SEOUL — As Americans from Guam to New York wonder whether the United States is about to become embroiled in a nuclear war, millions of South Koreans living within rocket range of North Korea went about their day as usual on Thursday.
The trains ran and the planes flew, the president talked about health-care reform, and the news agencies sent out alerts about the corruption case against Samsung’s heir apparent. The main stock exchange is up more than 300 points since the beginning of the year.
Store workers and bus drivers laughed when asked whether they were ready for war.
Indeed, President Trump’s threats — more than the ones issued by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — were the focus of Thursday morning’s papers. “Trump says North Korea faces fire and fury, North mulls striking around Guam,” the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper, blared on its front page.
South Koreans have become inured to the threat of North Korea — because they’ve lived in a state of war for more than six decades, and weathered regular threats and actual casualties. In 2015, two South Korean soldiers were severely injured in land mine attacks in the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas. In 2010, North Korea killed a total of 50 South Koreans in two incidents: the bombing of a naval corvette and the shelling of a South Korean island.
South Korean television networks on Thursday resorted to reporting that American media were marveling at how “amazingly calm” South Koreans were in the face of all these threats.
The current “crisis,” as it’s being termed in the United States, feels pretty mundane here. If anything, the risks comes from the unpredictable Trump, not the relatively predictable (if tempestuous) Kim.
But it’s more complicated than just being jaded, writes Haeryun Kang, managing editor of the Korea Exposé website. South Koreans must reconcile two contradictory narratives, she writes in the Guardian.
One says that North Korea poses a “dangerous, existential threat” to the South, amplified by the “red scares” and a broad willingness to see any interest in or understanding of North Korea as a sign of communist sympathies. South Korea still blocks North Korean websites for national security reasons, and a Korean American woman was deported in 2015 for expressing views favorable to the North.
The other narrative says that North Koreans are South Koreans’ estranged brothers and that both countries will one day be reunified and returned to natural order.
“Behind the indifference lies also years of fear, deep and even subconscious, a glaring lack of information and unavoidable ignorance about what really is happening,” Kang wrote.
Some South Korean newspapers are calling for a heightened sense of urgency about North Korea.
“There is no need to exaggerate a crisis, but you cannot ignore it,” the JoongAng Ilbo, one of the South’s big three newspapers, wrote in an editorial Thursday. “To weather a possible storm on the horizon, we must have a united stance. The government must click into crisis management mode.”