Outside our window, the civil defense sirens are sounding.
It’s 1:00PM last Thursday afternoon in Seoul, South Korea. We are about 20 miles from the North Korean border.
A truce but never peace was declared decades ago. Both sides, perpetually armed, man the border. They posture, accuse and some would say pontificate. A few months ago the north lobbed a few artillery rounds at an inhabited island of the South. Only a few civilians are killed.
Only a few.
The engineers I teach, mostly in their 30s and 40s, have spent their entire lives in this charged environment.
This is their home. This is their “normal.”
I’m giving a five day seminar to a select group of very senior software engineers from a top South Korean aerospace manufacturer. They use our software to control things flying through the air with, and without, pilots. The company I work for makes the underlying real-time operating system (RTOS) and the Korean company will use it to rapidly and predictably make the flying object do what it needs to do to keep flying, or to not keep flying, in a very precise manner.
From outside our 17th floor downtown meeting room, I can hear multiple sirens now, their pitches rising and falling independently.
Their sound is identical to what I heard in the US in the 1950s when we feared nuclear annihilation on a daily basis. I learned to “Duck and Cover” under wooden desks in elementary school and practiced on which side of the hallway to stand to avoid the shards of glass that would fly in if the attack came between classes. The word “vaporize” was never mentioned but the “nuclear shadows” of people on building walls in Hiroshima and Nagasaki attest to that brief but grim reality.
But here in Seoul when the sirens are heard and with some mountain tops inside North Korea easily visible through our window, nobody bothers to look up from their work. Their calm suggests nothing is wrong.
I ask, “Are they testing the sirens?”
“Yes,” one engineer says without moving his eyes or attention from the computer.
“Do they do this regularly at the same time?” I ask thinking it’s like the Saturday noon test of the nationwide civil defense system in the US I remember from my childhood.
“No, we never know when they will go off.”
I pause before asking, “Then how do you know it’s not a real attack?”
“We’re still here,” he says.
Two days later I’m near the end of the 24 consecutive hours it takes to get home from Korea. I’m in the aisle seat of a commuter jet from San Francisco to Phoenix next to someone who was on the same flight from Incheon International.
Normally that longer first flight follows a Great Circle route that arcs up past North Korea, China and Russia before crossing the dateline in the Aleutians and then down the west coast of North America. This time, however, the little plane on the map in the cabin video tells us we went further out over the Pacific, presumably to avoid some weather, but we still got bounced pretty good a few times.
On the second and final flight to Phoenix, I talk with a fellow passenger from that earlier flight who is also going home to Phoenix.
“I can’t sleep on commercial flights,” I say. “I know the avionics and control systems too well.”
The Air France flight that went down mid-Atlantic with everyone on board is a reality to be confronted every time I fly. “God is with me,” I tell myself. “His rod and His staff, they comfort me.”
My new acquaintance nods. “Me too. I know pilots and I know the airspace.”
As we talk, I learn he’s an active duty F-15 pilot returning from an assignment in South Korea. He looks to be in his mid-thirties, perhaps a little less.
“It’s not the nukes North Korea might have or get,” he says when I tell him about the sirens and the South Korean engineer’s matter of fact comment earlier in the week.
“It will be the chemical warheads lobbed by hundreds of cannons into Seoul. It takes time to find and stop that many. There would be millions of dead before we could stop them.”
Seoul’s population comes to mind: Eleven million.
“Using something to stop them faster might bring in China.” He pauses before finishing, “That would be really bad.”
We’re on final for Phoenix before either of us says anything more.
I offer my hand. “Thank you, sir.”
He accepts it. “You’re welcome.”