If you go to South Korea, don’t expect to find a nation mobilized for imminent war. At the Inchon airport, the gateway to Seoul, the only question that a security agent asked was, “have you been in contact with a camel?” It seems that travelers from the Middle East brought back nasty microbes, resulting in a kind of pulmonary flu. That many Koreans wear masks as protection from airborne diseases—black masks are preferred by fashionable women—reflects a national dread of epidemics, not of a germ-warfare attack from Pyongyang. Moreover, from Seoul’s point of view, North Korea is far away, and much farther mentally than geographically. The forbidding, mine-strewn border is 40 kilometers from the capital, but it might as well be on the moon.
Time has put distance between the two peoples. When I visited the Koreas 40 years ago, families throughout the country had been divided by the war and the ceasefire; the desire for national reunification was strong. Two generations have now passed; people are no longer sure whether some distant cousin is still living on the other side, and indifference has set in. The border has managed to create two distinct peoples, who, it seems, no longer desire to live together. At least, this is the case in the South. In the North, those willing to risk their lives flee to China or to the South in order, mainly, to escape poverty. As for the rest—slaves of the Kim regime—what do we know of them?
South Koreans have, for their part, become more nationalistic; but they are South Korean nationalists. They are proud of the hard work by which they have founded one of the world’s most prosperous and creative nations, as can be seen in their globally celebrated brand names, beginning with Samsung and Hyundai, and their popular music culture, notably K-Pop, which hardly represents traditional Koreana, but which has a worldwide following. South Koreans are also proud, even vain, concerning their freedom of expression, which is often more in evidence on the Internet than in the nation’s mostly conservative press. And finally, they are proud of their democracy, imperfect though it is. I’m not persuaded that a country best shows its democratic maturity by systematically imprisoning all former presidents of the republic. But in the Asian context, South Korea may indeed be considered quite democratic.
While the world’s attention is fixed on negotiations between Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un, with their rival hairdos and nuclear buttons, South Koreans are not holding their breath. The main topic of discussion is unemployment, particularly among young people. South Korea’s giants of industry do little recruiting, since they are so efficient or have moved operations overseas; future jobs will be found in small businesses and start-ups that don’t pay well, but these jobs are scarce, because the Samsungs and Hyundais take up so much of the employment space. Giving talks at Seoul’s universities, I fielded questions mainly concerned with jobs and employment.
North Korea, such a worry for Americans, has long ceased to frighten South Koreans. They are accustomed to Pyongyang’s saber-rattling and do not conceal their disdain for the Kim dynasty of tacky dictators. They are not afraid of a military attack, in which the North would have everything to lose. Moreover, we often forget that the function of a nuclear weapon is to deter attack: North Korea acquired its nuclear “capacity” not to bomb the United States or Seoul but to preserve its independence. The North counts on the Chinese more than on the Americans to maintain the status quo, which is, in fact, the preference of all the parties involved and the best outcome for all. Advocates for the South do not want reunification with their poorer cousins. In fact, they—especially the young—fear that reunification would be too expensive and unwieldy. As for the Chinese, North Korea is a proxy that might be useful if it became necessary to destabilize the region. Pyongyang allows the Chinese to appear the wise moderator, and to marginalize the Americans.
In the North, the ruling kleptocracy lives comfortably, as can be seen in the fact that, thanks to his nuclear gesticulations, Kim Jong Un has moved from being a clown to an internationally recognized statesmen. He now enters discussions on an equal footing with Chinese and American presidents. As for the Japanese, they don’t want to see a unified Korea, either—it would constitute an economic and military rival, with nuclear capacity. Finally, from the American point of view, the Korean status quo justifies the permanent American presence in the South. Legally speaking, the U.S. military in Korea represents the United Nations, which maintains its 1950 mandate to defend the South from Communist aggression.
In this respect, President Trump could destabilize things by opening the door to a peace treaty between the two Koreas. Under such a treaty, proposed by the North and supported by South Korean president Moon Jae-in, a former anti-American leftist, the United States would no longer have a basis for staying in South Korea. This recalls the unfortunate precedent of Vietnam, where the Communist North invaded the South as soon as the Americans left. The South Koreans are aware of this precedent, and they entertain the unspoken hope that the negotiations between Trump and Kim will lead to nothing beyond claims of victory and self-satisfaction on both sides. The best result that can be hoped for, on this view, is that each will go home to great public praise and that the status quo will remain, under some cosmetic name changes.
And yet this very status quo becomes possible only because all parties have agreed not to discuss the forgotten victims—the citizens of North Korea, who have no voice and no defender. A potential war is averted in large part by acting as if this were not, in fact, the major issue underlying all others.
Photo: Woohae Cho/Getty Images