South Koreans Not So Concerned About War From The North

The people who would most immediately be impacted by a war on the Korean peninsula don't seem quite so concerned. Perhaps we should take a cue from them.

Kim Jong Un North Korean Flag

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.

FILED UNDER: Asia, National Security, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    To be fair, it’s easy to not be concerned when you’re obviously not the target. North Korea isn’t working on ICBMs so it can threaten South Korea with them.

  2. teve tory says:

    In all the military adventures the US has engaged in, during my 41 years on the planet, I’ve heard some variant of “This time is different: this time the other guy is Crazy!!!!1111”

    I’ve already heard, from numerous people, that Kim Jong Un is “Crazy!!!111”

    I’ve seen zero evidence of this, and plenty of evidence that he’s smart and rational. The crazy, unstable actor I’m worried about here is our president.

  3. @Stormy Dragon:

    Perhaps, but if war did come to the peninsula, it would be the south that would be under the most direct and immediate threat. Seoul is a city/metropolitan area of more than ten million people. It lies directly on the other side of the DMZ and it would take at most ten minutes for tens of thousands of missiles and artillery shells to hit civilian populations in that area.

  4. @Stormy Dragon:

    Perhaps, but if war did come to the peninsula, it would be the south that would be under the most direct and immediate threat. Seoul is a city/metropolitan area of more than ten million people. It lies directly on the other side of the DMZ and it would take at most ten minutes for tens of thousands of missiles and artillery shells to hit civilian populations in that area.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    Man-on-the-street interviews will always show people do not expect the unexpected. Had they interviewed Londoners in 1939 I suspect they’d find few people expecting to be bombed. That said, they’re right that no one is setting the table for war.

    @Stormy Dragon:
    South Korea and Japan have been under North Korean nuke and conventional threats for a long time. We’re the ones freaking out because Kim may or may not have ICBM capability, but he’s had IRBM capability for a while, as well as chemical weapons and delivery systems. And although we love to focus on missiles, he’s had nukes he could place aboard freighters and sail right into San Francisco or Seattle harbors.

    All that’s really changed is that Kim has crossed Red Line #73 just like he crossed the previous red lines. There is no realistic military option, diplomacy is mostly useless, so the hard reality is that we will most likely do just what we’ve been doing: make impotent noises while tacitly accepting North Korean nukes.

  6. barbintheboonies says:

    This all scares me, but our country being so divided scares me more.

  7. Mister Bluster says:

    Had they interviewed Londoners in 1939 I suspect they’d find few people expecting to be bombed.

    Maybe in the movies.
    Things to Come 1936 H G Wells

  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    South Korea and Japan have been under North Korean nuke and conventional threats for a long time.

    That’s kind of my point: of course they’re not freaking out. Nothing really changed for them.

  9. barbintheboonies says:

    The scum Nazis love invoking this reaction, it keeps them relevant. The best way to handle them is to ignore them, let the feds keep an eye on them. Hate escalates and people get hurt, or die. Free speech should never be eliminated, if it goes away we lose.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    @Mister Bluster:
    Then again, Wells thought we’d be time traveling. . .

  11. Mikey says:

    As I’ve said before…I’ll start to worry when my intel analyst friend who lives in Seoul tells me he’s sending his wife and kids back to Virginia.

  12. Mister Bluster says:

    Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,.. President Chump

    @michael reynolds:..time travel...
    I would suggest that our racist, pervert, Republcan President Pork Chop Pud is attempting to send us back in time with his crusade to make America White Again.

  13. Slugger says:

    I like to glance at foreign newspapers when stuff happens in their neighborhood. I have noted a certain nonchalance in So. Korean reporting on this. Commentor teve tory mentions in this thread that in his 41 years there have been multiple “this guy is the worst man on earth” campaigns by America’s leaders. I am 71, and the rants in this vein accompanied by calls for military action and even actual invasions have been the modus vivendi of US governance in my lifetime. Our Presidents change every eight years or so; the worst dictator on earth who surely deserves to have a rain of fire on his capitol city changes also, but the Punch and Judy show goes on. My local newspaper is full of comments stating that Mr. Kim has forgotten how easily we won the first Korean war which is not congruent with my recollection.

  14. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @teve tory: While I was living in Korea a few years ago, I had that same conversation with a member of the US military. In this case, instead of the Kim’s, the subject was the regime in Iran.

    I explained to him that if he and his superiors truly believed that the Iranians were really as crazy and unpredictable as he was saying they were, that fact changed the climate of discussion to one where the only reasonable way to secure the world from such a threat was probably to wage a genocidal war on Iran.

    His response was “my Gawd, you are a crazy motherflocker!”

    I took that to mean that the threat was not as dire as he was suggesting but rather an excuse to rattle some sabers and told him so.

  15. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @teve tory: And dittos on the “crazy, unstable actor” in this little drama not being named Kim.

  16. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Stormy Dragon: You need to work on your tone. I heard it the same way Reynolds did.

    @ Reynolds: I liked “Red Line # 73.” I may use that.

  17. Kari Q says:

    It has seemed to me for some time that North Korea is completely predictable: periodically, they will bluster and saber rattle and threaten. They will get the world (or just the U.S.) to negotiate with them, get some of what they want, then they will be quiet again for 4 or 5 years.

    The only difference this time is that we have a president who doesn’t appear to understand diplomacy. North Korea doesn’t worry me. The president does.

  18. rachel says:

    @Kari Q:

    North Korea doesn’t worry me. The president does.

    Same here, and I live in Seoul.