The Story Behind the Story
One of my more ambitious writing projects was the time I interviewed some folks back home for a special article about whether or not the U.S. would invade Iraq and what the average American thought about North Korea.
It was December 2002 and I was home for the holidays. Before I came home I pitched this idea to the managing editor of the Korea Times and he thought that it would be a good idea with the U.S. moving closer and closer every day to another showdown with Saddam.
At the same time I wondered what the folks back home in the Illinois Valley thought about the two Koreas and if they felt that North Korea—having already been mentioned by President George Bush as a part of the “axis of evil”—posed a threat to American interests.
It ended up being one of those articles that I wished I had spent more time researching and conducting more interviews. My biggest disappointment was when I approached the managing editor of the Illinois Valley’s newspaper about doing an interview and she flatly refused. Whether it was a conflict of interest or she just wasn’t interested I was kind of bummed about that. Maybe I expected her to be keenly interested in how a guy from LaSalle, Illinois was now living in Korea and being a part of history. I guess not.
It is interesting to look back—five years down the road—and see what people were thinking about Iraq and North Korea at the time when I wrote this article. So much has happened in between, but we are still in Iraq (and hopefully not for too much longer) and North Korea has threatened to start up their nuclear reactor again—the one they had dismantled and then rebuilt.
Talk of War Still Far From Heartland USA
LA SALLE, ILLINOIS—As 2002 came to a close, the possibility of a military showdown with Saddam Hussein loomed on the horizon and North Korea’s nuclear adventure sent diplomats scrambling to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.
While these two events have been making the headlines in print and broadcast news almost every day around the world, how these events are perceived in small town America tell another story.
“The one thing that is typical of this small town and is representative of many other small towns across the country is that the median age of its citizens is higher,” said Bernie Moore, Assistant Principal and Dean of Students at a co-ed catholic high school, “so people tend to be a little more conservative reacting to these global issues.”
Located 90 miles southwest of Chicago, La Salle (population 9,796) might be typical of many small towns across America when it comes to dealing with recession, unemployment, and a rising cost of living. As such, most people tend to prioritize their problems and insulate themselves from more global concerns.
“People trying to pay their rent far outweighs what they hear about someone throwing a bomb into a car in Israel or the revelation of a nuclear program in North Korea,” said Moore. “Unfortunately, there is a tendency to write these foreign threats off.”
On the other hand, in a post 9/11 world, there is a strong sense of patriotism and pride in America, which, according to Moore is a good thing.
“I stop and think about opening up our gifts on Christmas and having a great dinner that could probably feed some households in North Korea for months,” said Moore.
Nonetheless, with the possibility of another war with Iraq and a nuclear showdown with North Korea over the horizon, America suddenly finds itself at another difficult juncture. As such, the news of North Korea’s nuclear program on Christmas Eve might have surprised most Americans who know very little about this Stalinist country and its infamous leader.
“Other than the fact that North Korea has nuclear capabilities and is in possession of nuclear weapons, I don’t know very much about what has been happening in North Korea,” said Moore.
John Somolski, who has been running John’s North Star, a family restaurant for 18 years, was also caught off guard when he heard the news about North Korea reactivating a reactor that had been shutdown.
“I asked myself what’s going on here now?” said Somolski. “What are they trying to do now?”
Although Somolski doesn’t know why North Korea kicked out the UN inspectors, he pointed out that prior to the recent media blitz; he hasn’t seen much news coverage of the two Koreas.
“I don’t think people see North Korea as much of a threat,” said Somolski. “Is this going to be our next war? I don’t really know.”
Unfortunately, few Americans have a good knowledge of the two Koreas and this perhaps is because of insulation bred in our educational system, or because of the manner in which mass media outlets in the United States put out news about the two Koreas, said Moore.
“Many Americans might not even know which Korea is our ally,” explained Reverend Dr. James E. Kurtz, Pastor of the First Congregational Church. “When it comes to the two Koreas, I think some people aren’t even sure which side we are against.”
Moore, who keeps up with world events as much as he can, agreed. “There are probably some Americans who couldn’t point on a map where Korea is,” he said with a sigh of resignation.
Dave Adrian, owner of a gas station in downtown La Salle is concerned about another nuclear crisis in North Korea, but doesn’t know all the facts about why this has suddenly posed such a threat to U.S. security.
“I heard they’ve been developing nuclear weapons,” said Adrian who has owned the station since 1982. “That’s a terrible thing to do, but what can you do?”
Adrian, who works seven days a week, finds it hard to keep up with world events.
“I just don’t have time to keep up with all the news,” he said as he worked on a car and waited on customers who bought gas. “I read the newspaper and listen to the radio. That’s about it.”
Whether or not this nuclear crisis poses a threat to the United States, Somolski believes that with most of the media coverage focused on Iraq these days, the North Korean threat, although a real one has been downplayed.
“We feel a little less threatened here in a small town,” said Somolski. “Most people are more worried about what is going to happen in Iraq than they do about North Korea.”
Although the nuclear crisis with North Korea is reported by most big media outlets in the U.S., other news from South Korea like the accidental deaths of the two schoolgirls last June or the rise in anti-American sentiment seldom makes it to small town America.
“The general public isn’t aware of the implications these events might have on the relationship between North and South Koreans or Americans,” said Moore. “I think when something like that happens, we need a more comprehensive report from the media.”
“I have no doubt there will be a war in the Middle East,” said Kurtz sadly. “I think about the innocent people from Iraq who might die as well as the young men and women from our country who might die. I don’t understand why the Iraqi people who live in the darkness don’t want to see the light and rebel.”
Somolski pointed out that in talking to some of his customers who are military families, most of them are ready to go to.
Moore, on the other hand takes a harder look at America’s role as a world peacekeeper. “There is a strong sense of patriotism and pride in America which is really good; however, this country is just another member of the world community,” he said, implying that the U.S. is not the policemen of the world.
“If there is war with Iraq and Americans come home in bodybags, that is bad,” said Moore, himself a Vietnam veteran. “Also a war could hit Americans hard in their pocketbooks. Even the ongoing buildup of forces in the Middle East is starting to have an effect on local consumers and businesses.
“It’s sure screwing up the gasoline market,” said Adrian. “Since the first of December, the price has gone up 20 cents a gallon.”
Adrian expects gas prices to go up even further if there is a war.
“That’s a real no-brainer,” laughed Adrian.
Although some people would argue that a war is good for the economy, Kurtz pointed out that this is not necessarily so. “It’s going to do more damage than good,” said Kurtz.
“People aren’t even drinking much beer these days,” smiled Somolski. “All the beer distributors have been complaining.”
Although many Americans think that war with Iraq is the only way to bring about some peaceful resolve, Kurtz pointed out that nobody he has talked to in this town wants to go to war.
“Even though war seems inevitable, myself and the people I have talked to hope things can be resolved through negotiations,” said Kurtz.
Likewise, Moore feels America and its allies need to have this thing completely justified before resorting to military action.
“I don’t know if that’s a part of the 9-11 influence or that it may even go back to my era of the Vietnam War,” said Moore, “but we need to consider alternative measures of dealing with the people.”