The Response in South Korea to Threats of War? A Collective ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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A handful of people paused at a train station in Seoul on Tuesday to watch coverage of North Korea’s threats to launch missiles into waters near Guam. Credit Lee Jin-Man/Associated Press

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.

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Choe Sang-Hun, The New York Times’s Korea correspondent, at a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, in June. Credit Jean Chung for The New York Times

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.

The nonchalance isn’t posturing. After the North launched an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 28, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea went on vacation.

“He was busy posing for photos with tourists at vacation spots and didn’t even bother to call President Trump to discuss the North’s ICBM test,” Chung Woo-taik, a conservative opposition leader, said this week. (Mr. Moon talked with Mr. Trump on Aug. 7 after he returned from his trip.)

But Mr. Moon’s supporters say overreacting to the North will only serve its leader Kim Jong-un’s strategy of appearing dangerous and reckless, as part of an effort to win concessions.

Many here seem to agree — with a shrug.

The South Korean megacity has lived in the crosshairs of North Korean artillery for decades. What’s new is that the rest of the world is feeling the heat.

Updated: August 11, 2017
On September 15, 1996, 26 North Korean commandoes slipped ashore near the South Korean town of Gangneung after their submarine foundered off the coast. The impromptu mini-invasion made international headlines, and tensions rose sharply for several weeks between the two countries as the South Korean military hunted down the infiltrators. Two dozen were killed.

But in the city of Busan, where I’d been teaching English for more than a year, my friends seemed unconcerned; no one I knew was preparing for war. The only person I knew who was truly worried was my mother in Michigan. Was I safe? Wasn’t it a good idea to come home and get out of harm’s way?

I told her the same thing that everyone in South Korea says whenever North Korea threatened to turn the nation into a “lake of fire,” which was often: Everything was fine.

After two decades, multiple skirmishes, the rapid development of North Korea’s nuclear program, and the arrival of a new-generation dictator from the Kim dynasty, the mood in South Korea is much the same. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump alarmed the world when he warned the country that it could face “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” A day later, the North Korean military threatened to strike Guam (home to important U.S. military bases) with four intermediate-range ballistic missiles fired over Japan. On Friday morning, Trump continued the escalation, via a tweet promising that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded.”

But as the president trades doomsday threats with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and American tabloids erupt with mushroom-cloud stock photos, the people of Seoul, just 35 miles from the North Korean border, remain typically blasé. On Wednesday, the website of the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest daily newspaper, lead with a story on Samsung microchips.

The reason? They have heard it all before.

“North Korean provocation is always a concern, but it is kind of like background noise,” says Abraham Kim, former vice president of the Korea Economic Institute of America in Washington, D.C., and current director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. “Sometimes it gets very loud, but it’s always been there. People are kind of numb to it.”

Older residents tend to take North Korean threats seriously. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

That’s particularly the case among younger residents of Seoul. For them, the prospect of conflict feels hypothetical, says Walter Paik, chair of the Department of Military Force at Korea Tourism University in Incheon. “They don’t know the reality of the North Korean leaders.”

Via email, Christina Lee, who works in Seoul for NK News, a publication that reports on North Korea, also notes this strict generational division. Talking to residents on Wednesday, she found that “younger Seoulites seemed detached from the whole issue,” she says. Because nothing has come of past North Korean saber rattling, the current threat doesn’t seem to register as out of the ordinary. On the other hand, older residents are properly wary. “An older South Korean man thought the NK threat is very dangerous,” she says. “[He] said, ‘The younger generation who hasn’t experienced war wouldn’t understand.’”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Seoul to South Korea. More than half of South Korea’s 50 million residents live in the Seoul metropolitan area—more than 10 million in the city itself—and approximately 70 percent of the country’s economy is tied to the city. It’s also hard to overstate its vulnerability. Decades before North Korea became a nuclear threat to the rest of the world, the city lay in the crosshairs of North Korean conventional artillery, minutes away from its jets.

What’s new, of course, is that North Korea no longer directly threatens only Seoul or nearby neighbors like Japan. In July, U.S. officials told Reuters that North Korea’s latest test of an intercontinental ballistic missile shows that it may be able to strike nearly anywhere in the continental United States. That danger is new to U.S. cities and territories, not Seoul. Promises from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that the U.S. would ultimately prevail in any armed exchange aren’t very reassuring for residents of the South Korean capital: The city suffers catastrophic damage in even the best scenarios of a conflict on the peninsula.

There is another element to this crisis that does feel different, however: the American president. Bong Youngshik, a research fellow at Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies, says that Donald Trump is “an untested and new phenomenon” in the decades-old conflict. “He presents an idiosyncrasy to Koreans …. unpredictability.” But that unpredictability could be an asset in pressuring North Korea: “That is, he may really put his words into actions, including military actions.”

But Bong says rather than stockpiling ramen, the young generation in Seoul is “aware of the possibility of the government potentially manipulating the security issues in order to restrain civic liberty, which happened during the era of (South Korean) military dictatorship.”

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