Rita and I have been in Seoul since the weekend while newspaper headlines proclaim the imminent onset of full hostilities between the Americans and South Koreans on one hand against the North Koreans on the other. Many friends continue to ask, “Are you safe?”
What the outside world does not understand are the powerful forces toward maintaining the status quo, or something close to it. It’s theoretically true that all hell could break loose, but there’s no evidence that the North Koreans are suicidal. The rule of thumb in Seoul is that the U.S. military could destroy the heart of the North’s governmental and military infrastructure in a matter of minutes. The North does not want that obviously; they want intermittent provocations that create a certain level of fear. They want to cash in on that fear to obtain food, fuel and money. This has been the pattern for all 22 years I’ve been involved in covering Korea.
The tone among people here is remarkably calm. We went to the Lotte Department Store and mostly young Koreans, with a sprinkling of Chinese tourists, were buying the latest designer fashions at top prices. Rita was impressed with how cutting-edge the fashions were and by how many people were wearing fur. Prices were not cheap. These people have money and they’re spending it. Christmas music is playing in most of the stores because about 30 percent of the population is Christian. Downtown Seoul is decked out with all manner of Christmas lights. If it isn’t being done for religious purposes, it must be helping sales.
The Shilla Hotel, where we are staying, is filled to the brim with people having weddings and other social affairs. The hotel’s parking lots are overflowing with the big Hyundai Equus sedans and more BMWs and Audis than I’ve ever seen here. There are no barricades in the streets, no signs of people fleeing Seoul, no air raid drills, no signs of anything military. None of these people are concerned about the North attacking them; in fact, a certain percentage of (leftist) Koreans believe the North is their friend and it’s only a matter of time before they re-unify. They think the current tensions are fueled by the Americans or their puppet government (which it is most definitely not.) There has not been much popular support for military preparedness to confront the North.
We’ve also been to Apgujeong, the trendy district just south of the Han River where luxury carmakers have built dealerships up and down the main drag. We heard a blues band perform at Once Upon a Blue Moon, a jazz and blues club. We strolled through Insadong, a lovely shopping district located near all the old palaces. And we toured a Korean folk village, a kind of theme park about an hour south of Seoul, near Suwon. The system of expressways, complete with toll plazas and service plazas, is very sophisticated and is in very good condition, compared with the highway systems in some parts of the United States, including New York.
Seoul is a very unusual Asian capital because it is built in and around the hills on both sides of the Han River. There is an elaborate system of tunnels through many mountains. Most of the housing is high-rise. I have never seen rows of houses in neighborhoods, as one would see in many other cities. I’d guess that 90 percent of the population lives in high-rise apartment buildings. If they ever had to evacuate, it would be absolute chaos. There would be no way for a population of this size, particularly the people located north of the Han River, to quickly retreat to the South in the event that the North Koreans launched missiles into the heart of Seoul. They could easily do that because Seoul is only 35 miles south of the DMZ.
So this is the central contradition: in the very shadow of the DMZ, the South has created a remarkable capitalistic success story. They’ve lived with the threat of North Korea for so many decades that they haven’t taken it seriously. It is something like Californians expecting that one day “the big one” will hit them, meaning an earthquake. It doesn’t really have much impact on the way they live their lives.
The South Koreans don’t want to put their newfound wealth at risk and are not going to intentionally cross any lines to provoke the North. The Chinese do not want instability on the Korean peninsula and the Japanese don’t either. So there are huge pressures on both Koreas to maintain the current state of semi-hostility, but not to overdo it. Many of the young reporters who have been creating the intense headlines about an escalation into war must have never lived through previous incidents that threatened to destabilize the peninsula.
Obviously, there will come a time when something changes on the Korean peninsula and the North collapses in some fashion. But it is not this time.