It’s become a sort of joke between me and my Korean friends in Seoul. Each time after a major North Korean provocation – this time, Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear test – I’ll message them and ask: “How about now? Nervous yet? How about now? Now?”
Each time, including this one, the result of my informal survey is the same: It’s business as usual here.
Turns out, the one place in the world that’s not on edge about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s increasingly scary militarism is South Korea. “It would take a North Korean missile landing in Seoul to change things,” one Korean friend told me.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
How is this possible? The South Korean capital is only 30 miles south of the border with North Korea and its one million troops, long-range artillery, increasingly improving ballistic missiles and, perhaps, miniaturized nuclear warheads.
The easy answer is that you get used to living with the bully next door. Otherwise, you spend your days thinking about nothing but the nuclear-armed, opaque, thuggish state on your doorstep.
But I believe there are deeper historic and cultural elements that allow South Koreans to do as they must – get on with their lives in the shadow of possible annihilation.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I arrived in Seoul in late 2010 for a three-year stay. I carried a typical American hard line against North Korea, which, in many ways is sensible. It’s just not nuanced or reflective of conditions in Korea. I would come to understand this, but not yet. Mainly because North Korea shelled my new home country only one month after I arrived, killing four South Koreans. South Korean fighter jets screamed low over my office at Hyundai Motor headquarters. I was the only one in the office who seemed concerned.
“So this is how it’s going to be,” I thought. I remember telling my wife “there’s a 25 percent chance war breaks out while we’re here.”
What I didn’t yet grasp is that the two Koreas have been divided only since 1948. For us, that’s a long time. In Asian history, it’s a blip. For the past 1,000 years or so, much of the Korean Peninsula was under one rule. Many South Koreans – especially older ones, who still have relatives in the North – see reunification as the inevitable result of history, at some point. South and North Koreans share the same DNA, the same “shrimp between two whales” complex, wedged as they are between China and Japan; and the same language, more or less.
America has criticized Seoul when South Korean presidents have been perceived as soft on Pyongyang in the hope of reunification. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy led to a 2000 summit between North and South, a joint industrial zone and a Nobel Peace Prize for Kim. Later, of course, the North defiled South’s goodwill with military aggression, and eventually the Sunshine Policy was declared a failure.
Yet, during this period, some daily stressors in South Korean life receded. South Korean mothers and fathers, whose sons face roughly two years’ compulsory military service, slept easier. International money looked more favorably on a Peninsula that did not appear on the brink of war. Foreign direct investment into South Korea peaked in 2000 at levels not duplicated until 2015. Part of this was attributable to the recovery from the 1997 Asian monetary crisis, but not all. Foreign investment plunged in the following years as North and South Korean forces skirmished and Pyongyang tested its first atomic device, even as South Korea’s growth continued.
It’s not just that South Koreans try not to think about North Korea. Many believe that China simply will not allow North Korea to collapse – or attack – because both actions would lead to a unified Peninsula under Seoul’s rule with South Korean and U.S. troops perched on China’s border. True or not, it helps set the mind at ease.
South Koreans have a “numbness” to the various threats posed by North Korea, another Korean friend told me. He reminded me that in 1997, top-level North Korean official Hwang Jang-yop defected to the South. Hwang said he defected because the then-famine in the North – which lasted four years and killed as many as 350,000 – would bring about the imminent collapse of the North. Nearly 20 years later, North Korea is extant.
If they think about a North Korea-related threat at all, it’s via a bank shot: They worry that China will inflict economic punishment on South Korea for its deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile-defense system, which China sees as a strategic threat.
I wonder, too, if there isn’t a deeper cultural factor, as well: the “jeong,” a complicated kind of sympathy. A Korean work colleague described it like this: “Jeong is, even if you hate someone’s guts, you understand their situation.” Westerners look at North Korea and see only a cruel, nuclear-armed dictator. Many South Koreans look at North Korea and see Koreans. Much more worrisome to South Koreans, a friend told me, are “foreign” threats, such as MERS and Zika. Korea is no longer the Hermit Kingdom, with major brands sold all over the world, but old prejudices die hard.
For a long time, this complex way of living with North Korea was inconceivable to me.
The death of Kim Jong-Il was announced in Seoul around lunchtime, on December 19, 2011. Seven hours later, I chatted with Henry, the older Korean guard I saw every night. Henry, who spoke to fellow Koreans all day, had not heard that Kim – sworn enemy of his country, daily threat in his life for 17 years – was dead. Come again? Henry was glad the dictator was dead, even though no one had thought to tell him until the American did.
Yet, not long after, I started to live a little like Henry.
One morning, I got a frenzied Facebook message from a friend back in the States.
“Are you OK?!” they asked.
“Why?” I wrote back. “What happened?”
Turned out, Pyongyang had produced another high-volume threat to turn South Korea into a lake of fire, or some such, alarming Western news outlets and pundits. I’d missed it.
The military-first North Korean regime doubtless looms over South Korea and an ever-widening part of the region. The South Korean government rightly remains on high alert; joint U.S.-Korea forces prepare diligently and Pyongyang will be an even more dangerous problem for the next U.S. president. And someday, something historic will happen in North Korea. But until then? South Koreans will probably continue to worry much more about the sky-high price of their housing, the super-competitiveness of their educational system and the next step in their remarkable economic climb.
Frank Ahrens is the author of Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan. (Harper Business)