South Koreans are surprisingly blasé about threats from the North

by Anna Fifield / 09 May, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - North Korea

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Unfazed South Koreans say Kim Jong-un is merely carrying on as the North’s dictators do.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked in the past month if there’s going to be a war with North Korea. Donald Trump is sending warships to the region and threatening military action, while Kim Jong-un has been firing missiles and artillery and is vowing to “ruthlessly ravage” the US. Cue hysterical headlines.

American moms are sending me messages on Twitter, asking if they should make their adult children cancel trips to Japan. Friends in Asia planning weekend getaways to Seoul ask me if it’s safe.

Not really, I say. Those South Korean taxi drivers are maniacs and you’ll almost certainly eat too much. But other than that, you’re fine.

Here, on North Korea’s doorstep, life goes on as usual. Many South Koreans laugh when asked if they’ve made any preparations for sudden conflict, such as stockpiling food or water. “This is just North Korea being North Korea” is the common refrain.

South Korea has lived in a technical state of war with North Korea for more than six decades, so people here have become desensitised to the threat.

That’s despite the threat being much more tangible in South Korea than it is in the US or even Japan: North Korea has a huge amount of conventional weaponry lined up on the Seoul capital region, home to about 25 million people (not to mention 28,000 American troops), and could inflict enormous damage within a few hours.

This factor has restrained successive US administrations during ups and downs with North Korea.

The same logic applies this time, too, even as Trump rattles his sabre and warns that a “major, major conflict” is possible if China doesn’t act to restrain the North.

One thought, however, nags at me: this problem involves not one but two impulsive, unpredictable leaders. Look at Trump’s sudden decisions to launch missiles at a Syrian air base and drop “the mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan. Not only were these unexpected, but they both seem to have achieved Trump’s goals, perhaps making him think that this stuff is easy.

But many of the experts I talk to have faith in the people around Trump, especially his Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, who served as a marine in Japan, and his National Security Adviser, HR McMaster, an army general with a PhD in military history. They know the risk to South Korea and would argue against any strike on the North, these experts say.

But there’s one other reason to bet against conflict, and Syria and Afghanistan are the examples again.

In both those cases, the Trump administration acted swiftly and without fanfare. The North Korea situation is completely the opposite: lots of threats and warnings, and the slow return of an aircraft carrier strike group.

For these reasons, I’m betting that the grandmas of Seoul are correct: this is just North Korea being North Korea (and Trump being Trump).

So go ahead, book those trips to Seoul or Tokyo. It’s lovely at this time of year.

New Zealander Anna Fifield is Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post.

This article was first published in the May 13, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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