SEOUL, South Korea — Sipping an iced coffee toward the back of a tony cafe in Seoul’s Gangnam district, where cash flows to luxury boutiques and plastic surgeons, Kim Ha-young paused to consider the madness of war.
A week earlier, North Korea had said it would “exercise the right to a pre-emptive nuclear attack,” putting a rhetorical bull’s-eye on South Korea’s capital. Just last month, North Korea carried out what state media there described as a “test of a smaller and lighter A-bomb.”
“I even had this conversation with my husband: ‘If war breaks out, where should we go? Where should we hide? Where should we meet up?’ ” said Kim, 33, a graphic designer with matching pearl jewelry and a large Louis Vuitton handbag.
The glittering city of Seoul sits less than 30 miles, as the missile flies, from the demilitarized zone that splits the Korean Peninsula, an uneasy reminder of the war that ended in 1953 with a cease-fire but no peace treaty. From the ashes of that conflict, South Korea grew into an economic jewel, while North Korea hardened into a militarized recluse of a nation that lashed out at the world even as its people starved.
After decades of agreements brokered and broken, North Korea today is a bigger nuclear threat than ever, and no one seems to have a solution for what is, by all accounts, an increasingly tense situation.
Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the United States would move 14 more missile interceptors to Alaska to counter North Korea. It was a reaction to North Korea’s December launch of a satellite into space, seen as a cover for testing its ballistic missile program, followed two months later by the successful nuclear detonation.
While experts don’t think the North Koreans have developed a nuclear device small enough to top a missile, most think it’s headed that way. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a statement calling the beefed-up missile defense “a much-needed measure of protection against the North Korean threat.”
Analysts here, however, remain divided. Many think North Korea’s nuclear program isn’t so much a menace to American shores as it is a gambit to win a better bargaining position for international aid. Or a means to show strength domestically. Or a way to deter the United States and South Korea from intervening military. Or, perhaps, a combination of all of those.
“They’re not going to attack anybody,” said Andrei Lankov, a noted expert on North Korea at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “They need nukes for almost exclusively defensive purposes, to make sure that young, fat Marshal Kim Jong Un will not suffer the sorry fate of that tall, thin Col. Gadhafi.” He was referring, first, to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and second, to the late Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan ruler who was killed in 2011 after a NATO aerial campaign helped rebels overthrow him.
Still, there are lingering questions about North Korea’s intentions. Kim’s hold on the regime and his ability to judge the implications of his actions have been unclear since he took power after his father’s death 15 months ago. He recently hosted former American basketball star Dennis Rodman and three members of the Harlem Globetrotters, and Rodman later said that Kim, who’s thought to be about 30 years old, had urged him to ask President Barack Obama to call him. Shortly after, however, North Korean state media carried a Foreign Ministry statement that spoke of waging nuclear war to “destroy the strongholds of the aggressors.”
Seoul and its ally the U.S., with some 28,500 troops in South Korea, are left to reach for a strategy that minimizes the risk posed by North Korea yet prepares for the worst. It’s an approach that officials want to deter North Korea effectively but also to be unlikely to turn minor skirmishes into a nuclear incident.
“Unless South Korea and the United States are determined to have a nuclear war, then North Korea is able to continue its provocations and attacks because they know there is this limitation,” said Kwon Young-hae, who served as South Korea’s defense minister and then the head of national intelligence in the 1990s.
South Korea, for instance, didn’t launch a counterattack in March of 2010 after North Korea was accused of sinking a South Korean naval ship and killing 46 sailors. That December, North Korea killed two South Korean marines and two civilians after shelling a nearby island.
South Korean leadership has vowed to respond forcefully should North Korea attack again, however.
“If there is any military provocation by North Korea, we will strongly retaliate,” Shim Yoon-joe, a member of the country’s ruling party who holds a seat in the National Assembly, said during a recent interview in his office.
Anxiety levels about the situation here often are measured by the extent to which people think North Korea’s saber rattling might lead to open conflict.
Outside the cafe in Gangnam, Park Jong-in shrugged at the bombast from North Korea. “People around me have been buying water and other things,” said Park, 28, a hairstylist who was wearing expensive headphones and black circle-framed eyeglasses. “But because they” – North Korea’s leaders – “have done this so many times, I don’t care.”
Life in Gangnam, a district whose name was made internationally famous by the Korean pop song “Gangnam Style” lampooning its consumer culture, went on as usual last week. Expensive cars cruised by The Ritz-Carlton. Shoppers wandered down Rodeo Street, whose name is a wink at Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive.
Park likened being in Seoul to his years living in Japan: While people there feared earthquakes, he said, there was nothing to do but go on living life.
How best to address North Korea has been a deeply divisive question in South Korea. During a decade that began with the presidency of Kim Dae-jung in 1998, Seoul pursued a “sunshine policy” that sought better relations with North Korea through dialogue, aid and economic cooperation. That stance was controversial with some: Kwon, for instance, was sentenced to prison in 1998 for his role in a campaign to smear Kim as having links to Pyongyang. Kwon said he preferred not to discuss the matter.
In 2003, one of Kim’s closest aides was convicted in a case related to money being paid to North Korea before a summit between the nations. The sunshine policy was shunted aside after an election at the end of 2007 that ushered in leadership with a harder line toward North Korea.
As South Korea shifted between strategies – the current government has signaled that it wants to attempt a middle way of trust building on one hand and, in the face of provocation, stiff resolve on the other – North Korea steadily worked on its nuclear program, detonating three devices from 2006 to this year.
“We cannot get away from it. Geographically, North Korea is part of the Korean Peninsula and, emotionally, we are connected,” said Moon Chung-in, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University who helped draft the Kim government’s policy of engagement with North Korea.
Moon maintains that without talking with North Korea, the situation will only worsen. As long as the regime feels threatened by the United States and South Korea, it’s unlikely to move in a productive direction, he said.
“I’m not justifying North Korean actions. What I’m saying is that North Korean behavior is very predictable,” Moon said.
He added: “What I argue is this: We should create an environment in which Kim Jong Un spends more time on the economy, including its reform and opening.”
In the meantime, North Korea’s official news agency recently ran a missive from the Foreign Ministry that expressed its confidence in its nuclear program. “Nuclear weapons serve as an all-powerful treasured sword for protecting the sovereignty and security of the country,” it said.