It seemed the end of the world.
Each day, radio personalities and newscasters spoke in dreadful tones about the inevitable destruction of life as we knew it.
Back in the States, doomsday preppers were stocking up in mass supply and even here in Korea, where for so many years people have not worried, heads began to occasionally look to the sky.
Fellow expatriates talked of going home. A few did. The rest of us stayed and debated the severity of the situation and how to escape should the apocalypse come knocking on our door. Meanwhile, headlines screamed of “Escalation!” and “Imminent disaster!” And I found myself watching YouTube videos on the half-life of radioactive fallout.
Every day brought us a few angry tweets closer to the apocalypse, and then—well, nothing.
The headlines ended.
The American news cycle rolled on to other matters and we were left catching our breath and wondering what would happen next.
A Worrying Cycle
This series of events happened two months after we moved to South Korea. We had just started getting settled into our new home when Kim Jong Un fired off a number of missiles and we encountered, for the first time, the media firefight that occurs every time the king in the north does something.
Since then we’ve experienced the cycle five more times. About once a month.
A missile gets shot, the news erupts, people get worried, and the United States and South Korea display shows of force through combined military exercises, bomber flyovers, and the occasional bombing of Syria. After a couple weeks of panic things go back to normal, and then two weeks later someone fires off a missile or tweets something—reminding everyone how we’re all about to die—and the cycle continues.
I don’t mean to make light of a serious situation, because it is serious. I completely understand why some people are leaving Korea and why others are doubting whether they should come at all. If you take it at face value it looks like a mess—an impending avalanche of ick.
But is the situation as dangerous as it seems? And should the nukes and news prevent you from moving here?
Well, the easiest way to determine if war is coming is to ask two questions:
If you’re looking for a fast answer, I believe it is “Respect” to the first and “No” to the second. But if you want details, let’s break those down further.
Or, to skip to my conclusion, click here.
What Does Kim Jong Un Want?
This is a question that people much smarter than I have spent years debating, but after much research I’ve found that there are three things that nearly all experts agree on:
- Kim wants to ensure the survival of his regime.
- He wants American military forces to be removed from the peninsula.
- Kim wants North Korea to be recognized and respected as a world power.
Let’s analyze those a little more.
First; for the last three generations, the Kim family has watched the United States topple a number of dictatorships around the world, with the lengthy war in the Middle East making especially strong impressions on Kim Jong Un. Kim knows he’s on Washington’s list of rouge nations (keeping company with Iran and Syria) and he doesn’t want to be the next on a long list of broken regimes. The way he sees it, the easiest way to preserve his rule and to prevent American attempts at regime change is to possess an untold number of nuclear weapons.
Second; since the Korean War, the US has stationed armies, navies and, for a time, even nuclear weapons in South Korea. Though it is extremely unlikely that the US would ever use these forces to attempt reunification—due to the likelihood of it beginning a war with China— Kim Jong Un sees the American military in Korea as a direct threat to his rule. Because of this, it is very probable that he will attempt to use nukes capable of reaching American cities as leverage to remove US military from the peninsula.
Third; North Korea is a country that, until recently, no one has ever given any respect to. And why should they? The Hermit Kingdom believes their ruler is a god, they drive tanks from the Cold War, and are always carrying on such a hilarious propaganda charade. Americans and the world have preferred to laugh at the Kim family rather than take their threats seriously. Kim Jong Un wants to end this. For too many years his country has been disrespected and he sees nuclear weapons as bargaining chips by which he can secure a seat at the leaders’ table. He wants to be respected as a regional power that has the ability to influence international policies. And no more sanctions!
Okay, so we have an idea about what he wants. Is starting a war Kim’s best bet for getting all this done?
Will War Give Kim Jong Un What He Wants?
Okay, here’s why:
Maybe war was the best option for North Korea back in 1950—when they launched their surprise assault to unify the peninsula under Communist rule—but nowadays, the economic and political costs of conventional warfare between two developed powers are so insanely high that a leader would have to be almost mad to begin it.
“But Kim Jong Un is a mad man who doesn’t care about economic or political costs!”
Not exactly. The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) really only excels at two things. One is developing nukes faster than people expect, and the second is their propaganda machine. Almost no information about Kim Jong Un leaks unless they allow it to, which means that the West has been fed a very intentional narrative about the king in the north.
In reality, most North Korean experts believe that Kim has intentionally developed the caricature of a madman in order to use his “loose cannon” reputation as a bargaining tool. After all, crazy men are unpredictable and don’t care about their own security, so if Kim says he’ll use nukes, by gosh he just might!
Remember, Kim’s number one goal is to ensure the survival of his regime and his life. While his people may think he is god, Kim knows the truth. Not only will he bleed if a war starts, but he would also have to give up his lifestyle of extreme luxury. From private jets and islands, to his “pleasure troupe” of girls, Kim is living like a king. Not only would instigating a war put his regime at risk, it would also mean the immediate end of his lavish lifestyle.
“But what if Kim Jong Un was willing to give up his luxury in order to fight a war? Could he win it?”
Could North Korea win a war?
Honestly, if there was the smallest chance that Kim could win a war against the US and South Korea he would probably take it.
Fortunately, another thing the experts agree on is that there is no way North Korea could win a war.
North Korea doesn’t have the technology capable of winning a war.
