South Koreans remain calm despite international concern

I have just returned from South Korea, a country that it's easy to forget has been at war with its northern neighbour since 1953. While much has been written on North Korea and the international response, little has been written on the views of those in the eye of the storm: people living in South Korea. These were the views that I was most interested in.

Oliver O’Hanlon is a writer with a background in UK and international politics. He currently works  for the Science Council but writes in a personal capacity

I have just returned from South Korea, a country that it’s easy to forget has been at war with its northern neighbour since 1953.

Over the Bank Holiday weekend this was brought into sharp focus when North Korea declared that the “time has come to stage a do-or-die final battle” with South Korea. The new 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, she was sending as much a message to her people, reassuring them that the threats are being taken seriously, as to the international community.

As with all young and inexperienced leaders Kim Jong-un needs to prove himself and so the context here is that North Korea’s threats are designed primarily for a domestic audience. Domestically, he has fought off internal challenges, leading in recent months to a purging of high ranking officials and key advisors to his father. “Even dictatorships respond to public opinion and public pressure” said John Delury, a North Korea analyst of Yonsei University in Seoul.

How it feels in the South

While much has been written on North Korea and the international response, little has been written on the views of those in the eye of the storm: people living in South Korea. These were the views that I was most interested in.

“Very few Koreans actively worry about North Korea” said Michael Fraiman, the associate editor of Busan Haps, one of the country’s largest English-language magazines.

“Remember, 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. To live in anxiety every day would be terrible, and they learned a long time ago it’s not worth it”.

He told me of a conversation he had with a colleague when Kim Jong-Il died. “It was around lunchtime it was announced, and I got pretty excited. I went up to a Korean colleague and went up to my Korean friend and said, ‘Did you hear?’ He just looked up and said, ‘Yes, very good. In contrast: the day Steve Jobs died, the same 37-year-old Korean man ran into my office like a sugar-rushed child: “‘Did you hear? Steve Jobs is dead!'”

Han-Ji, who works for an English language radio station confirmed this view. “They are just threatening the USA and South Korea to get more aid because that’s their traditional strategy. Kim Jong-Un and other top heads are not going to give up their happy lives. If war happens, they can lose all of their advantages. Maybe they have worries about their life as well.”

These views are the norm. In December’s presidential elections just five per cent of voters said that the candidates’ policy towards North Korea was the deciding factor on who they voted for. Recent polling data from the Asian Institute for Policy Studies showed that while February’s nuclear test lead to a drop of eight percentage points in people’s positive perception of current and future national security, by early March these had returned back to pre-test levels.

Cool heads

Neither the failed missile launch last April nor the successful launch in December 2012 produced any movement in public opinion. Much of the public back President Park’s policy of constructive engagement with North Korea. However support in South Korea has grown recently in favour of establishing its own nuclear deterrent, with two thirds of people, up from half in 2010, now supporting such a policy.

Cool heads are needed, but I fear that loose talk from the international community will only stir up further tensions. 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 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.

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.

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