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North’s threat greater when seen from afar

‘I have a restaurant, a family, grandchildren now. People cannot afford to worry.’

Aug 29,2009
Peter McClatchy remembers the conversation clearly. The 34-year-old New Yorker had just arrived in Seoul for a weeklong conference when his mother called, her voice seemingly flustered. “How is it over there?” he recalls her asking. “Are you safe?”

The day was Sunday, July 5 - just one day after North Korea test-fired seven short-range missiles into the East Sea - and Barbara McClatchy, 61, was concerned the next one may be pointed at the South Korean capital.

“We were celebrating the Fourth of July over here [in California], and suddenly my friend turns to me and says, ‘North Korea is firing missiles,’” the mother of four said. “The first thing I did was call [Peter].”

“I looked out my window and saw nothing,” the banker remembers. “No flurry of activity, nobody panicking. Nothing.”

The missiles had plunged harmlessly into the sea. Peter was safe.

But the gap between what Peter saw and what his mother feared is mirrored throughout homes in the U.S. and Korea. Even as the immediate threat from the North seems to have receded in recent weeks, typical U.S. citizens seem to sense a far more ominous threat from Pyongyang than their Korean counterparts. With only 200 kilometers, or 120 miles, between the two countries’ capitals, the perception that South Koreans are in imminent danger from the North is palpable in the U.S.

“I think American policy makers - and the educated public in general - believe that there is a clear and present danger in South Korea stemming from the ‘rogue regime’ in North Korea,” says John Lie, chair of the Center for Korean Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. “Consequently, I think they believe that ordinary South Koreans are threatened and therefore are concerned and worried.”

In the wake of the Iraq war, many saw North Korea as the greatest threat to world peace, a 2003 Pew Research poll showed. Some 77 percent of Americans, 71 percent of Britons, 77 percent of Germans and 79 percent of Australians believed North Korean actions threatened Asia. That danger has been relatively lost on Koreans. Only 43 percent of South Koreans felt “seriously threatened” by North Korea’s nuclear program in 2006, according to a Gallup poll.

The reason, says Jae Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, isn’t because South Koreans are oblivious to their northern neighbor, but rather because years of provocation without action have simply taught them to carry on with their everyday lives.

“Over the decades, they have come to accept Kim Jong-il and his father and all of the provocative action North Korea has taken,” Ku said. “I think they’re numb in a way, and it doesn’t register in the South Korean people’s consciousness as it does here in the United States.”

For Cho Haeng-ja, a 56-year-old restaurant owner in Jung District, southern Seoul, “numb” may be an understatement. “I don’t care about them at all,” she said, referring to North Korean threats. “I have a restaurant, a family, grandchildren now. People in this country cannot afford to worry.”

Daniel Murray, a 27-year-old English tutor from Massachusetts who has spent a year in Seoul, said even he, after living with Korean friends, no longer perceives any imminent threat from North Korea. “Why would I?” he asks. “Nothing has happened so far, and that country is in such economic shambles that I don’t see its nuclear or military capabilities lasting for a very long time.”

On top of concern for South Korea, three out of four Americans also see the North as a direct threat. According to a June Pew report, 78 percent of Americans say North Korean nuclear weapons are a “major threat” to the U.S. - second only to Islamic extremist groups.

That number jumped from the 53 percent reported by Pew in January and follows North Korea’s underground nuclear test in May and its multiple missile tests.

But on the heels of those tests, August has seen a thaw in the political ice between North Korea and both the United States and South Korea.

Early this month, former U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Kim Jong-il, winning the release of two detained American journalists. Two weeks later, North Korea released a South Korean Hyundai Asan technician and, just days later, announced it would reopen its border to southern tourism.

But for Lie, these events are all cards of the same deck - a deck in which the nuclear issue is a trump card. And that nuclear card may land on the discussion table soon, says Siegfried Hecker, a U.S. track-two (non-official) diplomat whose visits to the North Korean Yongbyon nuclear complex have made him an expert on the country’s nuclear program.

“These events are all pieces of the nuclear puzzle,” Hecker said. “I view them as the first signs that perhaps the pendulum is swinging back to talking again about the nuclear program.”


By Devin Banerjee Contributing writer [devin.banerjee@gmail.com]



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