Amidst A War of Words, South Koreans Carry OnWhile Western news outlets cover the bellicose exchange between Kim Jong Un and Trump, South Koreans remain remarkably calm, even as exasperation and worry lurk under the surface.DAEHAKNO, Seoul – With little more than a month before the start of the first Winter Olympics on South Korean soil, Pak Jong Bok is not afraid of more nuclear tests by North Korea.”They wouldn’t antagonise us.
They’d be provoking the whole world,” declares the 71 year-old pensioner, his hands tucked into his tweed jacket against the sharp January wind.His sentiment – that North Korea is dangerous but poses no real threat – is a common one here in the crowded streets and cafés of this popular theatre district in central Seoul. It is a Saturday like any other in Seoul, aside from a verbal volley that took place earlier in the week between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump. After Kim declared on New Year’s Day, “I always keep a nuclear button on the desk of my office,” Trump responded on Twitter: “My nuclear button is much bigger & more powerful.”The hostile war of words have prompted Western observers to question anew the stability of the region. But South Koreans like Pak have shrugged off the growing nuclear threat in the north – albeit with a tinge of weariness.
“I think people overseas worry more than South Koreans,” says Hong Sejin, a 37 year-old overseas marketing director. She adds: “When I work abroad, the people there always ask, ‘You’re so close to North Korea, is everything alright?’ I just worry that lack of awareness abroad about South Korea will dampen the mood for the Olympics.” Helpful here would be 1-2 sentences about the PC Olympics and how NK threats have dampened itIt’s hard to imagine a time when the Koreas weren’t on hostile terms. But there was a brief détente during the so-called Sunshine Policy, under the left-leaning presidencies of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun from year-year.
From 1998, South Korea showered its impoverished northern cousin with food and development aid, until the North’s first nuclear test in 2006 and a series of deadly incidents led to the end of the policy in 2010. For South Koreans who remember the generosity of their government, the North’s nuclear weapons development leaves an especially bitter taste.”It’s a pile of drivel that they created with our material support,” says 25 year-old Choi Gwang Soon, who works as a theatre promoter in the district. He recalls from his time in the army, “Whenever they conducted a test, my fellow soldiers would say, ‘These guys are so tiresome.’ When they bombed the base next door, we would have to go into high alert.” Regarding the current administration’s policy towards North Korea, Choi argues, “The government shouldn’t give them any more support, and respond decisively to any future provocations.
” When North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island on South Korea’s northernmost maritime frontier in 2010, the government of then-President Lee Myung Bak faced criticism for not responding strongly enough. Following successive nuclear tests by the North, South Korean administrations have toed a delicate line between standing firm and not inflaming tensions on the peninsula. However, despite the North’s demonstrations of its growing nuclear prowess, the South Koreans interviewed for this article doubted that the North would ever use nuclear weapons.”I don’t think they have the guts to attack us with an atomic bomb,” says Hwang Seon Jeong, a 25 year-old job-seeker on her way to a café.
She adds, “I feel that even if they really make a nuclear weapon that’s functional, they’re only going to threaten us with it, but not use it. They are considering the after-effects of using it, and if they lose the resulting war, they have to pay for it, like Germany and Japan.” As Choi puts it, “It’s all bravado.”