Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Is It Safe to be in Korea Now?

Dear Korean,

Six months ago I decided to get certified to teach English abroad and have been researching South Korea in plans to go in September of this year. As I progress in my certification I can't help but notice the tension and heightened alert on the activity in North Korea, as it is in the news almost daily. Korean, is this a bad time to be considering a move to Busan to teach English as a foreigner? Do South Koreans feel on edge and threatened by their difficult siblings in the North? Would you consider moving to Korea or would you seriously reconsider with the political climate in the region right now?


Dear Most Excellent Pen Name,

Yes! Lakers! World champions!

Sorry, the Korean had to work off the euphoria he has had since Sunday. Your question is serious and timely, so let us look at it. The question is really two parts: (1) Is Korea more dangerous than usual? (2) Is it safe to be in Korea right now? The short answers to the questions are no and yes. Allow the Korean to explain.

First, the danger of North Korea previous to the nuclear testing has always been underestimated, particularly in the American media. Currently, most of North Korea’s artilleries and short-range missiles are lined up against the Armistice Line – which means North Korea can turn half of Seoul into dust at any time it wants, without using any nuclear weapon or long-range missile.

The Korean had his doubts in the beginning stage of North Korea’s nuclear testing and ICBM development several years ago, but it seems increasingly clear that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are meant to be used as a bargaining chip against the United States, not against South Korea. Joo Seong-Ha, one of the most legitimate analysts of North Korea called the idea of North Korea's developing ICBM to attack Korea a "sophism", because "it can attack Korea with a cannon at any time."

This situation is not new; this situation has essentially been the same since the 1970s. American media is reacting right now to North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapon because of they affect the United States – and such reaction is justified. But that does not mean that Korea is a more dangerous place than before.

Then the natural question is – is it (and has it been) safe to be in Korea? Truly, there is only one scenario in which it would be dangerous to be in Korea – a full-scale war in the Korean peninsula. This scenario is extremely unlikely. Again, quoting from Joo, North Korea cannot even handle South Korea even if South Korea voluntarily offered itself to be under Kim Jong-Il’s rule. Therefore, the reenactment of Korean War – in which North Korea genuinely attempted to overtake South Korea under its rule – is completely out of the question.

Even the terrorist attacks that North Korea used to engage up to mid-1980s no longer have a purpose. Until mid-1980s, there was a tiny sliver of possibility that if the South Korean president was assassinated, for example, the ensuing chaos may enable North Korea to overtake South Korea. But that was over 20 years ago. In a race between North Korea and South Korea, South Korea won decisively and definitively. Everyone in the world knows this, including Kim Jong-Il, North Korean leadership and every North Korean person.

In fact, the true measure of danger posed by North Korea is the 48 million canaries in the coalmine – 48 million South Koreans. After all, these are the people who remember the actual invasion, and dealt with North Korea’s threat for the past 60 years. These are the people who would be most directly affected if North Korea’s danger were true. The Korean remembers that during the 1980s, whenever North Korea made a saber-rattling gesture, the canned and dried goods section of the supermarket would empty out for days, as South Koreans prepared for war by hoarding those goods.

[This type of scene was common in 1980s whenever North Korea made a threat.]

But what did South Koreans do when North Korea recently tested the nuclear weapon and long-range missile? Nothing. The Korean media reported it around the clock, as they were obviously big news. But on the ground level, few even blinked. Even for South Koreans, the possibility of North Korea affecting their lives was too remote to care. If South Koreans do not feel any danger, there is no reason anyone else should.

If you don't believe the Korean, here is Korea Beat's excellent compilation of the top 10 most read articles on Naver (Korea's version of Yahoo!) on the week ending on May 31, during which North Korea tested the nuclear weapon:

1. An initial report that police had confirmed the death of former president Roh Moo-hyun.
2. Park Ji-sung.
3. Park Ji-sung.
4. Park Ji-sung.
5. Barcelona defeated Manchester United 2-0 in the Champions League final.
6. Park Ji-sung.
7. More on the Champions League final.
8. An initial report that Roh had left a suicide note.
9. Park Ji-sung.
10. In Japan, Lim Chang-yong recorded his 14th save of the season by striking out three consecutive Nippon Ham Fighters.

