I've lived in South Korea since 1995. I'm used to family and friends outside of Korea asking about the dangers of living here, especially whenever the current leader of the Crazy Kim Clan issues some ridiculous Dr. Evil-sounding threat. This latest 'next generation' round of bluster from Kim Jeong Eun* seems to have resulted in an all-time high of concern/fear from outside of Korea. Even some of the expats here seem worried as evidenced by 45% of people responding that they were "Very concerned and thinking of leaving" in a recent Koreabridge poll. I suspect many of them are relative newcomers to the peninsula. Most of the oldtimers I've spoken with seem more concerned about calming family members than planning evacuation routes.
Why the heightened level of concern? Well, the young dictator does seem to be trying to impress the world with his ability to amp up the family tradition of nutty apocalyptic rhetoric. He's also has taken several overtly provocative actions, even if some of them were photoshopped. Another major reason for the level of concern is that apparently the global media needs to make every 'breaking news alert' feel as urgent and scary as possible. Rather than talk about the complexity of issues or the the long history of North Korean rhetoric followed by no major action, it's better for ratings to show dire looking military exercises and focus on worst case scenarios. Most of us who have been here a while, feel much like Andrei Lankov when asked how seriously the latest NK threats should be taken.
"Frankly, not too seriously and I would say that it would probably be better if the world paid no attention whatsoever to all these threats. North Koreans are not going to attack. And we have seen very similar, not exactly the same, but very similar developments, many, many times before."
Actually, I think this could turn out to be the storm before the calm. It seems to me that once he's proven his toughness domestically, he will be better able to step up bridge-building with South Korea and the international community. Even though the Kaesong joint economic zone was recently closed by the North, I suspect it will be reopened soon. Also, amidst all the recent verbal aggression, Kim Jeong Eun just appointed a premier who is considered an economic reformer. In fact, he was once considered so 'radical' that he was fired from the position in 2007 be Kim's father. Dennis Rodman jokes aside, I really do think this young 'Supreme Leader' would love nothing more than be seen shaking hands with international leaders and now he's recreated all sorts of concessions North Korea can make all over again - OK, we'll re-open Kaesong, we won't restart the nuke plant, we'll accept the armistice again, and we'll stop threatening to engulf you all in a "sea of fire".
I would not be surprised to see major diplomatic progress happening with North Korea during the next year or two. Here on the peninsula, I think the biggest long-term threat from the North comes not from their bombs or photoshopped amphibious ships, but from economic implosion. I'm not sure how they can recover from decades of having such a closed, decrepit economy while still managing to maintain an authoritarian regime. Easing international tensions would help and they can certainly learn a few lessons from the Chinese who have managed to do quite well economically while maintaining pretty tight political control. The chances of that going smoothly are slim, and the fallout of economic and/or political collapse would be very messy. Still, I think that's a much more likely problem we'll be facing than North Korean nukes falling anywhere.
Ultimately, I'm a believer in self-interest, and while domestic political squabbles around the world sometimes seem to get in the way of national interest (e.g. Italian elections and U.S. sequesters), I can't think of many historical examples where nations entered into major military conflict knowing that the outcome would be suicidal.
So, a genuine thanks to all for the concern, but please don't be worried. If you can, listen to NPR instead of CNN or Fox, and please try to make sure the U.S. Congress passes some sane gun laws. I'm tired of people here asking me about how scary it must be in America with the constant threat of getting shot. When it comes to being killed by something that goes BANG!, that's 7500% more likely to happen in the U.S. than in South Korea.
In any event, below are some links that provide what I consider to be fairly reasonable takes on what's really happening on the peninsula.
|* First a quick note to all the newscasters out there. Dr. Evil Jr's name is pronounced Jeong Eun (most similar to the vowel in wood, not moon or fun). While I'm being a pronunciation nag, the viral hit is called Gang (like Gone+g) Nam (like Vietnam, rhymes with 'mom') Style, not Gang 'em (like gang up on them). |Factoid to put things in perspective 2013 Deaths by things that go Bang!
South Korea: 5
TRACY BOWDEN: South Korea and the US though have warned of a strong military response to provocation. Is there a chance this could escalate?
ANDREI LANKOV: Well, first of all, there is very little chance of provocation. The experience has shown us when North Koreans are threatening this attack, they never attack. When they attack, they attack suddenly without any warning. So, basically, I don't expect any provocation.
TRACY BOWDEN: Is there in any danger that Kim Jong-un has talked the talk and ultimately may have to walk to walk?
ANDREI LANKOV: Why? Is he stupid? Is he suicidal? Is he zealot? Does he believe in any ideology? Does he want to destroy the world in the name of God or whoever? Of course not. He loves his life. He loves his wife. He loves his cars and his toys. He's not going to start a war; he has no chances to win.