WASHINGTON – On March 30, three days after North Korea severed a military hotline with the South and announced that South Korean President Park Geun Hye “will meet a miserable ruin,” the country declared a state of war. “The time has come to stage a do-or-die final battle,” an official statement said.
Meanwhile, many of South Korea’s youth were worried about something else. A 25-year-old pop star named Seo In Guk had appeared on a popular reality TV show the night before and, in a misstep that quickly dominated online conversations, had washed his strawberries incorrectly. Ilbe, a conservative Web forum — a place you might expect to find a nationalist screed — was preoccupied with a month-old debate on regional differences in how to eat sweet and sour pork.
Pop stars, bourgeois lifestyle commentary and funny videos often seem to interest young South Koreans more than Pyongyang’s latest provocation. North Korea may be trying to intimidate its neighbor but in many ways, particularly on economic and cultural fronts that increasingly matter, South Korea has already won the fight.
Of course, young people are discussing the risk of a second Korean war. But, even if this week’s chest-thumping has them a bit jittery, they typically mock Kim Jong Un and dismiss his war declaration as hot air. It’s a distraction from more pressing matters — not a particularly high bar for a youth culture obsessed with the latest Korean pop girl group or Samsung gadget.
“Netizens and ordinary citizens alike are fairly fatigued with the recent stream of threats,” James Pearson, the Seoul-based editor of KoreaBang, a blog that covers Korean social media trends, told me. “People just laugh.”
How South Korea should respond to North Korea will be debated there long after the North’s latest threats wind down. But one thing is sure: South Korea’s strategy has helped create one of the most astounding national success stories in generations. A large part of that story was economic: Land reform spurred the transition from a rural to an urban society; exports brought money into a country with few national resources; and state-managed capitalism appealed to foreign investors while distributing gains across classes.
More recently, politics fostered growth as South Korea embraced democracy, nurturing its middle and creative classes even though many of its fellow “Asian tigers” did not. Today, the nation is not just stable and well-fed — two things the North isn’t — but free, wildly prosperous and enriched by a culture that is spreading around the world.
Maybe that’s another reason South Koreans don’t seem too worried about Kim’s probably empty threats: They know that the real conflict — the miniature cold war of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s over whether North or South would come out ahead — is over. Half a century ago, although North Korea was wealthier than South Korea, both were military dictatorships and among the world’s poorest countries. Today, the North still is, but the average South Korean enjoys a living standard on par with that of Israelis and Europeans. Economists describe this development without exaggeration as “the miracle on the Han River.” In 2011, the Samsung Group, South Korea’s largest corporation, reported $247 billion in revenue, or more than six times the gross domestic product of North Korea.
North Korea, economically isolated by its bellicose foreign policy, relies overwhelmingly on its two largest trading partners: China and, yes, South Korea, both of which accounted for more than 70 percent of North Korea’s trade in 2010. That year, the North sold about $1 billion in goods to its southern neighbor. If war broke out, or if Kim so offended Seoul that it closed off trade, his country’s sudden loss of hard currency would be disastrous. A recent UNICEF nutritional study estimated that the growth of one in 10 North Korean children is stunted by malnutrition. In the center of Pyongyang towers a 105-flight reminder of the country’s enduring failure: the ghastly, pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel, unopened and unfinished since 1986.
If this is what the country looks like now, what would it look like minus that $1 billion — 2.5 percent of its economy? You will never hear Kim admit it, but he needs South Korea to survive.
Evidence of North Korea’s dependence on the South can be found at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just six miles north of the demilitarized zone. The jointly run plant has North Korean laborers working with the South Korean staff of South Korean corporations. It produces tens of millions of dollars for North Korea every year and, in turn, grants the South cheap labor.
Kaesong is one of the few remaining products of Seoul’s ill-fated “Sunshine Policy,” meant to kill Pyongyang’s bluster with kindness, often in the form of aid. South Korea shut down most of those programs in 2010, after the South Korean naval ship Cheonan was mysteriously sunk, Seoul believes, by a North Korean submarine. But it kept Kaesong open because it’s a good deal.
This past week, North Korean border guards announced they were closing the facility to South Koreans, sending many back across the border. The North has closed the facility to the South before, and probably will reopen it soon. But even if the North cuts off Kaesong, whom will it really be hurting? South Korean firms can find other sources for cheap labor. A North Korean city reliant on the plant, The Washington Post’s Chico Harlan wrote, would “all but collapse economically, potentially causing social unrest among citizens with direct knowledge about capitalism and South Korea’s relative wealth.”
As the North remains ever-reliant on a distrustful South and an increasingly wary China, South Korea has expanded its exports beyond technology into popular culture, two realms long dominated by the West and Japan.
Korean music, movies and television have proved so irresistible that they’re pushing across Asia into Japan, which has been a gold mine. As North Korea kidnaps Japan’s citizens and fires missiles over its territory, South Korea is sending its pop singers and soap stars into the heart of its former colonial master while funneling bushels of Japanese yen back home. PSY, of “Gangnam Style” fame, has even made it big in the West.
Of course, South Korea’s economic and cultural victory could turn to ashes in the extremely unlikely but still terrifying possibility of conflict. A war would hurt North Korea most of all, probably causing its military — and thus the Kim regime — to collapse, but also would be horrifically costly for South Korea. Seoul is well within range of North Korean artillery, not to mention vulnerable to a nuclear attack.
But South Korea has been living with this threat for years. That doesn’t mean it should lessen the vigilance that has kept it ready through two generations of armistice. But it does suggest that it has figured out how to live with the North: a draft, an enormous standing army and the help of the United States’ troops and nuclear deterrent.
“The only thing to remind anyone of the impending threat is the occasional army helicopter buzzing overhead or reservists in their field dress, hopping on the subway,” Pearson said of life in Seoul.
Security, even in the face of extraordinary danger, is just a part of success — something that allows South Koreans to devote their energy to conquering the world with high-tech exports and addictive pop culture, peacefully attaining the power and wealth that Kim and his belligerent forefathers could only dream of.
Max Fisher is a foreign affairs blogger at The Washington Post.
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