Seoul Searching

Surprising calm amid the nuclear storm in North Korea

Barbados TODAY’s Kaymar Jordan is in Seoul, Korea this week at the invitation of the Korean Foundation, as one of its Distinguished Guests in Media.

The visit comes amid heightened tensions along the Korean Peninsula and Barbados TODAY will bring a first-hand view of what it is like in Korea.

Barbados TODAY’s Kaymar Jordan is the only Caribbean journalist among the distinguished media group invited to participate in the Korean tour.

Amid rising tensions along the Korean Peninsula, I recently received a formal invitation from the South Korean Government, through its Korea Foundation, to take part in a distinguished media tour for ten international journalists.

By that time, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and United States President Donald Trump were both standing with their weapons cocked and ready to strike, so my first thought was, “is this some plot by the embattled authorities in Barbados to get me out of the way?”

The truth of the matter, though, is that South Korea is anxious to tell its story to the world in the hope that it can achieve wide global acceptance and support, amid feverish US-backed efforts aimed at getting the North to buckle economically.

Too bad Kim Jong Un is not cooperating!

As my plane touched down into Seoul on Sunday morning, a tense air filled the skies amid reports that North Korea had fired off its second missile test in a week, sending a medium-range ballistic missile into the waters off its east coast.

A panoramic view of the city of Seoul.
Seoul Tower – the place to go for a panoramic view of Korea.

Authorities here in Seoul called the launch “reckless and irresponsible”, as the missile flew about 500 kilometres (300 miles) from an area near Pukchang, in western North Korea.

The missile flew higher and longer than any previous test and has left US intelligence officials quite concerned, as the North Korean president, who directly supervised the latest launch, tries to prove that he can strike the US.

“North Korea is an increasingly grave national security threat to the United States because of its growing missile and nuclear capabilities, combined with the aggressive approach of its leader,” warned Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence in the Trump administration, immediately following the latest missile test.

The rocket, which is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, fell into the ocean just 60 miles (96 milometres south) of Russia’s coastline, but officials cautioned that if it were stretched out, instead of fired up about 2,000 kilometres before it came down, it would have gone about 4,000 kilometres, which puts it very close to intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) range.

However, today there was no sign of panic on the streets of Seoul in the immediate aftermath of the rocket launch. In fact, we were surprised to find a great deal of calm amid the rising nuclear storm.

South Koreans went about their usual business seemingly unperturbed by the goings-on less than 24 hours ago. Our day began in the heart of Seoul and ended up on one of the highest peaks – Seoul Tower – where Koreans of all ages and walks of life congregated for an evening of picture taking and light banter, seemingly oblivious to the resident threat to the North.

The nuclear testing in Pyongyang also did not affect today’s hectic schedule for the international media group, which included a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul.

In fact, we were surprised at how cool, calm and collected officials there seemed amid the heightened missile trials. Though not pleased with the development by any measure, they generously assured that Korea remains “very safe” and that the risk of an all-out war remains low, amid what they called the “deceptive tactics” of the North.

“We have to be careful with North Korea which has a pattern of creating a crisis and then there is dialogue and then they reject access and breach the agreement. They did it three times already,” said Yuju Ko, the deputy director general in the North Korean Nuclear Affairs Bureau, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul.

Yuju Ko, the deputy director general in North Korean Nuclear Affairs Bureau,  in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul.  

With North Korea currently pursuing its nuclear programme, officials tasked with looking at ways of achieving a unified Korea also admit that the task before them is not an easy one.

However, they remain optimistic that unification will happen one day in the same way that the world was able to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany over two decades ago.

“Coming together is going to be a difficult challenge, but [we] are preparing for the possibility,” said Soo Am Kim, vice president for KINU, the state agency leading the unification thrust.

At the moment, though, North Korea is not on board with any such discussions, so it is hard to talk in terms of any timetable for bringing together the two Koreas which have been divided for more than 65 years now.

What is urgent, however, is to get the North to stop its nuclear development and its missile testing.

“I think when these issues are resolved we will get a better sense of the timetable for unification,” said Kitae Lee, another spokesman for KINU.

In the meantime, pressure is building on North Korea to submit to the wishes of the South, but a lot depends on China which controls 90 per cent of North’s trade.

Much also depends on Russia and Japan, amid fears by the three important players that unification will serve to increase US prowess along the important strategic peninsula.

It therefore remains to be seen how this current conflict will play out at the end of the day, with North Korea having already lost an estimated US$200 million in trade in 2016 and due to lose another US$800 million more this year on account of its hardline nuclear stance which has been met with sanctions and other forms of economic pressure.

Dr Yoon Keum-jin, executive vice president of The Korea Foundation poses with Barbados TODAY’s Kaymar Jordan and Panamanian journalist Eduardo Quiros.

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