Is It Safe To Be In South Korea?

How to approach the tough decisions

Steven Ward

Preface: This post was not written in response to any kind of pressing danger. Quite the contrary. I do not believe that, as of this writing in September 2017, that we are anywhere near a situation where I would be preparing to evacuate my family from the country. However, I do believe it is valuable to consider our personal criteria for making hard choices if, indeed, the unthinkable were to happen.

If you are reading this, it is probably because North Korea is making trouble, again, and you are worried about whether it is time to grab your bug out bag and gtfo of South Korea.

Or maybe your child or grandchild has up and moved there to have an adventure while teaching English fresh out of college. It is completely natural that you would grow concerned with cable news showing you terrifying infographics about nuclear weapons and impending war 24 hours a day.

First of all, you might find my post putting the rhetoric and media hype over North Korea's nuclear weapons interesting as well. Consider this post a sequel to that one, although it is not necessary to read them in order.

I have been living in Korea now for over ten years and I have witnessed the cycle of escalating and de-escalating tensions many times. I was sitting in a coffee shop in Seoul, within striking distance of North Korea's artillery, with my Korean tutor when I saw the news that North Korea had detonated a nuclear weapon in October of 2006. More recently, this past May, I was on the high speed SRT train spiriting me out of Seoul via underground tunnel while I read about President Trump sending warships to East Asia.

When my parents call, or one of my aunts send a text message, my response is cool as a cucumber. "Oh that? Yeah, no one cares over here." But the truth is, I was breathing a sigh of relief, knowing that when my ride exited the tunnel at 170 mph I would be 32 miles south of Seoul, far beyond the reach of the artillery.

These tensions come around fairly regularly, it's true. While it is comforting to blow it off as cable news hype, there is a danger in failing to recognize a key feature of North Korea's relationship with the outside world. It is not a "cycle."

You see, a cycle implies escalation/deescalation. In the case of North Korea, the deescalation rarely truly comes. Instead, we get used to the new normal. And just when we are starting to let our guard down, that's when North Korea chooses to make us nervous again, this time going just a little bit further than the last time.

If you moved to a new house in a town that happened to sit at the foot of a dam, and one day you noticed a little crack in the facade of the dam, you probably wouldn't go running for the hills. You would look at your neighbors, and see them all going about their business. "Well," you might say, "they have more experience with the dam than I do," and then you would go right back to mowing your yard. It's probably the right call.

But you shouldn't decide to ignore all signs of cracking in the future just because your previous experience did not end in disaster. It is not evidence that the dam will never break. And you definitely should not put the safety and security of your family on the shoulders of your neighbor, an office worker that knows absolutely nothing about structural engineering.

We will revisit the dam analogy shortly. And you shouldn't expect that

Why You Should Not Make Decisions Based On Ordinary South Koreans' Reactions To North Korea's Nukes

In the wake of even the slightest turbulence in relations with North Korea, within hours there are inevitably reporters on the ground in South Korea commenting on how South Koreans continue to go about their business. Footage will be shown of Koreans streaming in/out of subway stations, eating in restaurants, and holding hands with their lovers. The message being conveyed is clear: Everything is fine. South Koreans are not the least bit concerned. You all need to chill out.

In the expat social media bubble, articles start spreading like wildfire that minimize the tensions and soothe the nerves of anxious relatives abroad. That is all well and good, but recently I saw something that I found troubling.

Someone in North America posted on the public Facebook page for the city I live in. She had just signed a contract to move here to teach English and was worried about her safety; a completely rational reaction to current events.

The resulting comments were a cascade of dismissiveness, arrogance, and lightheartedness. It occurred to me that the people involved in the thread were likely commenting out of their own self-interest, rather than that of the woman (a complete stranger) that made the original post. In other words, I suspect they were trying to comfort themselves rather than sincerely offering advice to the person.

I chimed in to offer a voice of dissent. I made the point that if you had no connections to Korea and could easily just choose to go somewhere else (or just stay put) instead, it is unwise to put down even the shallowest of roots in a place where these kinds of tough questions come up so often as to be routine.

My comments were not received well by those involved with the thread. I just kept thinking why do they care so much that this woman proceeds with her plans to move to Korea?

The only explanation I could come up with was that they were really just comforting themselves and avoiding the really difficult questions.

Comments like, "My boss is a former military officer and said he'll let me know if things get really serious," or "My neighbors aren't doing anything different. I'll worry when they do" were commonplace.

That afternoon I asked a group of my political science students a pretty straightforward question: "Are you worried about the current tensions with North Korea?"

Their response:

When I posted this image to the thread, one response in particular inadvertently proved my point. It was something to the effect of they were just telling you what they thought you wanted to hear.

