Written by Kim Dong-hun (8ball)
I know this is a serious topic, but I want to start my article with a funny story.
Sirens blared during the civil defense drill. Without any knowledge of this unexpected event, one foreigner freaked out and asked a Korean passerby what was going on. Watching him panic, the guy tried to calm him down by saying, “Whoa, whoa!” [meaning “calm down”] but [understood as “war, war”!] this only further terrified the foreigner.
As mentioned above, in Korea, it is common and normal to hear sirens blaring occasionally, and see jet fighters and military helicopters flying nearby. If you are new to this, however, you may find it shocking.
With the news regarding North Korea making headlines, if you are an expatriate in Korea, you must be bombarded with tons of phone calls or emails from your friends and family who are deeply concerned about your safety for fear of North Korea going on a rampage and seemingly going to the extremes. You might wonder if the current situation will be exacerbated and whether you should stay longer in Korea or leave as soon as possible.
Honestly, I have been frequently asked by many foreigners about the possibility of a second Korean War. Therefore, I decided to discuss the longstanding North Korean crises from the perspective of a typical Korean citizen who has lived here for over three decades and completed the 26-month mandatory military service.
Since I was little, I have been taught in school and even in the military that North Korea is our sworn enemy. North Koreans were often described to me as animal-like – even being portrayed as horned creatures in the cartoon movies of my childhood. Back then, I believed they were demons. Negative images of North Korea and its leader have been ridiculously expressed and exaggerated in some movies such as Team America: World Police and The Interview.
Some people still claim that North Korea was involved in the May 18 Democratization Movement in 1980 by sending spies and instigating a rebellion, but this is not true at all. Those who voiced opinions against the government or ruling party were branded as “commies” or pro-communist. Thus, there has been a huge chasm of bigotry and misunderstanding between South and North for over half a century.
Since the Korean War ended in July 1953, South Korea has been constantly met with numerous threats and attacks from North Korea. Thousands of North Korean spies have infiltrated South Korea to date. In 1983, the Rangoon bombing in Myanmar was carried out in an attempt to assassinate former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan. In 1987, a bomb planted on Korean Air Flight 858 was detonated and the passenger liner blown to pieces in mid-air.
Despite the Kim Dae-jung administration’s “Sunshine Policy” and the inter-Korean summit held twice in recent years (in 2000 and 2007), which helped soften the attitude towards North Korea, the relations between the two Koreas have gradually deteriorated. This is due in part to our two former presidents, Mr. Lee and Ms. Park, cutting ties with North Korea by suspending a communication channel between the two countries. This shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex in 2016 at which time loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts also resumed.
North Korea has also continued its provocations, including the Yeonpyeong Skirmish at sea in 2002, the first announcement of the possession of nuclear weapons in 2005, six nuclear tests and numerous missile launches, the death of a South Korean tourist in North Korea in 2008, the sinking of the Cheonan Warship, the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, and various cyber-attacks.
Now the Moon Jae-in administration is trying to improve the impaired relations with North Korea, but Kim Jong Un’s regime appears to be reluctant to seek peaceful solutions. Despite tougher UN sanctions and U.S. President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric towards North Korea, the regime’s leader doesn’t seem to care at all. North Korea has threatened attacks on Guam or possibly the U.S. mainland while attempting to further their nuclear weapons program.
Some conservative politicians say it is quite imperative to arm ourselves with tactical nuclear weapons while the wartime operational control has not yet been transferred to the South Korean government. Whenever North Korea poses a threat, many Korean newspapers and TV news broadcasters speak as if war is imminent, which instills fear, chaos, and confusion among the people.
Under these circumstances and mounting pressure on the Korean Peninsula, is it probable that North Korea will eventually attack South Korea in the foreseeable future, following through with its continuous threats to “turn Seoul into a sea of fire”? In retrospect, there were a few close-call moments that could possibly have lead to war. However, war has not occurred so far and tension still remains. So, why does North Korea constantly threaten others with their ongoing nuclear weapons program? Is North Korea just bluffing? Is its bark truly worse than its bite?
North Korea is a reclusive rogue state, heavily dependent on China, its only ally and major trading partner. However, with China and Russia joining the UN’s sanctions against North Korea, the U.S. is playing a pivotal role in ratcheting up pressure on North Korea. By possessing nuclear weapons capable of attacking the U.S., North Korea will have leverage to better negotiate with the U.S. For this reason, North Korea talks tough, playing chicken, which is deemed irrational and reckless by the rest of the world.
Nobody wants war, and we know from history the dire consequences if another war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula. Millions of civilians were killed and wounded during the Korean War when conventional weapons were used, and the Peninsula was less populated at that time. Amid this never-ending muscle-flexing and bellicose rhetoric, fighting fire with fire is not a viable option. It will only heighten tensions between the concerned parties. While we still have the chance, we should keep trying to bring North Korea back to the negotiation table and attempt to solve problems through dialogue.
Kim Dong-hun (8ball) is a free spirit working at the GIC. His major hobby is visiting different countries in the world and of all the 30-ish countries he has visited so far, his favorite country is Taiwan.
As is always true of our Op-Ed pieces, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gwangju News, the GIC, or the Gwangju city government. — Eds.