SEOUL, South Korea – When North Korea makes a threat, the government in Seoul usually vents its anger while South Koreans mostly shrug off what can seem like a daily barrage of hostility.
President Donald Trump has introduced a new wrinkle to this familiar pattern. His recent Pyongyang-style threat to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea has been met with silence from the top levels of South Korea’s government — and worry, sometimes anger, from the country’s citizens.
It highlights an interesting feature of South Korea, a strong U.S. ally, trading partner and fellow democracy where there can seem to be as much, maybe more, worry about Trump’s unpredictable style of leadership as there is about archrival North Korea.
Many South Koreans ignore Pyongyang because they have lived with near-constant North Korean belligerence, and sometimes violence, since the Korean Peninsula was divided in 1945 and the two countries fought a bloody, three-year war five years later.
The government in Seoul, however, is far from indifferent to its northern neighbour.
When North Korea on Thursday repeated a threat against Guam, saying it was working on a plan to launch missiles into the waters near the U.S. territory, Roh Jae-cheon, spokesman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared on TV to declare that Seoul and Washington were prepared to “immediately and sternly punish” any provocation by the North.
Contrast that with the official silence out of Seoul after Trump’s comments on Tuesday, which seemed to take a page out of the North Korean playbook by warning of “fire and fury” if the North didn’t stop threatening the United States.
South Korean citizens and the media have been less shy about ripping into both Trump, for his threat, and the government of President Moon Jae-in, for not taking the U.S. president to task for evoking a potential war that would likely result in tens of thousands of Korean deaths.
“Doesn’t the Moon Jae-in government have to say something about Trump’s over-the-line comments?” Jang Shin-ki, a 42-year-old man who lives in Seoul, wrote on Facebook.
There are feelings of bewilderment and powerlessness: Why should South Korea get sucked into a crisis created by a war of words between leaders in Washington and Pyongyang?
“Moon has talked about how South Korea should be in the driver’s seat when it comes to dealing with North Korea, but that clearly was just rhetoric,” Choi Do-hyun, a 39-year-old office worker in Seoul, said in an interview. “In reality, he can’t say a word to Trump over an uncoordinated, excessive comment that threatens to send the Korean Peninsula to the path of war.”
Moon, a liberal who favours engagement with the North, has kept mostly quiet over the past week. In a meeting with military officials Wednesday, he said that South Korea would need to “slightly supplement” its military readiness in the face of threats from North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles.
The daily JoongAng Ilbo newspaper took those comments as a sign of Moon’s lack of urgency while Washington and Pyongyang trade “verbal bombs as if they are predicting a real war.”
“These are times of emergency, when the strategic balance of the Korean Peninsula is entirely changing, and the expression ‘slightly supplement’ reflects an understanding of the situation that is too lax,” the newspaper said in an editorial Thursday.
South Korea has long worried about being sidelined in international diplomacy meant to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions. The angst even has a name in Seoul: Korea Passing.
The Hankyoreh newspaper called for South Korea’s government to take on a bigger role in solving the North Korean nuclear problem.
“It’s very concerning that both Trump and (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un are more unpredictable than the countries’ previous leaders,” the newspaper said in an editorial. “Although rhetoric is just rhetoric, you can’t dismiss the possibility that a small misunderstanding could lead to an accidental clash if the comments continue to escalate.”
The paper compared the situation to “two cars speeding toward each other.”