Despatch from Korea: reflections on this Summer’s crisis


Donald Trump’s war of words with Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea has dominated the international news cycle for the last several weeks. Yet here in South Korea if you didn’t turn on the news channels, you wouldn’t know it. There is no public panic. There are no obvious signs of intensified military activity. Daily routines remain unchanged.

Last weekend I stayed close to Sejong-daero, the long avenue that leads to the beautiful Gyeongbokgung palace, in the heart of Seoul. On Saturday afternoon drums and flags in the vicinity of my hotel suggested a modest pro-USA rally – not an unusual occurrence. By the evening those noises had been drowned out by the more melodious sounds of a music festival on the Seoul Plaza. Both gatherings were miniscule in comparison to the crowds that thronged the same area in protest at the misdemeanours of former President Park Geun-Hye only a few short months ago. Indeed, the past few years have proven to be tumultuous ones in the Republic of Korea, but for internal reasons more than external ones. The scandal surrounding President Park, as well as the tragic Sewol Ferry disaster, roused South Koreans in a way in which the fifty-year stalemate brought about by the peninsula’s civil war barely seems capable of anymore.

To the outside world, the capacity of South Koreans to go about their lives with what appears to be an air of nonchalance seems bizarre: how is it possible to maintain such indifference to danger with the prospect of obliteration so close? Yet South Koreans, by and large, learned long ago to normalise the circumstances under which they live. After all, the precarious predicament of the Korean peninsula does not disappear when periodic crises abate. Under such conditions, it is perhaps better to live in a state of surreal calm than a perpetual state of heightened readiness.

Nevertheless, tangible signs of insecurity are there to see, should one choose to look for them. The demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas lies only some thirty miles from Seoul, and one does not have to travel far in its direction along the banks of the Han River before the barbed wire and the observation posts begin to appear. An observant driver traversing the highways that snake mountainous routes out of the capital, meanwhile, might notice that the environs are studded with camouflaged posts. Within the city, small plaques adorn many subway entrances, denoting their secondary role as shelters for the protection of the civil populace should the North decide to open fire with the tens of thousands of artillery pieces that have their sights set upon Seoul.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a certain sense of fatalism infuses the day-to-day calm. The outbreak of major hostilities with the North would result in a human tragedy in the South, and in Seoul in particular. Around half of South Korea’s 50 million citizens live within the Seoul metropolitan region. In the event of war with the North, it would constitute a primary target, just as it did in 1950. Although military analysts predict that a major conflict with the USA would result in the defeat of the North and the demise of the Kim regime, even leaving aside the issue of nuclear weapons, the death toll that Pyongyang could inflict on the people of the South in a short campaign using conventional and chemical weapons would be devastating. In any possible US triumph, Koreans would provide the biggest sacrifice.

Yet such fatalism has often been equally hard to disentangle from a genuine belief in the impossibility of a future conflict. Over the years I have had numerous conversations in which friends and acquaintances have stated with absolute certainty that ‘it will never happen.’ Such attitudes can be ascribed to the misplaced confidence of younger generations who have not lived with tangible the threat of war in the way that older generations did. But memories of North Korean attempts against the South are not so remote. Less than a decade ago, North Korean fire fell upon South Korean soil when the island of Yeonpyeong was shelled, killing two. This episode followed shortly after the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, in which 46 South Korean sailors lost their lives.

These episodes aside, however, it is possible that Koreans’ perception of their security has been conditioned by the general transformation of the North Korean threat to the South. When I arrived in Korea this summer a number of people said to me that, in light of the recent terror attacks, I was doubtless relieved to have left the UK. When I told them that I had in fact come from Paris, they remarked that I must be even more relieved. To them, the terror risk against the individual in Western Europe appeared far more pressing than the seemingly remote possibility of North Korean aggression. Pyongyang’s fiery rhetoric and its missile tests do not kill Koreans, but terrorists might. Indeed, terrorism used to form part of the Northern arsenal: witness, for example, the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987. Such actions, of course, claimed the lives of southerners. Paradoxically, since the North staked its future on nuclear statehood, the day-to-day risk faced by South Koreans has diminished.

Since 2010 I have visited South Korea on an almost annual basis, for personal rather than professional reasons. Most of those visits have coincided with periods of heightened tensions occasioned by North Korean tests of missiles or nuclear weapons. Those tests have tended to follow predictable patterns: they have been timed to coincide with significant dates in the North Korean calendar, such as the beginning and end of the Korean War, or Kim Il-Sung’s birthday, or with annual joint USA-ROK military exercises. They have played out with a deliberate theatricality on the part of the North Korean state media. But they have often been followed by long silences and even by quiet negotiation. Indeed, absurd as it may seem at first glance, Pyongyang’s dedication to its nuclear programme represents the desperate efforts of an anachronistic Stalinist state to maintain its own existence and legitimacy, not to destroy its avowed ‘enemies’. In terms of the ebb and flow of civilian life in the South, the present crisis feels little different to previous episodes. Yet the progress of North Korea’s weapons programme during this decade has been frighteningly rapid, both in terms of their capacity to miniaturise a nuclear payload and the ability to attach it to an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the US mainland. These developments, coupled with the arrival in the White House of an unpredictable President, prepared to match the rhetoric of the Kim regime and to stoke tensions on the basis of unprepared remarks, may make it impossible to hold to hold to the view that ‘it will never happen’ for much longer. Should the nightmare ever become reality, however, it is deeply unsettling to reflect that in the preceding days the South might well feel as calm as it does now.

Image: The Korean Border, via Wikimedia commons

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