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The view from South Korea

Jeffery Miller
Jeffery Miller

We’ve been down this road before.

This is something I have reminded myself numerous times in the 26 years I’ve lived in South Korea whenever North Korea has rattled its saber and beat its war drum. However, in light of recent events and the flurry or fire and fury rhetoric from Pyongyang and Washington, I wonder if we have traveled too far on this road.

Make no mistake about it, these are some intense times on the peninsula which echoes Thomas Paine’s, “these are times that try a man’s soul,” but it’s not like we haven’t been prepared for this eventuality.

Since the end of the Korean War, the North’s modus operandi has been to do whatever it would take to complete its reunification of the peninsula, not to mention, drive a wedge between the South and its ally, the United States.There has been a method to their madness from DMZ skirmishes (the second Korean War when the North retaliated against the South for sending two divisions to Vietnam), infiltration tunnels, and assassination attempts to the seizure of the USS Pueblo, the downing of EC-121 a United States Navy reconnaissance plane, and the Panmunjom Ax Murders. There has been nothing irrational about North Korea’s motives.

I knew about some of these events when I first came here in 1990 to teach English, but I never saw the North as a threat. Even the literature I received from the school downplayed any serious overtones from the North (although that same year another infiltration tunnel had been discovered) and talked more about how to deal with culture shock and what to bring and what not to bring. I never gave much thought to the North just 35 miles from where I lived in Seoul — that is until the first nuclear crisis in 1994 when the North threatened to turn Seoul into a sea of flame. Suddenly, the reality sunk in just how dangerous it was to be in South Korea, especially in Seoul, which was within the range of the North’s artillery tubes.

I survived that crisis and more to follow: a North Korean submarine incursion (on a purported spy mission, the vessel ran aground near Kangneung on the east coast), the sinking of the Cheonan, an artillery bombardment of an island north of Incheon Airport and lots and lots of missile tests. The one big difference has been the 24-hour news cycle. Unlike the 1994 nuclear crisis when there was no cable TV in Korea, no internet, and no smartphones, we were pretty much in the dark as to what was going on behind the scenes to defuse the crisis. About the only thing we knew was that former President Jimmy Carter was on his way to Pyongyang and that there had been a run on stores as folks bought up batteries, water, and instant noodles.

Years later, when I read Don Oberdorfer’s impressive tome, The Two Koreas, I was surprised to learn how close President Clinton was to green lighting a surgical strike before Carter met with Kim Il-sung and ended the nuclear standoff. The 24-hour news cycle has definitely upped the anxiety levels. Nowadays, news updates clutter my email inbox, and my iPhone chirps with the latest news. Fortunately, there has been no shortage of water, batteries, and ramen these days.

I would be kidding myself not to admit that I have allowed myself to become complacent. But I am not the only one. Over the years when I’ve asked my Korean students and friends about the threat from the North, many shrug it off. “We’re used to it” is one of the stock replies I have gotten. Others say it would be no worse than living in Jerusalem where people go about their daily lives with the possibility of another terrorist bombing.

The other day, following President Donald Trump’s “hell, hath no fury than a scorned president’s” remarks about what he intended to do with North Korea if the North didn’t back down, I was shopping with my son in a large shopping complex in Daejeon, approximately two hours south of Seoul. It was crowded with parents and children, no doubt to beat the heat and humidity outside, but what struck me once again, was that people were carrying on despite the looming storm clouds. Sure, people talk about it, but I get the impression that people hope this will be resolved and simply go away.

But the problem is, it won’t go away. What has surprised me most through it all, has been how patient the South, and to an extent, the United States has been with the North, unlike other hot spots around the globe such as Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan where the U.S. flexed its military might. Although there are more than 25,000 U.S. military personnel stationed on the peninsula and the U.S. has B1 bombers fly along the DMZ periodically, the South and the United States have shown much restraint over the years whenever the North has banged its war drum.

Obviously, South Korea has its hands full. When current South Korean president Moon Jae-in was elected in a special election this past May, many here believed his non-aggression approach for peaceful engagement with the North would immediately reduce the rising tensions, but he would soon find out that campaign promises don’t always bode well for policy. Of course, it doesn’t help matters any when the president of your ally and most trusted friend sometimes undermines these peaceful overtones with a flurry of Twitter tweets.

Now, the United States finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. How do we respond to the North’s claims that it has Guam in its gun sights? Have we traveled down this road too far that there is no turning back? To be sure, the downside to all this is that if the United States gives in to the North’s threats, then the North will continue to make those same threats, launch its missiles, and who knows what else. There certainly is a historical precedence: in January 1950, Secretary of State, Dean Acheson delivered a speech whereby he explained that Korea was outside of the United States’ defensive perimeter which was all Kim Il-sung needed to start the Korean War. And we certainly don’t want to head down that road again. A second Korean War would be catastrophic, not only for the peninsula but for the region.

Which brings us right back to Trump. Angry, bellicose rhetoric might help one’s approval rating, but it doesn’t play well with its allies, and certainly does not play well in Northeast Asia which has already seen jitters sent through financial markets. Newton’s law is in effect here: for every action, there will be a proportionate reaction.

It’s a dangerous game of chicken that the leaders of the United States and North Korea are playing with repercussions which will be felt around the world. There is no doubt this inflamed rhetoric is only pushing the United States and North Korea to the brink of war.

In the meantime, we all hope that cooler, saner minds will prevail and that this showdown with the North will be resolved peacefully. Too much is at stake here.

  • JEFFREY MILLER, an Illinois Valley native, has been living and working in South Korea since 1990. His recently published novel, Bureau 39, is a geopolitical thriller about North Korea. He teaches English and Asian history at the SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, South Korea.

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