Shortly after I returned to South Korea in 2014, I was met with a litany of concerned friends and family members in the United States asking if I was okay, in light of a building collapse that injured 100 people and killed 10. The only problem was that the building collapsed in Gyeongju, which is nearly 400 kilometers away from where I was living in Seoul at the time. Even if the building had collapsed within the Seoul capital area, the chance that out of 25,500,000 people I would have been injured is statistically insignificant.
I have been reminded of this anecdote recently, as many of the same concerned friends and family have been checking in with me about the recent news surrounding North Korea. I genuinely am thankful that I know so many loving people, but they are mistaken: South Korea is an incredibly safe place to visit and to live, and war with North Korea is very unlikely.
In terms of crime, South Korea ranked safest in the world in 2016, according to data aggregator Numbeo. Different models might show slightly different results, but any way you cut it, in terms of crime statistics, South Korea is by far one of the safest countries on Earth. There are virtually no privately-owned guns, and recreational drug culture is quite limited when compared to most western nations.
When I arrived in South Korea, I was warned that expats and tourists sometimes feel too safe. Their feeling of safety and security leads them to, for example, leave their wallet unattended in a café as they go to the bathroom. (That being said, I have seen many locals doing this with no adverse effects.) Coming from the United States, this was definitely a culture shock.
Of course, South Korea is by no means a perfect country. Like all societies, there are problems that need fixing. Rampant misogyny, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia come to mind. It has some of the worst labor protections in the OECD. An aging population will spell certain economic doom in the foreseeable future if nothing is done. Crime, in general, is not of particular concern.
Compared to day-to-day life in the United States or western Europe, South Korea is much safer. I often quip that foregoing a trip to Seoul because of the (minuscule) potential attack from North Korea makes less sense than foregoing a trip to New York City because of the September 11th attacks in 2001.
This is not to say that the scope of a terror attack and war with North Korea are comparable. North Korea is a nuclear country, with a sizable non-nuclear artillery force and the largest total military in the world. This alone might be alarming, but context puts this information in its place.
There is no reason why a war would be advantageous to North Korea. Leaked diplomatic cables reveal that China would potentially abandon North Korea in the instance of an attack, meaning North Korea would be forced to take on South Korea and the United States alone. That would not make much sense, and would likely lead to the annihilation of North Korea.
Some argue that logic does not govern North Korea, but this could not be farther from the truth. It may be fair to condemn many actions of the North Korean government as inhumane or cruel; but evilness does not preclude rationality. Perceptions of the Kim family as “crazy” are unfounded.
In fact, North Korea promulgates its “crazy” reputation for its own benefit, particularly in terms of its ability to manipulate foreign aid. This was noted by scholar Andrei Lankov in The Real North Korea. The emphasis is mine:
If the CIA Factbook is to be believed, in 2010 North Korea’s and Ghana’s populations were 24.4 and 24.7 million, respectively, while their per capita GDP were $1,800 and $1,700, respectively. Still, North Korea is light years ahead of Ghana when it comes to international attention and ability to manipulate the external environment. In terms of aid volume, North Korea punches above its weight.
Lankov refers to North Korea’s use of the existence of nuclear weapons as “diplomatic blackmail.” To reiterate – Kim Jong-un might be evil, but hardly irrational. North Korea seeks nuclear weapons primarily for international leverage, not to launch a self-destructive war.
The United States needs to maintain a policy aggressive enough to deter the expansion of an authoritarian North Korean state, while restrained enough to take into account the true cost of what a military conflict–unlikely as it may be–would incur. It is easy to talk about how important it is to “do something” to democratize North Korea, liberate its peoples, or reunify the Korean peninsula – but short of such a miraculous policy concoction, restraint is key.
But to the average South Korean, the threat of North Korea is ever present, but not a factor in day-to-day stress. From an anecdotal perspective, most of the Koreans (and non-Koreans) in Seoul whom I interact with are more concerned with their work, family, or school concerns than they are about geo-politics. Perhaps this mental isolation has, in part, led to fewer and fewer young people to “believe that an eventual unification with the North is necessary.” The stability of the U.S. alliance is a large part of what has allowed over 50 million people living in South Korea (and countless others outside of the country) to live relatively peacefully.
To paraphrase foreign policy expert Michael J. Brooks, the United States’ foreign policy in East Asia at times can be convoluted and confusing, but ultimately preserves the status quo. The relative stability of the status quo is why Donald Trump’s cavalier and unprofessional attitude–such as weirdly praising Kim Jong-un and calling him a “smart cookie”–toward North Korea is disturbing.
The Washington Post recently ran a spot-on article that detailed the banality of the situation to the average South Korean, while also highlighting the shockingly precedent-demolishing nature of Trump’s comments. From the introduction:
For decades, South Koreans have lived in a technical state of war with a hostile brother country that considers them traitors and imperialist lackeys. Throughout verbal attacks and periodic military ones, this nation of 50 million people has brushed off tensions, much as one might ignore a combative uncle at Thanksgiving. […] But now, there is one new wild card that South Koreans haven’t had to factor in before: President Trump.
To put it crudely, Trump doesn’t know jack about the Korean peninsula. He recently claimed that Korea had once been a part of China – flat out false. He also claimed that a warship was headed to South Korean waters – in fact, the ship was 5,500 kilometers away heading in the opposite direction. Trump also advocated against ideals of nuclear non-proliferation and has off-handedly remarked that Japan and South Korea should pursue nuclear weapons–a brash comment that drew strong rebuke.
As I wrote in January, “after using South Korea as a punching bag for the entire election cycle (dishonestly), Trump called President Park Geun-hye shortly after Election Day to assure her that U.S. policy would not change.” While we may never know what these two notably corrupt presidents discussed in that call, it is hard to believe that Trump did little more than downplay his ill-crafted statements.
Trump deserves much of the blame, but so does the U.S. media as well. At the drop of the pin, it seems that U.S. media outlets continue their decades-old practice of predicting imminent war between the Koreas. Foreign policy is complicated; the recent senseless praising of U.S. presidents for mere displays of force does not do journalism any favors. North Korea is a newsworthy issue that deserves careful consideration, not sensationalized clickbait that terrifies the masses for an unlikely armed conflict.
By now, almost everyone has seen at least one permutation of the WWII British slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On” — and overused as it may be, that’s the best advice in this situation. South Korea is one of the safest countries in the world to visit or to live in. Donald Trump’s tendency to thoughtlessly speak is nerve-wracking, but likely not consequential. If U.S. media outlets truly care about the North Korean issue, they should cut the fear-mongering, defer to credible experts, and, at the very least, learn how to pronounce the name of North Korea’s capital city.
In Post Notes, I add some additional thoughts or context to a blog post I’ve previously written. That can be found here.