On September 15, 1996, 26 North Korean commandoes slipped ashore near the South Korean town of Gangneung after their submarine foundered off the coast. The impromptu mini-invasion made international headlines, and tensions rose sharply for several weeks between the two countries as the South Korean military hunted down the infiltrators. Two dozen were killed.
But in the city of Busan, where I’d been teaching English for more than a year, my friends seemed unconcerned; no one I knew was preparing for war. The only person I knew who was truly worried was my mother in Michigan. Was I safe? Wasn’t it a good idea to come home and get out of harm’s way?
I told her the same thing that everyone in South Korea says whenever North Korea threatened to turn the nation into a “lake of fire,” which was often: Everything was fine.
After two decades, multiple skirmishes, the rapid development of North Korea’s nuclear program, and the arrival of a new-generation dictator from the Kim dynasty, the mood in South Korea is much the same. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump alarmed the world when he warned the country that it could face “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” A day later, the North Korean military threatened to strike Guam (home to important U.S. military bases) with four intermediate-range ballistic missiles fired over Japan. On Friday morning, Trump continued the escalation, via a tweet promising that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded.”
But as the president trades doomsday threats with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and American tabloids erupt with mushroom-cloud stock photos, the people of Seoul, just 35 miles from the North Korean border, remain typically blasé. On Wednesday, the website of the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest daily newspaper, lead with a story on Samsung microchips.
The reason? They have heard it all before.
“North Korean provocation is always a concern, but it is kind of like background noise,” says Abraham Kim, former vice president of the Korea Economic Institute of America in Washington, D.C., and current director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. “Sometimes it gets very loud, but it’s always been there. People are kind of numb to it.”
That’s particularly the case among younger residents of Seoul. For them, the prospect of conflict feels hypothetical, says Walter Paik, chair of the…