Since 2005, North Korea has tested three nuclear devices while violating international law with its missile launches. These actions, when linked to its recent high-pitched threats against the United States and South Korea, have evoked fear around the world of imminent war on the Korean Peninsula.
There’s only one problem with this perception. The South Korean people, millions of whom live within artillery range of the border, have mostly remained calm amid the storm. It’s business as usual on the streets of Seoul.
The South knows its northern cousins well and has seen this act before – Pyongyang makes threats only to then demand economic concessions. In fact, after weeks of verbal bombast and military maneuvers, the North declared Monday that a stronger economy remains its top goal.
And despite a threat to do so, it has not closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a site inside North Korea where factories run by South Korean firms employ North Korean workers.
The rest of the world should learn from South Korea, which has largely refused to let fear guide its actions. It has built itself up as a beacon of political freedom and market-based prosperity. In contrast to that model, North Korea is now under an official United Nations inquiry for its human rights violations, of which there are plenty.
To be sure, the US remains primarily responsible for deterring North Korea with a commitment of massive retaliation if Pyongyang triggers a war. The Obama administration sent B-2 stealth bombers and F-22 Raptors near North Korea last week to remind its new leader, Kim Jong-un, of the longstanding American promise. This US support certainly helps keep South Korea calm and prevents it from developing its own nuclear arsenal.
If South Korea were really worried about an attack, it would be seeking a military alliance with Japan and forgive that country’s wartime past. It would not have built up strong economic ties with China, the only ally of North Korea. It would not keep offering food aid to hungry North Koreans out of a humanitarian concern and in hopes of showing them the truth about their “enemy.”
Still, South Korea’s spine has stiffened since 2010 after the sinking of one of its Navy ships and the shelling of civilians on one of its islands. Dozens of people were killed. Thus the new president, Park Geun-hye, has released the military to respond immediately to such provocations rather than wait for political advice.
South Korea’s patience with China is also wearing thin. It is waiting to see if Beijing actually follows the new UN sanctions against North Korea. China has faltered on such obligations in the past out of a strategic interest in keeping North Korea intact and as a buffer state.
Two decades ago, South Korea began to see the North in a new light, as a country already defeated by its misguided Marxist and dynastic despotism. Hopes of any quick reunification were put on hold because of the high costs. North Korea was to be nurtured calmly to open up.
The world media still often repeats North Korea’s threats without much history or context, such as the need of a very young Kim Jong-un to establish his power over his own military. These global fears may lead South Koreans to wonder if they are wrong, or in the words of humorist Jean Kerr (in a riff on a Rudyard Kipling poem): “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.”
Yet South Korea’s record of grasping the situation is strong. Its elections help each new president in the Blue House better define the mix of carrots and sticks for dealing with each new Kim who rules in Pyongyang. This keeps the cousin rivalry in line.
And it should eventually help calm the world’s overreaction to North Korea’s rhetoric and nuclear program.