Newspaper headlines and grave warnings from TV anchors about nuclear cataclysm in the Korean Peninsula may give travelers pause. But in South Korea, few people discuss the issue openly, including inside the halls of government or on the parliamentary floor.
The North Korean threat tops headlines for sure, but most news reports focus on reactions from Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo and Washington – including Donald Trump suggesting that the US secretary of state is “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korea. For average South Koreans, the news is no more exciting than daily weather reports.
The Kim Jong Un regime may have adopted a new tactic to rouse South Koreans from their somnolent response. Recently, in Seoul’s Sinchon area, where several university campuses are located, students alerted police to retrieve scattered leaflets containing North Korean propaganda threats and boasts of its nuclear weapons power.
“Our hydrogen bombs will wipe out Americans,” asserted one handbill, apparently floated to the south in balloons to target students. Possessing North Korean material is against law and the students didn’t bother to look. Instead, police carted off the materials, probably for incineration.
Average people, accustomed to blood-curdling threats from Pyongyang, remain nonchalant. So Man Du, a retired construction company manager expresses disdain: “If they think they can impress and frighten us with simplistic message of this kind, they’re pretty naïve!”
Professionals such as medical doctors are more scathing and cynical. “It’s no boast when you develop these bombs at the cost of starving your people,” commented Choi Jong Min, a dermatologist practicing in Seoul. He suggests that South Korea send its own balloons with leaflets and points to the Soviet Union, which collapsed despite hundreds of atomic and hydrogen bombs in its possession. “Poor North Koreans,” he clucked, “they’ve got no idea the nukes will not bring them foods.”
To be sure, Seoul is left apprehensive about the progress achieved by Kim Jong Un and his intercontinental missile technology. South Korean media were especially jolted by the September 3 launch, indicating the regime may have tested a variant of a thermonuclear device. Subsequently, a continental ballistic missile flew over Japan before falling into the Pacific Ocean, for all purposes confirming that Pyongyang nears completion of a carrier that could move a bomb close to the West Coast of the United States.
That ended South Korean cynicism about the nuclear threat. Neighboring Japan is more nervous than South Koreans, given the geography and the fact that a nuclear war between the two Koreas or with the United States is suicidal. In Japan, schools have begun air-raid trainings, with primary schoolchildren practicing taking cover against incoming missiles. In a recent emergency call, Japanese officials took less than 10 minutes to call an alert.
Seoul shows no signs of such panic. Reports suggest that some foreign investors have begun divesting South Korean government bonds and selling off shares as the so-called Korea risk heightens. At the political level, repeated missile launches have touched off demands, especially from right-wing conservatives, that South Korea should exit the nonproliferation regime and strike an independent course on nuclear weapons.
That’s obviously easier said than done: Seoul is tied to a US nonproliferation watchdog system that for all practical purposes makes it impossible to undertake clandestine activity. South Korea did try once during the 1970s, only to be discovered and stopped.
So instead of an independent nuclear option, the right-wing conservative Liberty Korea Party is calling on the Trump administration to restore the tactical nuclear weapons withdrawn by the United States during the 1990s. The weapons were removed after North and South Korea signed a mutual denuclearization treaty in 1991, which Pyongyang later broke by going nuclear.
As for President Moon Jae In, he remains largely unperturbed by the security risks posed by the North. One indication of his lax attitude – the recent decision to approve a 10-day national holiday for the traditional Autumn Crops Festival, prompting millions of travelers jamming the highways for family reunions and a record number of 1 million leaving the country for overseas vacation. For most South Koreans, nuclear threats are notional, not existential.
Such attitudes may amount to a carefree extravagance, indicating how phlegmatic people have become despite perennial nuclear threats. It also demonstrates how far South Koreans have come in prosperity and political self-confidence. As South Koreans become more economically savvy and politically diverse, they seem less encumbered by the North’s propaganda power and feel only pity about the costs of North Korea keeping its masses hungry and blocked from news of an outside world.
The regime sometimes issues threats to cover up failures or mark achievements. According to recent intelligence reports, the North’s threat to shoot down US aircraft flying just beyond its territorial space came after its radars failed to detect US B-1 bombers flying north of the demarcation line.
South Koreans are less troubled by threats from the North and more so by political divisions in their own country. The right recently criticized Moon for claiming that he would defend the peace even at the cost of divisions within the alliance. His equally dovish security advisor, Moon Chung In, the ambassador-at-large for International Security Affairs at the South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and not related to the president, has come under harsh attacks from the media for saying the United States and South Korea should legitimize and accept the North’s nuclear status in exchange for a negotiated settlement.
These policy differences are expected to leave the public more perplexed. For young and nationalist supporters of the left, North Korean nuclear weapons are essentially a paper tiger directed chiefly at the United States to force peace talks and concessions. Moon, the ambassador, has declared that nothing is more important than maintaining peace, even at the cost of abandoning the US alliance. He has called for withdrawal of the US high-altitude missile-defense system known as THAAD, to which China objects, as a price for easing tensions.
“That’s highly risky and naïve proposal,” said Rhee Young Il, a former conservative party member of parliament and head of its committee on foreign affairs and national reunification. Although he agrees that spatial distance is too close for North Korea to make optimal use of its nuclear weapons against the South, he rejects any proposal for allowing the North to keep its nuclear arsenal.
Still, some US analysts propose recognizing North Korea as a "nuclear state" similar to Pakistan, but this is a dangerous analogy. Pakistan developed its capability to achieve parity with India. For the North, nuclear weapons are justified not only for protection of the Kim regime, but also as leverage for negotiating withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. That’s an unacceptable proposition for the United States and Japan, as it challenges the current strategic balance in East Asia. North Korea threatens attacks on US territory and Japan as a means of overwhelming South Korea and pursuing reunification under its terms, something it failed to achieve by conventional military invasion in 1950.
Shim Jae Hoon is a Seoul-based journalist and sometime contributor to Asia Sentinel. He wrote this for YaleGlobal, the website of the Yale University Center for the Study of Globalization.