERS. It would seem that Koreans were going extinct if the media reported with as much gusto about a typical day in Korea as it has about MERS: almost 200 die of cancer, almost 20 die in automobile accidents, about 40 commit suicide, about four are victims of homicide, and about 60 rapes are reported. I was wrong when I predicted that there would be suicide notes citing MERS.
But de Botton was and is right, the media can’t help but try to scare us. We should take precautions, yes, but also avoid being “easily seduced into panic.” To encourage 28th century Koreans, I will print this column along with articles about MERS to include in a time capsule to be opened in Korea in the year 2749.
The writer is the Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co.in Seoul. He can be reached at: CJL@post.harvard.edu