Why South Koreans Aren't Worried About Nuclear War

Throughout history, the blustery North has shown it will only go so far -- and no further.
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A South Korean soldier patrol as vehicles returning from North Korea's inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex arrive at a checkpoint, in Paju, north of Seoul, on April 6, 2013. (Lee Jae Won/Reuters)

SEOUL -- South Koreans look a little puzzled when asked whether they're concerned about North Korea's daily barrage of threats that, if carried out, would be the worst conflagration of modern times. What worse can a regime, governed ostensibly by a 29-year-old heir to his father and grandfather's power, vow than a "thermonuclear war" that would annihilate millions? SaKong il, a former South Korean finance minister who runs an influential think tank here, just grinned when pressed on whether the rhetoric from the North was having any impact. He had something more important to think about - a conference he's hosting, "Lessons from German Experiences."

South Koreans, living in a dream world of peace and prosperity, are deaf to noises that suggest the dream could turn into a nightmare.

The topic might seem relevant considering how often people compare Germany's success in reunifying their once divided country with Korea's total failure to come up with a formula for peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. Sakong's conference, though, was not about reunification but rather the example set by Germany's flourishing economy for South Korea's own robust system, dominated by a dozen top chaebol, or conglomerates, that account for most of the gross domestic product.

It's not as though people here aren't aware of the verbiage emanating from Pyongyang. The Korean media pours out a constant flow of reports on whatever the North is saying and what the South is saying in response. A few weeks ago many people weren't paying much attention. K-Pop concerts, including sold-out appearances by Psy, and quiz shows on television were far more spellbinding. There's an otherworldly sense here as if the danger were theoretical, an abstraction.

Lately, though, there's a certain apprehension in the air. The coffee shops, nightclubs and restaurants, the crowded stores and soaring office towers of Seoul give an appearance of a thriving, hard-driving society, but headlines and news reports are taking their toll.

Correspondents from the top U.S. television networks - some of which have ignored South Korea for years - have descended on the capital. Shots of historical edifices and familiar avenues are staples of their coverage. Newspapers and news agencies have beefed up their bureaus. Graphics showing how far North Korea's long-range, mid-range and short-range missiles might carry nuclear warheads are popping up on news programs worldwide.

But unless North Korea were to fire off a missile for real, that is, aim a real warhead at a real target rather than loft a test shot into the water, the view among Koreans is there's nothing much to fear. The United Nations has been imposing sanctions ever since North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006. The sanctions got tougher after the second nuclear test in May 2009 and tougher still after the third nuclear test in February. By now the UN has pretty well run out of stuff to sanction.

If the North does fire at a live target, depending on the success of the shot, South Korea and the U.S. would most likely counter-attack. That's why people say they're worried - if only "a little" - about a potential missile launch surrounding the 101st anniversary on Monday of the birth of "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung.

Kim Il Sung died in 1994 during another "crisis - this one also precipitated by North Korea's nuclear program. Bill Clinton, president at the time, said that he seriously considered going to war with the North, but the crisis ended with the signing in Geneva in October 1994 of a deal for the North to shut down its reactor and cancel the program in exchange for construction of two nuclear energy reactors to power the country's dilapidated electrical grid.

The stakes by now would appear infinitely higher, since North Korea has not only conducted three nuclear tests but has restarted the five-megawatt reactor and said it will never give up its nukes, seen as a bulwark against attack by the U.S. and South Korea.

Nonetheless, South Koreans often hark back to that crisis of nearly two decades ago to show the North is no more anxious for war now than it was then. They point to any number of crises since then, including the breakdown of the Geneva agreement after the revelation in 2002 of the North's entirely separate uranium enrichment program, to show the North will go only so far -- and no further.

On the streets of Seoul, it's those memories that permeate the subconscious. South Koreans, living in a dream world of peace and prosperity, are deaf to noises that suggest the dream could turn into a nightmare.

In that spirit, a middle-aged businessman joked about the challenges of evacuating in case of Armageddon. "If they do what they'll say they'll do, nobody will be able to leave anyway," he said.

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Donald Kirk is an author and journalist who has been reporting from Asia for more than 40 years.

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