In the line of nuclear war: Korean students react to rising tensions
Some day, a siren might sound, and you will have minutes — or maybe only seconds — to find shelter from an incoming barrage of missiles, artillery shells and bombs. For your whole life, you’ve known this is a possibility, and the war waiting on the horizon is a constant presence in your mind.
For Americans, the idea of constantly being on the verge of war is terrifying. But for South Koreans, who have technically been at war with their nuclear neighbor, North Korea, since 1950, it is simply routine.
MSU is home to 419 international and exchange students from South Korea and 76 from Japan, another nation in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s crosshairs.
As tensions increase between the U.S. and the reclusive east Asian nation, how are MSU’s Korean and Japanese students reacting to the potential threat of war?
'People are used to it'
“For South Koreans it’s been always like this, so nowadays people are used to it,” political science junior Jaehyun Park said.
Park is originally from Seoul, South Korea, but has studied in the U.S. since seventh grade.
“Back in the day when this kind of thing happens, people usually buy noodles, rice, for preparing for air raids and stuff like that,” Park said. “But nowadays you rarely see people preparing for that kind of stuff.”
North Korea is more than 5,000 miles from the continental U.S., and yet U.S. media, according to Park, is more concerned about the threat posed by Kim Jong Un than the South Korean media.
Park theorizes this is because for the U.S., that threat is a new one.
Simply put, North Korea never needed a nuclear weapon to attack its southern neighbor. Seoul — a city of 9.86 million people — is about 30 miles from the border, and North Korea has been able to obliterate the city with conventional artillery for decades. Only now is the U.S. potentially facing that same threat.
“When I read articles from Korea it’s very different,” Park said. “We already knew what they are doing and what they want, but normal citizens in the United States are more fearful about missiles because they didn’t experience this kind of thing before. We are used to the fear. We don’t want this kind of fear all the time, but we cannot erase it.”
After a nationwide civil defense drill in August, multiple news outlets including the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times reported that, surprisingly, South Koreans tend to be casual about preparation for a North Korean attack.
Byungchan Go, an electrical engineering sophomore at MSU, lives in Seoul during the summers with his family. He admits the civil defense drills, which happen multiple times a year, are not as effective for training the populace in what to do during a North Korean attack as might be expected.
“To tell the truth, they’re useless drills because nobody concentrates on the media or the radio,” Go said. “It’s kind of a big show. It’s a useless show, because nobody knows what to do if North Korea attacked us.”
Go says there are some concerns about a possible war with North Korea since the election of President Donald Trump, who has taken a decidedly more antagonistic stance on the nuclear-armed country than his predecessors. But ultimately, it comes down to a different calculus of warfare.
“Unlike the Iraq War and the Vietnamese War, nowadays Seoul has millions of people, including American citizens,” Go said. “We understand very well that it is almost impossible to start a war, but every time I listen to news about President Trump saying we can do war like that, it feels scary.”
So why is it the people of South Korea have had to adjust to living in fear of the war waiting for them across the border?
A war without end
At the end of World War II, Korea, a colony of Imperial Japan, was liberated from Japanese rule by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. North of the 38th Parallel, the Soviets set up a state modeled after the ideals of Soviet communism: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. South of that line, the U.S. helped usher into existence the nation of the Republic of Korea — more commonly known as South Korea.
Both nations claimed legitimate rule over the entire Korean peninsula, and this eventually led to war in 1950, when North Korean forces backed by the U.S.S.R. and China invaded the South. This led to a bitter, violent war. Over the next three years, the U.S. fought North Korean and Chinese forces on behalf of South Korea.
The war resulted in over a million and a half civilian deaths in both Koreas, and left the entire peninsula in ruins. The North was left with a deep hatred for the United States, and a peace treaty was never signed — only a truce. The border between North and South Korea, designated as a “de-militarized zone,” is now the most heavily militarized area in the world. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is about 30 miles from the border.
Tensions have run hot between North and South Korea for decades, and even broken out into violence multiple times. Border skirmishes have occurred, and in 1999 and 2002, the two countries navies battled over a disputed maritime border around Yeonpyeong Island. In 2010, North Korean artillery installments shelled that same island.
“They didn’t announce anything,” Park said. “They just did an artillery attack on the island.”
Also in 2010, a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean navy ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. The incident did not lead to war.
Robert Brathwaite, a professor of international relations in James Madison College, says if a similar incident happened now, it may not have a peaceful ending. He attributes this to the increased aggressive rhetoric between Trump and Kim Jong Un.
“This escalating rhetoric between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump is limiting options for both of them in some ways, because they made these very public pronouncements,” Brathwaite said. “If these lines are transgressed, something very, very bad may happen.”
