‘Live where the beast is the closest’
Increasing tensions over Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions don’t upset South Koreans’ day-to-day lives.
As North Korea’s dictator and America’s president exchange murderous threats about nuclear weapons, the rogue nation’s next-door neighbors in South Korea are — for the most part — calmly going on with their lives.
“Perhaps the best way to overcome the fear of North Korea’s military threats is to live where the beast is the closest — South Korea,” wrote Haeryun Kang, a South Korean resident and editor of news outlet Korea Expose, in an essay for The Guardian.
Having lived for decades with the unrelenting hostility and inscrutable leadership from Pyongyang, South Koreans can be seen mostly working and enjoying summer activities as usual this week, an indication that the increasing tensions aren’t upsetting their day-to-day lives. A slight downward jolt to South Korea’s KOSPI stock index this week may be one sign of nerves, but the stock index fell by just 0.38 percent on Thursday, less than a 1.8 percent drop in the NASDAQ the same day.
“People get worried here [in South Korea], but people in the U.S. get way more scared about the news than we do,” a South Korean named Crystal told The Huffington Post.
For South Koreans, verbal and physical threats from the North are nothing new. Pyongyang has conducted nearly 80 missile tests since Kim Jong-un’s ascension to power in 2011, 12 in 2017 alone. While the North’s new intercontinental ballistic missile tests may bring parts of the U.S. mainland into range, the South Korean capital of Seoul is just 35 miles from the border, well within range of the North’s bristling conventional weapons arsenal.
Far from predicting imminent destruction, headlines for South Korean news outlets suggested that overreaction was the biggest danger.
“U.S. and N. Korea escalate war of words,” read the top news headline for The Chosun Ilbo online, while an editorial for The Hankyoreh declared that “Pyongyang and Washington should end their war of words.”
“Inflamed rhetoric is pushing region to the brink of disaster,” ran the headline of an editorial for Chosun.
Meanwhile, on the website of Dong-A Ilbo, the North Korean crisis rated as only the fourth headline down the page, crowded out by reports of an earthquake in China and the opening of a new education center. Decrying “hawkish politicians” in the U.S., an editorial in Dong-A Ilbo said war is not imminent.
Cheong Wa Dae, a top aide to President Moon Jaein, echoed the belief that the Korean peninsula is not about to erupt in war.
“I do not agree with the claim that the Korean peninsula faces an imminent crisis,” he said, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
For some, at least, the uncertainties raised by the new Trump administration were at least as worrying as the familiar belligerent rhetoric from the North. In a Chosun editorial entitled “S. Korea is being sidelined from its own future,” the author worried that the U.S. would appease China by officially ending the Korean War and withdrawing troops from South Korea.
“In all this [negotiation between the U.S. and China] the South Korean government has been completely sidelined,” the author wrote. “This is a whole new level of madness.”
Despite appearances of indifference, South Koreans are not just jaded by the constant state of crisis, Mr. Kang maintained.
As a result of remaining “red scare” and fears of sympathizing with the North, Mr. Kang argued, South Koreans are forbidden from accessing many North Korean materials or expressing too much interest in North Korean affairs, rendering indifference the only feasible reaction.
“Behind the indifference lies also years of fear, deep and even subconscious, a glaring lack of information and unavoidable ignorance about what really is happening,” Mr. Kang wrote.
But to some extent, the indifference is also a reflection of boredom with repetitive threats, as perhaps was best summarized in an essay by Dohoon Kim, editor in chief of HuffPost Korea, written after North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb last year.
Mr. Kim said the North’s threats are so common, it’s hard to react too much to the latest provocation.
“South Koreans don’t even flinch anymore when North Korea spills vitriol about turning Seoul into an ocean of blaze,” he wrote. “Imagine a cranky, obstinate relative from long, long ago who shows up periodically banging on your gate with a hammer, insisting that you extend him a loan.”
South Koreans can be seen mostly working and enjoying summer activities, an indication that the increasing tensions aren’t upsetting their daily lives.