Events affecting the Korean Peninsula over the past couple of weeks have led many media outlets to make dramatic comparisons. For instance, the “New York Times” said they reminded of the Cuban crisis in the early 1960s, when the world community narrowly evaded a nuclear showdown between the US and the Soviet Union.
On its title page last Tuesday, “The Korea Herald” asked: “How likely is another Korean War?”
But South Koreans so far appear to receive these reports with a sense of calmness. An aura of normality pervades the vibrant city center of South Korea’s capital Seoul.
The bustling metropolis would be a key target for North Korean artillery in the event of a war.
“Just because North Korea is engaged in some stupidity again doesn’t mean that we should let our lives be determined by it,” says 23-year-old Kim Eun-jeong, a student of English literature.
She is aware of the experiences of her mother, who in the early 1990s stocked up on rice for fear of a possible war. But Kim herself has never taken the issue seriously and made preparations for the worst case scenario. “Sometimes my friends joke that they would flee abroad if a war broke out, but they don’t really mean it.”
Since tensions in the region began to rise, North Korea has been the staple of coverage in the South Korean press.
“For the old generation that witnessed the Korean War, North Korea still embodies the absolute evil,” says a former editor at “Joongang Ilbo,” an influential newspaper.
“But the youths have never faced such an emergency situation and their thinking is probably also a bit naïve.”
For outsiders, this is a hard-to-comprehend contradiction: the South Korean people, who would probably suffer the most in case of an escalation into a warlike situation with the North, have so far reacted with composure.
Last Saturday, when Pyongyang boasted its military might by parading soldiers, tanks and missiles on the occasion of the 105th anniversary of the reclusive regime’s founder Kim Il Sung, the most discussed topic in the South was the concert of the British rock band Coldplay.
North Korea recently boasted its military might by parading soldiers, tanks and missiles on the occasion of the 105th anniversary of its founder Kim Il Sung
Brian Myers, a North Korea expert, describes it as “fatalistic ignorance.” Since the danger posed by the North has been omnipresent for decades, people have become used to being in a state of constant alarm, Myers explained. But that is only part of the story.
The North Korean crisis is also a crisis of the media. A report recently published by American broadcast network NBC News served as a catalyst for the general war hysteria, by saying that the US was prepared to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea should officials become convinced that Pyongyang was about to carry out a nuclear weapons test.
The report was entirely based on statements from anonymous sources and was immediately denied by officials. Still, many newspapers and agencies picked up the story, thanks to its attention-grabbing headline.
And in the past couple of days, it also became evident that the announcement about the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson being directed toward the Korean Peninsula should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“We’re sending an armada, very powerful,” President Donald Trump said in an interview with Fox News last Tuesday.
The announcement about the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson being directed toward the Korean Peninsula should be taken with a pinch of salt
But it’s now reported that at the time of the announcement, the aircraft carrier strike group was actually sailing in the opposite direction toward Australia to participate in a military maneuver. When the carrier would reach the Korean Peninsula still remains totally unclear.
Against this background, the way the South Koreans are reacting is not unsurprising. Every year, they experience the same drama: In the spring, US and South Korean troops hold their joint drills; the North reacts furiously and conducts a missile test or two; the international community strongly condemns Pyongyang’s actions; and then finally the tensions ebb – until the next spark flares up.
The well-choreographed sequence of events has been running for decades.
The unpredictable factor
Many diplomats and observers are more concerned than usual this time round. “The greatest danger is posed by the potential for miscalculation by either Kim Jong Un or Donald Trump,” says Jean Lee, a veteran foreign correspondent and expert on North Korea.
“Trump is breaking many traditional rules and seems to be acting out of the gut,” says Lee, adding that unpredictability is part of his strategy.
“I do not feel insecure or anything like that. All the years before, nothing has happened,” says Hyun-jin, a student currently doing an internship in Seoul.
Although she has been closely following the developments surrounding North Korea, she Hyun says she ultimately cares more about the South’s own political problems. Ex-president Park Geun-hye, who was recently removed from office, is currently being investigated for corruption and the country goes to polls on May 9 to elect a new leader.