If you still don’t believe in the Korean, here is the tally of all deaths caused by North Korea since the fall of Soviet Union in 1991: 17 (13 soldiers/police, 4 civilians) died in the course of capturing the 13 spies who infiltrated South Korea by a submarine on the eastern coast of Korea in 1996; one prominent North Korean defector was assassinated in Seoul in 1997; 5 seamen died in the naval skirmish that occurred in 2002; A North Korean guard shot one South Korean tourist who was touring Geumgang Mountain in North Korea and went outside of the restricted area in 2008. That’s 24 deaths in 18 years, average 1.33 deaths per year. Consider this in contrast: in 2007 alone, lightning strikes killed or injured 22 South Koreans.

If you wish to be extra careful (or make your parents worry less,) you can register yourself with the American embassy in Seoul, which has an evacuation plan ready for all American civilians of which it is aware in case of an emergency. But really, when you are thinking about visiting South Korea, North Korea should really be one of your last worries, ranked right around lightning strikes and Fan Death (which is real).

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I love the little link to fan death at the end.

  2. Plus, dude's going to Busan. Busan is as safe as you can be in Korea, when it comes to North Korean threats. There's a reason the ROK Navy has its headquarters and its most valuable ships based there (and not just cause its a great port).

    I'm in Chinhae, and the last thing I'm afraid of is North Korea. I'm much more afraid of the drivers on scooters running me down on the sidewalk. Korean, whats with that?

  3. Yeah, I'm here in Seoul - I can firmly say that few are genuinely worried about North Korea. If crap does hit the fan, it'll be over so quick we won't have time to do anything about it...

  4. The "North Korean threat" isn't even conversation worthy among Koreans... they've lived with this threat all their lives... nothing's happened in 50 some-odd years... nothing's going to happen tomorrow.... I hope..

  5. If I may offer another perspective, we know Jong Il's not the brightest man alive, but if he were to annihilate the other half of the Korean folk living in this world, then North Koreans would be the only kimchi-loving, Korean-speaking, Hangeul-writing people left on this planet, save for the small kyopo who have managed to flee the peninsula.

    A Korean I spoke to recently said she genuinely didn't think Jong Il would really do anything to the South.

    Maybe he has his ideas more on Japan and the US.

  6. Great reply.

  7. Lightning strikes vs casualties--what a great argument. I think it really puts it in perspective, as well as the Top 10 news stories.

    I'm in a big group headed to Chuncheon for ETA orientation in two weeks, and I've heard a lot of my peers talking about their friends/families/selves worrying about North Korea. I hope you don't mind, but I'm linking this article to our discussion board so that they can learn about the "threat" and put it in perspective!

  8. I truly lol'd at the fan death punchline. :)

  9. what used to make koreans feel so nonchalant about the north korean threat was that their governments of the past 10 years still had pretty decent ties developing despite occassional military confrontations. tension was mostly an issue between NK and the U.S. but nowadays even the south korean government has turned away, and its president openly brings up the word 'war.'
    a full-scale conflict would annihilate seoul and lead to the destruction of the north korean regime, but a limited one, say in the Yellow Sea, cannot be ruled out.
    but a lmiited conflict always has the potential to trigger greater ones, and even prompt hawks, like president lee, to consider pushing troops further up north.
    that's what's worrying. the mood is a little different from what it used to years ago.
    people don't hoard things, but they are starting to wonder if sooner or later they may have to restore that habit.. a big step away from what things used to just a couple of years ago.
    I'd say it's getting less safe these days to be in Korea.

  10. Matt,
    yes Busan would be a safe place. BUT IF a FULL scale conflict broke out, Busan may not be so safe. It was one of the 1st targets targeted by NK at the outbreak of the Korean War 1950-53.

    NK tried to land 600 commandos in Busan (probably to destroy or occupy the port) in order to prevent it from being used to reinforce SK forces. And yes Busan was the life line that kept SK alive as US/UN forces flowed into SK via Busan. There was no other big port in the SK.

    Check out this link:


    "Except for the fortuitous position of the PC-701 and the fighting qualities of the craft's crew, the North Korean soldiers might have successfully landed at the vital Pusan. The poor state of combat readiness at the port could easily have led to its loss. In such an event, not even the small Allied toehold on the peninsula would have remained to support the U.S. counteroffensive in Korea. This single naval action may well have prevented the fall of South Korea."

  11. Yes it's safe to move to Busan,South Korea. I moved to Busan from Bamako, Mali A month ago. It's honestly amazing plus this is the main port of the US and South Korean Army. It'd be pratically impossible for North Korea to even try to attack busan


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