When I gaze out the window of the offices at the UniKorea Foundation, the non-governmental organization that exists for the reconciliation and cooperation between the two Koreas, I have a great view of Gwanghwamun Plaza in the heart of Seoul.
Behind the two large statues of historic Korean icons and the National Palace — seat of the former Joseon Dynasty — is the Blue House, the home of the South Korean president. On the other side of the mountain backdrop, about 40 miles to the north, is the border with North Korea.
The small, isolated country has drawn the world’s attention. Headlines, bombastic language and threats of war and destruction have prompted new fear in the U.S., when looked at through the lens of American media. If the mood seems worried in the U.S., then how must it feel in Seoul, South Korea’s bustling capital city, economic center and home to around 20 million people?
Surprisingly calm. Life carries on despite constant outbursts from the northern neighbor, just as it did a generation ago and generations before that.
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Americans are hearing the military threats that South Koreans have been living with for the past 60 years. That doesn’t mean there is no concern, but the locals have learned to take the threats in stride.
In spring of 2013, shortly after I arrived in South Korea, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was consolidating power. To display strength, he made threats of force directed at the United States and South Korea, whose militaries were executing their biannual joint exercises.
I was glued to American coverage, reading article after article that painted a picture of eminent danger on the peninsula. My Korean co-workers wondered why I was so engulfed in the news, and I was wondering why they weren’t. I understand now.
Saying the population is desensitized to potential violence doesn’t quite fit. After all, this country essentially rebuilt itself from the ashes of a devastating war from 1950 to 1953. Three generations of South Koreans have lived in the crosshairs of thousands of North Korean artillery pieces and are subject to myriad elaborate threats. The most common: making Seoul a sea of fire.
This experience has strengthened South Korea’s collective psyche. “We’re used to this” is the most common response when I ask how people remain defiantly calm in periods of escalated tension.
Although rhetorical temperatures are rising now, when I ask my Korean co-workers, classmates and friends when they felt the tension was highest, they unanimously say March 2010, when a North Korean vessel attacked and sank a South Korean Navy corvette, tragically killing 46 South Korean sailors. Despite no public apology or even acknowledgment from North Korea, war was avoided then, and barring some extreme circumstance, the sense here is war will be avoided now.
Watching local media is also a different story. Panels don’t discuss likely war scenarios on cable news shows. My Korean friends mostly joke that if war breaks out, I get a plane ride home to watch the Royals while their numbers will be called to go fight. All Korean men must serve two years in the military.
Despite a new administration in the White House, the defense of the Korean peninsula has been firmly entrenched and refined for decades and is prepared to face all challenges. War is not taken lightly here, but living in a constant state of anxiety and fear also isn’t productive.
Eventually, those I work with and live among believe cooler heads will prevail and the harsh words will subside, at least until the next event: Aug. 21, when the next joint military exercises begin. Tensions rise and fall in cycles here, and people are too busy to let the bluster of a young leader with a suspicious haircut affect their daily lives.
If the goal of the leaders from the North has been to sow fear in people in the South over the years, they have failed miserably. If Americans want to see cool heads in the face of threats, look no further than the South Koreans.
Nate Kerkhoff of Overland Park is a student at Yonsei University’s Graduate School for International Studies in Seoul, South Korea.