The last 24 hours have seen a rapid ramping-up of the rhetoric coming out of the White House toward North Korea’s rogue regime. “They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before,” President Trump warned late Tuesday, just hours after reports surfaced that North Korea had developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead. The possibility of war on the Korean peninsula suddenly seemed much more real. I reached out to Elise Hu, NPR’s Asia correspondent, who is based in Seoul for an on-the-ground perspective of the situation. (Make sure to check out her amazing “Elise Tries” video series here.) Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: In the last 48 hours, it feels like the likelihood of a war on the Korean peninsula has surged. Does it feel that way in South Korea?
Hu: In a word, “nope.” When we interviewed some folks around town today of different ages, the response from younger people — twenties and thirties — was sometimes, “What Trump statement are you talking about?”
South Koreans are news savvy and have certainly seen many headlines, but fiery rhetoric — especially from North Korea — is something everyone here is used to. This is a country that’s lived under the existential threat of North Korea for decades, so the new ICBM capabilities and the war of words that Americans are getting tense about doesn’t translate over here in the same way.
On Korean Twitter today, the trending topic was the possibility of an extra week of summer break.
Cillizza: How politically active/aware of Trump is the population? And what is their view of his handling of Kim Jong Un in particular?
Hu: It’s a very politically active population. I mean, just a few months ago, South Koreans showed up in the literal MILLIONS to peacefully protest their president in the streets, which led to her historic impeachment and removal from office.
They sure know who Trump is. And since South Koreans, in general, are more familiar and used to the Kim regime than they are to Donald Trump, it’s Trump’s actions that are causing concern (albeit mild concern). It’s weird (and a new thing in the Trump era) that they’re more wary of the leader of their American ally than the leader of its unruly neighbor. (The US and South Korea are part of an “ironclad” security alliance, we’re constantly reminded.)
I’ve interviewed several people who say they see Trump as an irrational figure who is out to prove something, and that despite Kim Jong Un’s goals being consistent, the worry is Trump could push KJU to make an irrational decision, too.
President Moon Jae-In, who just took office in May, stressed with Trump in a phone call on Monday that he really wants to see a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the North Korea issue. The line from the Blue House (the presidential administration here) is constantly stressing diplomacy over military action. But I should mention every once in awhile I meet a baby boomer-aged cab driver from the far right of the political spectrum (hawkish) who tells me he would welcome a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, damn the consequences!
Cillizza: What is the perception of Kim in South Korea? Active danger? Joke? Neither? Both?
Hu: More of a joke than an active threat. One thing my local producer here tells me is that Koreans often don’t even use Kim Jong Un’s last name when they refer to him, which is a real sign of disrespect in the Korean language. They call him “Jong-un-ee,” a colloquialism to signify he’s an irritating child that they’re overly familiar with.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “If you stopped the average South Korean on the street tonight and asked them about the US and North Korea, they would say ____________.” Now, explain.
Hu: We did stop a few South Koreans on the street, so I’m glad you asked! They say either “active war is still highly unlikely” or “I’m not really paying attention to politics, sorry.”
I think the confidence about our/their continuing existence comes from living under the same threat and provocation cycle for so long, and the belief that cooler heads will ultimately prevail. Hopefully they are right and there won’t be any blunders, you know what I’m saying?
Anyway I’m headed to Guam in a few hours so I guess I’m not that fearful a strike is imminent.