Despite North Korea’s massive army, with over 1.1 million in its armed forces (about 5 percent of its total population), it is lacking in the modern machinery needed to win. Kim’s army could cause massive loss of life in Seoul and the surrounding areas by barraging the area with artillery, but ultimately would be defeated by the superior air and sea power of South Korea and the US.
North Korea isn’t capable of producing the resources needed to win a war.
Kim’s government has put development of the country’s infrastructure on hold while spending like mad on their nuclear program and military. If Kim were to start “Korean War: the Sequel,” he would quickly exhaust his country’s supply of fuel and food and his military would grind to a rather rusty halt.
North Korea lacks allies.
China, already very critical of Kim’s government, will not support North Korea should Kim begin a war. This would mean North Korea going it alone against a US-led coalition which would include South Korea, England, Australia, and possibly even Japan. A Kim Jong Un victory in this scenario would be…unlikely.
So, is war the answer for Kim Jong Un?
I’m happy to say that the answer is a very strong “No.”
So Why The Media Hysteria?
This is one of the biggest challenges new expats face when adjusting to life in South Korea—you know Kim Jong Un isn’t crazy, you know he’s not going to start a war, and yet every day you have to wade through immense piles of news and propaganda from both sides of the Korean border that scream of impending doom.
If the situation isn’t as deadly as the news is reporting, then why the theatrics? Why is Kim threatening war when war would actually be terrible for him? Why is Trump investing so much political face into this? And why isn’t anyone taking a breather?!
Makes me wish I could have a little heart to heart with a couple of world leaders…
“Come on guys. Kim, Trump, can’t you both just agree that war is a terrible option and neither of you are going to start it? Seriously, relax. You’re both billionaires for gosh sakes. Enjoy your money and let us enjoy what little we have!”
Unfortunately, regardless of the truth that neither side wants war, there is little chance that the panic will go away any time soon. Why?
The Hysteria Benefits All Parties Involved
There are three major players who benefit from the theatrics.
- Kim Jong Un.
- The US government.
- News organizations.
For these parties, maintaining a level of panic about the situation is in their best interest. And since they are the only ones who control the hysteria, we won’t be seeing a decrease in the theatrics anytime soon.
How does Kim Jong Un benefit?
Kim Jong Un needs a means by which to justify how he spends billions on missiles when his people are starving. He needs the hysteria as an excuse to consolidate his power and to work his people. He needs a boogeyman, a great enemy against which he can use as a distraction to unite his country behind him.
To this end, the DPRK’s propaganda machine works tirelessly to engrain fear of the West in its citizens, and their boogeyman is the United States. The endless stream of threats from North Korea is part of this machine. If the people see their fearless leaders pushing back against the evil tentacles of the USA, then maybe they won’t notice everyone starving to death around them.
Kim won’t allow the hysteria to end because he needs to keep the enemy alive. If there’s no enemy, then there’s no reason to spend so much on missiles or to keep his country in isolation.
How does the US government benefit?
Overall, the whole US government benefits because, due to North Korea’s heinous human-rights violations, maintaining a strong anti-North Korean stance is a winning position for both of the major political parties in the US.
Threats and strong language against Kim Jong Un won’t be leaving the White House just because President Trump does. And as long as threats are being fired between Washington and Pyongyang there will be a level of hysteria in the media and population.
Furthermore, maintaining the threat of a second Korean War allows the US to bolster their forces in Asia—giving Washington a stronger influence in setting policy for the region.
How do news organizations benefit?
Come on. Nothing sells papers like the threat of nuclear war—it’s like sports, but on a global scale. For news organizations, there’s a great incentive to emphasize the threats of war and to play up the smallest possibility of nuclear attacks. War generates clicks and subscriptions, so maintaining a level of anxiety in the news is obviously in their best interest.
Now, I understand that there are actual threats being thrown across the Pacific Ocean, but I do think that the media tends to give North Korea’s provocations just a little more weight than they are due.
For example, quite a feeding frenzy was stirred up in the media when the DPRK claimed that Donald Trump declared war last month. What everyone forgot was how North Korea said nearly the same thing earlier this year when John McCain called Kim Jong Un a “crazy fat kid.” And a North Korean spokesman responded that the comment was: “the most hostile expression about our ideology, system and people, and a severe provocation equivalent to a declaration of war.”
I’m not criticizing the media. I’m very thankful for them and that they are able to keep us updated on the situation here. Rather, this is just an observation that it’s not really in a news organization’s interest to say, “Keep calm and carry on.”
So, should Kim Jong Un prevent you from moving to South Korea?
Choosing to move to another country is a massive life decision, and it’s difficult enough when there’s not a potential nuclear war to consider. Nonetheless, I hope you can see by now why I don’t believe you should worry about Kim Jong Un as much as he would like you to.
Remember, neither side of the DMZ wants war. No matter how loud they yell at each other, throwing nukes around doesn’t meet Kim Jong Un’s wishes and the US doesn’t want to start World War 3. Also, remember that panic benefits all the major players, so take what they say with a grain of salt.
What does this all mean for you?
Good news! If South Korea is a country you have a strong desire to visit, then you shouldn’t let Kim derail your dreams. Come on over and stay a while! The Land of the Morning Calm is an incredible place to live.
Pro-tip: just know that it’ll take a few months before you get used to a nuclear-armed dictator living next door.
Okay guys, that wraps up this crazy long post! If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading. Feel free to share this post with people who are concerned about the situation here. Let’s bring down the hysteria together!
If you have any questions on this topic or about moving to South Korea, don’t hesitate to drop a comment down below!