Joe Eaton is a former reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, the Washington City Paper, and the Roanoke Times. He now teaches at the University of Montana School of Journalism.
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.
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.”
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.”
Unable to predict the potential impact of Trump and Kim’s fiery rhetoric, many Korea experts pay more attention to financial markets, which, like Seoulites, are expressing little concern. The Korea Stock Exchange Index KOSPI fell .4 percent on Thursday. And although North Korea has fired 18 missiles since February, the South Korean benchmark has not fallen more than 1 percent on any day that a missile was fired, according to Bloomberg.
Now it’s my turn to worry about friends and family back in South Korea. My wife and I returned to the United States in 2001. In the years since, whenever the threat of war floats to the top of the U.S. media cycle, we discuss my in-laws in Busan. We’re the ones who call and quiz them about their safety, and occasionally urge them to prepare. Should we try to get them to Guam and then to the U.S. if the situation escalates?
Today, like most other Koreans, they seem unconcerned. They couldn’t leave even if they wanted to, it turns out: They let their passports expire.