Storm in a tea-cup as South Koreans stay calm

Walking through the Gangnam District of Seoul and past the newly opened boutique shops that line the pavement, it is easy to forget that you are in the capital city of a country that has technically been at war since 1953 with its northern brethren.  And while chocolate eggs were being devoured across Britain last weekend North Korea declared that the “time has come to stage a do-or-die final battle” with South Korea. Newly elected South Korean President Park Geun-hye responded by saying that she deemed the threats made against her country to be very serious. As an inexperienced leader herself, her response was as much a message to her people to reassure them that she takes such threats seriously as it was a message for the international community. 

Travelling round South Korea in late March I regularly checked news websites for the latest updates, not really knowing whether I would have to get myself to an airport, a seaport or any sort of port and hightail it out of there. My impression from the various UK and international media sources was that the public battle cry, published around the anniversary of Kim Jong-Un assuming office was designed primarily for a domestic audience. As with all young and inexperienced leaders he needs to prove himself to the generals that served his father and to his citizens that he can take up the mantle left by his father, Kim Jong-Il. “Even dictatorships respond to public opinion and public pressure” said John Delury, a North Korea analyst of Yonsei University in Seoul. Domestically, Kim Jong-Un has had to battle challenges from within the regime, and this has led in recent months to a purging of high ranking officials. The head of the army, the Governor of the North Korean Central Bank and other key advisors to his father have disappeared.  The deputy defence minister was executed for the crime of being caught socialising and drinking while the nation was in a state of mourning for his father.

Since returning to the UK I have read some excellent pieces which have focused on North Korea and the international response, but little on the views of South Koreans and the people that live there. These are their views. Han-Ji works for an English language radio station in Busan, a city on the south coast of the country. He was calm and almost nonchalant when I asked if he was worried about the threat of war. “No” he said, “They are just threatening the USA and South Korea to get more aid because that’s their traditional strategy”. He concurred with the views of many commentators that North Korea is little more than grandstanding to an international audience. “Kim Jong-Un and other top heads are not gonna give up their happy lives. If war happens, they can lose all of their advantages. Maybe they have worries about their life as well” said Han-Ji. Michael Fraiman, the associate editor of Busan Haps, one of the country’s largest English-language magazines was similarly dismissive. “Very few Koreans actively worry about North Korea” he said. “They’ve been living with these empty threats of annihilation for much longer than this current Western news cycle. It may be news to us, but it’s not to them.” Maggie, an Australian woman also living in Busan was far from concerned about the safety of her and her family. “Despite the bullshit you hear about the north I feel safer than I did back home” she said.  Another expat, Laura Morgan from Bristol, who teaches English in the city of Ulsan, 195 miles south east of Seoul, said that she and her husband had been keeping a close eye on developments. “We keep cash and passports handy at the moment. We have talked about it (leaving Korea) even though we don’t really think it will happen”.

It was surprising to learn that Laura and her husband had not had any contact with the Foreign Office.

In a recent column for the Guardian newspaper Simon Jenkins argued that “the calmest response to the ludicrous rhetoric of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un appears to have come from those most concerned, the people of South Korea.” I cannot confirm whether Mr Jenkins has visited South Korea recently, but based on my experience his summation is an accurate one.  A poll conducted in February this year by the Public Opinion Studies Center at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies would seem to support the testimonies I heard. While North Korea’s nuclear test in February did lead to a drop of 8 percentage points in both South Koreans’ positive perception of future national security (down from 59.4% to 50.8%), and in current national security perceptions (down from 26.1% to 18%), by the end of February both these perceptions had reached higher levels than before the test was carried out. Going back one year to April 2012, North Korea’s failed missile launch produced only an increase of 4 percentage points in the perceived importance of South-North relations among South Koreans, while the successful missile launch in December 2012 produced no movement in public opinion.

The poll shows that South Koreans have greater concern for issues such as job creation, economic democratisation and wealth redistribution. In the December 2012 presidential elections for example, only 5% said that the candidates’ policy towards North Korea was the deciding factor on who they voted for. While this may be the case President Park’s policy of constructive engagement with North Korea is supported by more than two in three voters, with only one in five supporting military action. This is a country with more pressing things with which to concern itself. That said the existential threat is not entirely dismissed.

Public opinion in South Korea has grown in favour of establishing its own nuclear deterrent. Support in 2013 for a nuclear South Korea found support among two thirds of the public, from just over half in 2010. This may be due as much to China’s increasing regional dominance as North Korea’s actions. Equally the USA, under Barack Obama at least has become a more cautious operator in foreign policy and with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 not long in the memory they seem to be less willing to play the role as the world’s policeman. We have seen this recently with Libya and Mali. Potentially irritating China and Russia by becoming overly involved in what they might consider to be a ‘little local difficulty’ may also act as a restraint on the USA. Yet public opinion in the USA would suggest that North Korea is a concern. A Gallup poll conducted in February 2013 before the nuclear test found that 83% of Americans considered the development of a nuclear North Korea to be a potential critical threat to American interests.

Yet in South Korea it is Japan that is subject to greater national opprobrium, born out of several acts of Japanese aggression, invasion and occupation over the past 400 years. A generation still exists that remembers the occupation which ended in 1945 and Korean women and girls that were forced into prostitution by the Japanese (known as ‘comfort women’). “Koreans hate Japan because of the pre-WWII invasion” says Michael Fraiman. There is even an underlying belief that the Japanese were the root cause of the division that now troubles the country. Han-Ji agreed that South Koreans had little time for this historical bogeyman. Referring to the century long disputed ownership of the Dokdo (in Korean) or Takeshima (in Japanese) islands located in the Sea of Japan Han-Ji commented that “These days, Japan’s Dokdo plan is more ridiculous than ever”. This is one of the most pressing and sensitive political issue between the two countries. Interestingly North Korea supports the South’s claim to the islands, but has not hesitated to admonish them for being too passive towards Japan’s claims.

It is of course rather easy to say when I’m ensconced here in London, that I have little worry this war of words will descend into anything worse. But South Koreans have lived with the threat of the North for more than fifty years and those that I spoke to seemed genuinely undeterred by recent events. Cool heads are needed to mitigate trouble, but what will stir the pot I fear is loose talk from the international community. It is encouraging to see China urging restraint from North Korea for once…which  is why I think that David Cameron’s comments on Trident were ill advised. I certainly agree that Britain should retain its nuclear capabilities, but I fear that public declarations of this sort will only make some in Pyonyang a little twitchier. I predict that North Korea will become increasingly relevant to UK foreign policy in the coming years, particularly if we are seeking to develop greater trade links with rapidly growing economies in that region of the world. It would be short-sighted of us to think otherwise.

Finally, we should be thankful that Obama defeated Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election. Romney was continually reproached by all sides for his continued displays of ignorance and flip-flopping on foreign policy. As such I wouldn’t have trusted him to be a conciliatory president if the situation required it. Perhaps we should be even thankful that this did not happen on George W. Bush’s watch. So like a boxer in the first round of a fight, Kim Jong-Un is feeling out his opponent, testing and probing for a weakness, for an opening to exploit.  The West does not need to deliver a knock-out blow. A fat lip and a black eye would do for now.