Okay, fine, then you have to admit that your boss, coworkers, friends and neighbors might also be telling you things they think you want to here. Maybe they care about your mental health and do not want . you to worry. Maybe they, like you, are responding out of habit because they are used to the hype. Maybe they, unlike you, have no easy way to get out of the country and are in denial about it. Or maybe they just want to make sure you keep showing up to work.

Here's the thing: your average Korean has no special insight or wisdom about the crisis. They are just used to the 'normalcy' of a near constant North Korean threat.

This is not just my own speculation. Note how Jared Diamond, renowned anthropologist and author of the seminal work Guns, Germs, and Steel makes use of the dam analogy in his follow-up book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed:

Consider a narrow deep river valley below a high dam, such that if the dam burst, the resulting flood of water would drown people for a long distance downstream. When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam's bursting, it's not surprising that fear of a dam burst is lowest far downstream, and increases among residents increasingly close to the dam.
Surprisingly, though, when one gets within a few miles of the dam, where fear of the dam's breaking is highest, as you then get closer to the dam the concern falls off to zero! That is, the people living immediately under the dam who are certain to be drowned in a dam burst profess unconcern. That is because of psychological denial: the only way of preserving one's sanity while living immediately under the high dam is to deny the finite possibility that it could burst.

There is merit to giving extra weight to the opinion of those with 'skin in the game' on any issue. But there is such a thing as having too much skin in the game as well.

Besides, Koreans Really Are Worried About North Korea

Up until very recently, I felt like I was out on a limb alone whenever I made this argument to my fellow expats. About a week ago, The Chosun Ilbo (a paper of record in South Korea) published the article South Koreans Slowly Wake Up to North Korean Threat. The main crux of the article stated that

Most South Koreans seemed unfazed by the war of words between Trump and Kim until early last month. The Los Angeles Times described South Koreans as "surprising blasé." But after North Korea's latest nuclear test, more and more people say they sense palpable tension.

The anecdotal man-on-the-street type quotes the article gives jives with my own anecdotal experience as well. I am also getting more concerned questions from my Korean friends.

Yes, it is anecdotal, but it is really beside the point because my thesis, at its essence, is that you should not be blindly following the crowd regardless.

Making Up Your Own Mind About The North Korean Threat

So how do you get to a point where you can feel confident about your own judgement when it comes to North Korea? You have to do your homework.

  1. Cultivate a sense of geopolitical context in some way. If you are thinking about uprooting your life to move to South Korea, you owe it to yourself to read up a bit on the history and culture of the country anyway. I enjoy Andrei Lankov's perspective and recommend NKNews.org. The good news here is that this will simultaneously help you appreciate and feel more connected to Korea yourself.
  2. Choose your information and news sources on North Korea carefully. Journalists are fine, but whenever they interview someone on North Korea that seems knowledgeable, find out who it is, follow them on Twitter, and look up their research and/or books they have written.
  3. Think through various scenarios. Not just SHTF scenarios and where to go in your neighborhood in the event of various types of attack (conventional, nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks are all in the realm of possibility) but also various decision thresholds. For example, you might come up with something like, "Once North Korea is confirmed to have miniaturization technology, I will finish my contract and go home." Or, "If the Japanese embassy recommends their citizens leave South Korea, then I'll get my family out ASAP." (Note: There is still no U.S. Ambassador, so this is a pretty reasonable approach)

Conclusion: The One Thing You Should NOT Do

You are sound asleep at home one night when you get a phone call from your mother:

"Oh thank God. Are you okay? Where are you? Did you escape the dam?"

You have no idea what she is talking about, but you are alive, so one thing you know is that the dam certainly hasn't burst.

"Everything's fine mom. I'm going back to bed."

A few more cracks have developed over the years... sometimes pieces come crumbling down from the top, but it has not collapsed yet, so why would it collapse tomorrow?

Then you get a phone call from your cousin:

"Hey cuz, I am thinking of moving to the dam, but I'm worried about these reports saying it's not safe? You're the expert, what do you think?"

Downplaying the tensions to your friends and family back home is one thing. But would you really recommend other people to come join in the adventure of dam life if they had no special reason to? 

Encouraging people to ignore their perfectly rational concerns and join you in South Korea when they have absolutely no existing ties to the country is reckless and selfish.

Instead, provided you have put your money where your mouth is and taken the time to develop and informed perspective, then point them in the direction of knowledgeable sources that can help them make decisions for themselves as well. Teach them about the background and context in a way that does not take away from the gravity of the situation or disregard the personal milestone this could be in their own life.

If the person does end up coming to Korea, they will have a deeper understanding of the history and culture of their new home, something that should always be encouraged.

As for me, my family is staying put. For the time being.

I am genuinely concerned for the direction the situation is going as a long-term trend, though, and am looking at options for repatriating. I'm reasonably confident tensions will blow over this time. And probably the next time too. But the time after that? And after that?

Well, I've made my decision. What about you?