South Koreans in US respond to North Korea politico-military missile launches

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The North Korean government released a photo of a 2017 ICBM launch over Japan. The recent launch of ICBMs by North Korea are purportedly new missiles with capabilities of reaching the U.S. island territory of Guam. Though recent North Korean activity is a potential threat to South Korea and other nations, South Korean students living in the U.S. believe their country is still safe. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea began launching missiles across neighboring territories on Sept. 25, in what has become an ongoing display of combative defense drills under the authorization of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.

The missile launches and subsequent warplane engagement along South Korean borders has been deemed as preparation to “wipe out” any and all enemies. North Korea has said recent missile launches were in response to U.S.-South Korean naval drills.

As North Korea’s saber-rattling continues in a self-proclaimed effort to “check and assess the war deterrent and nuclear counterattack capability of the country,” international opinion on the barrage of missile launches and military drills over the Korean peninsula varies.

South Korean students living in the United States responded to the politico-military scare tactics North Korea has engaged in since Sept. 25, saying North Korea’s ability to repeatedly escape repercussions is concerning.   

“Progression is being allowed for the missile programs in North Korea. That’s probably the most concerning thing rather than the missile tests themselves,” Brian Kim from Seongnam, South Korea said. 

The 23-year-old Korean-American, a bioinformatics major at BYU, moved to South Korea with his family eight years ago and has since returned to the United States. Kim, who has experienced first hand South Korea’s civil defense drills in preparation for potential attacks from the North, expressed his thoughts on North Korea’s tactics. 

“The United States gives warnings, but North Korea hasn’t done an extreme amount in one short period of time enough for any politician in the United States — or even the U.N. — to justify due diligence caused to go into North Korea to stop it, especially with China being there as well,” Kim said. 

In light of bilateral political difference across the two nations, Kim believes that North Korea’s recent activities are “a routine media attention move for North Korea, as well as South Korea.”

He explained his reasoning, citing South Korea’s ability to use the missile launches as political leverage under new conservative president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who assumed office May 10.

U.S. and South Korean soldiers stand at the South Korea-North Korea border village of Panmunjon in Paju, South Korea Oct. 4. Though recent North Korean activity is a potential threat to South Korea and other nations, South Korean students living in the U.S. believe their country is still safe. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

“It’s a reactionary promotion by South Korea because North Korea are being the instigators of it,” Kim said. “But I think South Korea is definitely just putting some more media attention towards North Korea once more to keep it a relevant issue within the international body.”

Other South Korean BYU students shared similar thoughts, referencing international alliances as a deterrent to normalized relationships between the bordering nations. 

“Our country has tried so many things to normalize a relationship with North Korea,” Jehyeon Lee of Siheung, South Korea said. “But the problem is, because there’s China and there’s Russia, Japan and America surrounding North Korea and South Korea, I think that the geographic situation makes it harder for us to make a normal relationship.”

Lee, a 26-year-old BYU student, served as a military policeman in South Korea’s Air Force from 2018 to 2020, and was tasked with manning gates between the North and South.

“I’m not sure what the best solution is, but I think North Korea should change their attitude on South Korea and Western countries,” Lee said. “But I also understand the reason why North Korea is shooting missiles. They’re really afraid of America and other countries attacking them. I think North Korea should talk to us rather than protesting by shooting missiles.”

The missile launches come years after former president Donald Trump began mitigating U.S.-North Korean relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea leader, Kim Jong Un, in an effort to address nuclear volatility concerns. Lee said that the change in the American political front over the past few years may be a factor in the DPRK’s recent combative drills. 

“I feel like Biden is not really actively engaging to try and talk to North Korea,” he said. “I think that is one of the reasons the situation is getting worse. I think there are definitely more things that America and South Korea can do to make the relationship better with North Korea.”

Former president Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un met in an epochal event at the Singapore Summit on June 12, 2018, in the two countries’ first ever meeting of the kind.  Working toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, the two leaders signed a joint statement forging a peace regime aimed at “overcoming decades of tensions and hostilities between the two countries.”

The statement also entailed a recommitment from the North to the Panmunjon Declaration, an agreement between the DPRK and South Korea on April 27, 2018, stating “there will be no more war and a new era of peace has begun on the Korean peninsula.” The declaration aimed at peace, prosperity and reunification was meant to defuse military tensions and remove the danger of war in the Peninsula. 

Four years, a new American president and a new South Korean president later, the Declaration no longer seems valid as North Korean military antics continue. 

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida following North Korea’s launch of an intermediate range missile over Japan. The countries will strengthen defense agreements in light of recent North Korean activity. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

In response to the possibility of reunification efforts in the future, 27-year-old Ryan Seongkwan Lee of Changkwon, South Korea does not have much hope. 

“Since I was an elementary school student, teachers always taught us that one day we will be together. But now that I’ve served in the military and now that I’m older, I’ve realized that it probably is not possible,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it’s really hard for those two nations to be together without any forceful fight or war between them. My hope is that one day, both nations will get along and be one nation.”

Though recent ballistic missile launches have been proclaimed a response to U.S.-South Korean naval drills, South Korean students living in America relayed their lack of true concern for their nation’s safety. 

“In some ways I think a lot of Koreans are very desensitized. I think we forget a lot that we are still under a state of war,” Brian Kim said. “It’s come to the point where we’re pretty used to it, so no extreme reactions to the recent tests.”

Seongkwan Lee and Jehyeon Lee shared similar sentiments. 

“Ever since the Korean War, we’re not really in panic, but we’re more like, ‘another day, there he goes again,’” Seongkwan Lee said. Reflecting on his compulsory military service and his religious values as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lee relayed his inner conflict. 

“When I was in the military, we were trained to think of North Korea as the prime enemy,” he said. “We thought, ‘We have to fight with them, we have to kill them, we have to defend ourselves from them.’ It is often hard to cope with that military training thought, and the Church’s standing of everyone being the children of God.” 

Jehyeon Lee, who reflected on the 2018 binational shift toward peace, talked about the sudden change and what it means for South Korea.

“I think Korea is still a safe place and I don’t think North Korea will suddenly attack South Korea because there is not much reason for them to attack us,” he said. “And South Korea also has a strong military force right now. We don’t worry about war or that kind of stuff. We still feel sad about it.”

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, South Korea’s military said they are capable of detecting a variety of North Korean missiles, like the ones launched over Japan on Oct. 4. The intermediate range missiles were released over Japan for the first time in five years as a proclaimed defense drill.

Other North Korean missiles like ICBMs, are capable of reaching the U.S. island territory of Guam. In response to the defense threats, President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea has vowed to strengthen defense partnerships with Japan and the United States as the situation unfolds.

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