North Korean Aggression; Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kims

After reading and watching a lot of American media, talking to family from back in the states, and hearing similar stories from other foreign teachers, it seems that Americans are very worried about the most recent bout of North Korean aggression. While ‘Americans afraid of foreign dictator’ is nothing more than a dog-bites-man story, what is curious is that South Koreans aren’t half as worried about North Korea. Korean media is not nearly as apocalyptic as US media. The South Koreans I have talked to aren’t especially worried either. While I am far from an expert on Korean culture or politics, I’d like to offer my opinion on why the US and South Korea have such different reactions.


First, this is an enemy the South Koreans actually have to deal with, live with, and someday even reunite with. This foe is not like the ones Americans are used to facing; half a world away and easy to otherize. There are still many families with relatives trapped on the other side of the DMZ. Despite the evils of the Kim family, many South Koreans hope to reunite the two Koreas into a single country again. This goal will not be served by making North Korea into an abstract, implacable, and faceless enemy that can only be destroyed and never reasoned with. When your enemy is on your doorstep and your goals are something other than utter destruction or exploitation, fear mongering is counter productive. South Korea is more determined than anyone to eliminate the threat that is North Korea. Fortunately, they realize that eliminating an enemy doesn’t always mean bombing them into oblivion.


Second, fear and war mongering seem to come all too easy to the American media. While the reasons for this are far too numerous to explore in this format, the claim should be obvious enough. If you were to ask the average American which foreign leaders they had heard of, they would almost entirely be dictators deemed enemies of America. Names like Hussein, Kim, Chavez, or Putin are household names. I wonder how many Americans know the same of the presidents of Canada, France, Mexico, or the Prime Minister of the UK? Whether it is in service of broader US foreign policy goals or because fear and doom-saying make for good ratings, The US media seems very adept at making Americans afraid of foreign threats. Telling a nuanced story about North Korea, its goals and methods, and its relationship with South Korea doesn’t make much money.


I think it is telling that those with most to lose (and most to gain) from a conflict with North Korea are significantly less fearful or bellicose than the US. So sleep well knowing that your friends and family in Korea are in much less danger than you probably think they are.




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