That rhetoric is of particular concern to Go, who will be returning to Korea in January to begin his mandatory military service. South Korean men between 18 and 35 are required to serve in the nation’s armed forces for at least 21 months.
“I do not want to serve for the Korean Army, but I know I have to,” Go said. “I don’t have any option, but I just hate it. Rising tensions means rising possibility of war. I don’t want to think about it, but if the war starts when I’m serving in the military, that’s not good. That makes me scared and nervous every time I think about it.
“It makes my heart beat,” Go said.
A painful legacy
Nearly 600 miles to the west from North Korea is another nation that has found itself in Kim Jong Un’s crosshairs: Japan.
Over the past three months, North Korea has launched two unarmed ballistic missiles over the island nation. Each passed over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, setting off alarms and sirens across the country.
Miyu Arai, a 19-year-old exchange student from Tokyo’s Hosei University currently studying at MSU, just came to the U.S. when the first missile was launched on Aug. 28.
“They recently installed a system where the government can immediately send alerts to everybody through phones, TV and everything,” MSU Japan Club president Momoko Watanabe said, translating for Arai. “She was here at the time when the missile flew over, but she heard from her parents about the system. The threat seemed more real now that the government is stepping in and notifying everybody.”
Arai and her family live in Gunma Prefecture, a region northwest of Tokyo. Arai explained despite the J-Alert system built to warn citizens of an impending nuclear attack, the region does not have the same shelter infrastructure that more urban regions might have. She worries her family might not be as safe.
“The retaliation that North Korea does — their retaliation isn’t towards the U.S., it would be towards Japan or Korea or other countries that are in between like Guam, too,” Watanabe, translating for Arai, said. “So especially since the anti-ballistic missile systems, they’re in the Sea of Japan and in Japan, they would be more affected than Americans. She’s very worried, concerned.”
Japan may seem an unlikely target for North Korea’s wrath. But it is the country’s imperial past that has led to these modern threats.
Imperial Japan ruled the Korean peninsula as a colony from 1910 until 1945, when Imperial Japan surrendered to the U.S. after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the colonial rule, repression and human rights abuses were widespread, and after liberation, citizens of both Koreas harbored animosity towards Japan.
A recent opinion poll conducted in South Korea and Japan found the percentage of Koreans with a “good impression” of Japan has increased in recent years, but the number still rests at only 26.8 percent — barely a third of Koreans.
Arai’s perception that the government is taking the North Korean threat seriously is not far off-base at all. According to Brathwaite, the tides of public opinion and government action are shifting in Japan. In the recent election, the ruling party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gained more power, which may push Japan away from its current pacifist stance.
“Where we see U.S. troops in Japan, they’re more in places like Okinawa — they’re more divorced from typical everyday life in Japan,” Brathwaite said.
He said in comparison, U.S. forces have visibly been in South Korea for decades.
“Their presence has been there for a very long time," Brathwaite said. "They’ve been there since 1953. And for the foreseeable future, 30,000 plus troops will be there.”
Currently, Japan’s constitution prohibits its military, known as the Self Defense Forces, from participating in any offensive operations. That may change in the coming months or years.
“You have this changing sentiment in Japan where, partly because of the North Korean threat, people are starting to in some ways be willing to consider certain changes such as the constitution, how they view the military, that they wouldn’t have actually thought about earlier,” Brathwaite said.
Unlike in South Korea, the North Korean threat is relatively new for Japan. Only in the past two decades has North Korea developed technology sufficient to reach faraway places like Japan.
Japan has special reason to be anxious about nuclear issues because it is the only country to be on the receiving end of nuclear weapons in wartime. In 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan to hasten its surrender in World War II. Over 225,000 were killed — mostly civilians.
There is no question that the threat of North Korean nukes is on the mind of the Japanese public. Atsushi Koyama, a sophomore exchange student from Hosei University, is originally from Tokyo. He worries that in case of a war between the U.S. and North Korea, Japan would face the brunt of the devastation.
“Japan is located in the middle between the two countries,” Koyama said. “Japan and the U.S. made a contract of cooperation, so if the U.S. gets war, Japan will have many damages — economic and physical. ... I hope President Trump takes the other way, not war, like economic sanctions.”
Koyama holds out hope that peace will prevail, but he still faces anxieties about North Korea.
“I worry about North Korea ... I worry about North Korea’s missiles,” Koyama said. “The leader of North Korea, I don’t know why he wants to make missiles, but maybe I think political reasons. I hope the leader of North Korea changes his mind and takes the way of peace.”