Letter from South Korea: Keeping calm about Kim

I am sitting in a coffee shop in Yeondong, an upmarket area in Jeju City, the larger of the two cities on Jeju Island. Outside, the sun shines, the wind blows, the traffic passes. Inside, soft jazz plays as Korean women chat over outrageously priced beverages. You'd never think we were in a country that is supposed to be on the brink of nuclear war.

I applied to be an English schoolteacher in South Korea in December 2010, just after North Korea had decided to shell Yeonpyeong, an island west of the peninsula, in a disputed maritime area. At the time, the incident did not seem shocking or important enough to make me think twice about Korea. The good I'd heard from a friend working there far outweighed the possible impact of further incidents with North Korea. But when I had to pick the top five places in the country I wanted to see, I did choose the five most southern places on the map. I didn't even consider Jeju, Korea's largest island off the southwest coast of the peninsula, but as fate would have it this was where I was sent and where I've been living for the past two years.

With all the hyped-up media attention focused on the Koreas at the moment, it's hard to explain how generally unconcerned everyone is. For Koreans, this is just another spout of rhetoric they've endured in the 60 years since the end of the Korean war.

To be sure, the tension between the two countries is much higher than it's been in a long time. Both countries got new leaders last year – Park Geun-hye, the first female president of South Korea, and Kim Jong-un, who officially assumed leadership in April last year – and this may affect the way inter-Korean relations are conducted. Usually North Korea threatens, the South placates, North Korea does something provocative (like shelling an island), and the South gets angry but ultimately does nothing about it.

The Associated Press reported last week that although Park has tried to use dialogue and humanitarian aid to "re-engage" North Korea, she is now expressing her frustration over the "'endless vicious cycle' of Seoul answering Pyongyang's hostile behaviour with compromise, only to get more hostility".

Living in South Korea, the feeling you get of the relationship between the two countries is that of a wealthy, successful leader of the family and a poor, black-sheep cousin. South Korea gets on with the business of economic growth and raising its international profile with everything from K-pop to sport stars such as figure skater Kim Yu-na.

Over the border, North Korea is a badly behaved child, throwing ­temper tantrums and threatening to run away from home. It's as if South Koreans are almost embarrassed about their northern relative. They hardly speak about the North, even when something big happens, such as the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011. Although reunification is still spoken of by the government here, many younger Koreans don't want this, as they know it will be a serious blow to their country's economy.

A Korean teacher in the small western town of Hallim on Jeju assured me that we are in no way in any danger. "It doesn't matter to us," she explained. "It's kind of normal. We are used to it."

Trouble from China
The "boy", as she refers to Kim Jong-un, is just "pretending, showing off. We don't feel threatened by it." She also says that Jeju Island is probably the safest place to be, owing to the many Chinese people who travel here on holiday. "He [Kim] doesn't want any trouble from China."

The attitude from the locals appears to be the same: Ignore him. He'll quiet down soon. But the foreign teacher community is split. The newbies are asking whether we should all be packing up and leaving, whereas long-term residents say there's nothing to get worked up about; some are packing emergency bags and looking up flights, others' heads are firmly in the sand.

Although it would be foolish to dismiss the threat completely, war is highly unlikely – certainly not on the scale that the media is predicting. It's practically the textbook definition of a standoff: neither side will attack first, they're just glaring at each other over the expanse of the demilitarised zone.

North Korea can bluster and make threats as loudly as it wants, but it will not risk being wiped off the face of the Earth. What would it achieve by blasting missiles at Seoul? Only the certainty of a swift and forceful reaction from South Korea and the United States.

A few weeks ago, responding to concerned inquiries from friends and relatives, I airily assured them that everything was fine. I referred them to an article by Alastair Gale in the Wall Street Journal in which the author pointed out that we should only start to get worried when North Korea actually did something ­provocative, such as closing the Kaesong Industrial Park, a light industry ­complex inside North Korea where people from both sides of the border are employed.

So, a few days later, what happens? North Korea closes the park. I went from being "entirely unconcerned" to merely "unconcerned."

That said, I have made sure I'm registered with the South African embassy in Seoul and have made a mental note of where I would go and what I would take with me in a ­sudden departure. I've thought about making a withdrawal of emergency cash and buying bottled water and some nonperishable food items – but thought is as far as it has gone.

Life here goes on normally. North Korea's recent warnings to embassies in Pyongyang to evacuate and foreigners in South Korea to leave have been met with not much more than the diplomatic equivalent of a shrug and a yawn. News reports here have it that no embassy personnel have left North Korea or have any plans to evacuate, only one travel advisory has been issued for the South (by Taiwan), and though one foreign teacher in Jeollanam-do province made headlines here for leaving in fear, almost everyone else is staying put.

It's important to note that the ­"foreigners" Kim is referring to are not the foreign teachers, who are probably not even on his radar, but the migrant workers from South-East Asia and the Indian subcontinent who perform the difficult, dirty and dangerous jobs that are a vital support for the South Korean economy and whose departure would certainly affect the country negatively.

In an opinion piece for the New York Times earlier this week, Andrei Lankov, a professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul, pointed out that there is "almost nothing particularly unusual" in recent developments on the Korean peninsula. "This time, the tune is being played louder, but that is the only real change."

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