South Koreans Not So Concerned About War From The North
Until the events last weekend in Charlottesville, the American news media had spent the past two weeks or so focused intently on North Korea and the impending threat that the situation on the Korean Peninsula could explode into war at any moment depending on what the mercurial leader in Pyongyang might do. In the interim, though, it seems as though the threat has faded much as previous threats have done. One of the reasons for that seems to be the fact that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un decided to walk back the threat to launch missiles toward Guam, a U.S. territory that plays host to military forces that include B-1 bombers that would likely play a crucial role in any attack on the DPRK. At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that while Americans have been focused on the danger from the north, South Koreans don’t seem to share that concern quite as much:
SEOUL, South Korea — A young, brash dictator in North Korea threatens to lob nuclear missiles at South Korea and its ally, the United States. From Washington, the leader of the world’s most powerful country threatens to slam the North with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Headlines brim with talk of possible war on the Korean Peninsula.
How do South Koreans react?
With a shrug.
I was born in South Korea and have reported on its region for American news media for most of my career — for The New York Times since 2005. And yet, whenever I have to report a recurring “crisis” over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, I feel as if I am living in two different realities.
On one hand, there is a deluge of urgent headlines: Analysts and pundits expound North Korea’s latest motives, serving up their newest estimates on its weapons capabilities. (And, of course, there are President Trump’s Twitter storms. But if he knows how to grab headlines with colorful language, North Korea has mastered that game for decades.)
On the other hand, once I step outside the media and pundit circles, I meet a prevailing calm, even a nonchalance.
The truth is, most South Koreans seem to take things in stride. People in Seoul on Friday evenings are as merry as ever, unmoved by the fact that their city of 10 million lies within the range of North Korean artillery, rockets and missiles.
People here have complained about a recent heat wave more than they’ve discussed the possibility of war. None of my South Korean relatives called me about the North Korean threat. And South Korean journalist friends of mine were hoping, seriously, that they could get a trip to Guam out of the North Korea news. (It’s a popular vacation spot for South Koreans.)
All of which makes the shift from one of my worlds (news) to the other (ordinary life) feel as jarring as exiting a dark movie theater into bright daylight.
The seeming indifference among South Koreans can be explained in part by the simple fact that, despite talk of possible war, there are no telltale signs of either the United States or North Korea preparing to start one.
What might those signs be? A mass movement of North Korean troops and weapons toward the border; the arrival of American warships; the evacuation of 200,000 American civilians, and far more expat Chinese, from South Korea; the elevation of the Defcon military alert status. None of these have been reported, and stock prices in South Korea have hardly blinked.
Behind the collective shrug among South Koreans is also a determination not to unsettle the status quo: a peace that has held for more than six decades under a cease-fire signed at the end of the Korean War. No matter how much they detest the regime in Pyongyang, South Koreans still consider North Koreans their brethren and want to avoid another internecine war.
Still, the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning, even before I leave my bed, is to check the North Korean news agency to see if it has made another bombastic announcement — like the one in which the North recently threatened to launch ballistic missiles around Guam in an “enveloping fire.” But in spite of the rhetoric and the gravity of the military threat, many South Koreans insist that the best way to deal with the North is to keep calm and carry on, and to work together with the United States to deter and punish the North — while avoiding war.
One of the reasons for the seeming nonchalance among South Koreans appears to be the fact that their President, who ran on a platform that included promises of seeking ways to reopen dialogue with the Kim regime, has sought to downplay threats of war at the same time that the rhetoric between the DPRK and the United States has heated up. While those efforts have been side-tracked since President Moon Jae-In took office due in no small part to an uptick in provocative action from the north that has caused him to walk back positions such as his initial inclination to delay installation of the U.S.-provided THAAD missile defense system, the new leader has still taken steps to reassure the public that the increasingly volatile rhetoric on both sides of the border does not warrant increased concern. In a recent news conference, for example, Moon explicitly stated that ”I can confidently say there will not be a war again on the Korean Peninsula.” While this seems like quite a promise to make given the unpredictable nature of the Kim regime, not to mention the fact that there is a new, untested, and mercurial President in the United States who could react quite differently to North Korean provocation than his predecessors, Moon has been rather consistent in his public face of reassurance and the South Korean public has clearly taken that as a sign that the headlines may be more provocative than reality. An additional factor, of course, is that the South Korean people have lived on the other side of the DMZ from the unpredictable Kim regime in a state of uneasy albeit steady “peace” ever since the armistice of 1953 ended three years of bloody conflict that left few parts of the ROK untouched by war. They’re used to provocations from the North Korean regime at this point and, on some level, this seems to all have a “boy who cried wolf” impact on them.
On some level, of course, the reaction of South Koreans to the rising tensions could be simple resignation to the recognition of the reality that the future is really out of their control. If the regime of Kim Jong Un has shown anything over the six years he has been in power it is the fact that his actions are both impossible to predict and difficult even for his supposed Chinese benefactors to control. Whether it has been the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel that resulted in the deaths of dozens of sailors or the increasingly provocative series of nuclear and missile tests that the regime has engaged in as part of its effort to create a nuclear deterrent force, the younger Kim has shown that he will do what he wants when he wants to do it, and the reaction of the South Korean public seems to suggest they’ve concluded that there’s not much use in panicking every time Kim makes a move. Presumably, of course, if the threat of war becomes a real thing, there would likely be a change in that attitude, but for now, the people of South Korea seem content to continue living their lives as normal, in no small part because they’ve got little choice otherwise.
The reaction of South Koreans to all this news about increased threats of war is also seemingly shared by residents of Guam, who have barely reacted to news about threats from North Korea. This has happened even as their newspapers have blared headlines regarding impending missile launches and local news outlets have taken to broadcasting reports detailing what to do in the event of a nuclear attack that harkens back to the old “duck and cover” films that circulated in the United States. The Telegraph, for example, recently reported that Guamanians have spent more time playing and talking about Pokemon Go! then they have the threat of war. Perhaps we here in the United States should take a cue from the people living on the front lines. Yes, there is good reason to be concerned about both how the North Koreans will act in the coming weeks and months, and how the Trump Administration might respond to it, but there doesn’t seem to be much usefulness in panicking about the matter either.