Each time that I visit Seoul an image from decades ago comes to mind.
As a young news agency reporter based in Tokyo, I made several trips to Seoul in the early 1960s. It was a city still recovering from the Korean War, and I saw many men there carrying loads on back-carriers known as A-frames.
Even near the center of Seoul at the time, I can’t remember seeing a delivery truck. Automobile traffic was light, and bicycles outnumbered motorized vehicles.
No one at the time viewing the then slow-moving capital city could have imagined that South Korea would go on to create an “economic miracle.”
Now, arriving in Seoul in January after an absence of four years, I thought that I’d hear a lot from old Korean friends and colleagues concerning the potential threat to their country posed by North Korea.
The border dividing North and South Korea lies only some 35 miles to the north of Seoul, with hundreds of well dug-in North Korean artillery pieces pointed southward toward the South Korean capital.
North Korea conducted two nuclear weapons tests in 2016, and a senior North Korean defector with whom I spoke correctly predicted a missile test that eventually took place on Feb. 12.
So there was plenty to talk about.
More pressing matters
But it quickly became apparent that South Koreans have more pressing matters on their minds than the occasional threat from the authorities in North Korea to turn Seoul into ashes.
For starters, South Korea is immersed in a political corruption scandal during which conservative President Park Geun-hye has been impeached.
Entities linked to a close friend of Park’s are alleged to have taken millions of dollars in bribes from Samsung, the country’s largest conglomerate, well known for its electronics and shipbuilding.
Polls now indicate that a left-wing opposition party could win in a presidential election to be held after a constitutional court rules on Park’s impeachment.
And the potential candidate from that party, who currently leads in the polls, would like to seek an accommodation with North Korea.
In the meantime, the South Korean economy has been slowing down.
Young people are under pressure from their families to study hard and then succeed at all costs. But they complain now that good jobs are getting harder to find.
Industries in trouble
Due to declining demand and Chinese competition, South Korea’s steel, shipbuilding, and shipping industries are in trouble. Other sectors may soon follow.
It’s now reached the point that Lee Jae-min, a law professor at the prestigious Seoul National University, wrote on Jan. 11 that “the year 2016 was one of the worst in Korea’s modern history.”
And, said Professor Lee in a column written for The Korea Herald, “If 2017 continues at its current pace, this year may beat it.”
South Korea’s plans to install a U.S.-provided defense system known as THAAD to guard against a possible North Korean missile attack has angered China, ostensibly because its powerful radar could provide intelligence on China’s missile systems.
Experts argue that such a system won’t threaten China, but China has retaliated by banning certain goods and services, such as Korean exports of cosmetics and chartered flights for Korean tourists visiting China.
And Lotte, a huge South Korean conglomerate with stores in China, has run into problems establishing a theme park and maintaining other projects in China.
This appears to be due to Lotte’s plans to offer a golf course that it owns in eastern part of South Korea to be used to house the THAAD system.
China has also banned Korean pop music stars from performing in China or appearing in Chinese television shows.
Problems with Japan
Meanwhile, Japan, which ought to be a natural ally against North Korea, has suspended currency swap negotiations with South Korea.
Japan is locked in a territorial dispute with South Korea over disputed islets. Japan has also condemned a statue erected in Busan to memorialize the victims of Japan’s treatment of Korean “sex slaves” during World War II
And South Korea objects to Japanese textbooks that gloss over atrocities committed during the war and earlier, during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial occupation of Korea.
Many South Koreans of a certain age can remember a time when they held hopes for a negotiated settlement and eventual South Korean reunification with North Korea.
Now the prevailing attitude, as one veteran South Korean journalist told me, seems to be “there’s nothing we can do. North Korea can’t change.”
Moreover, it’s widely believed that sanctions against North Korea don’t work.
And for many South Koreans, the Feb. 13 murder in Malaysia of the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un simply confirmed the brutal nature of the North Korean regime.
‘Cheer up! Cheer up!’
During my visit to Seoul last month, university students braved a cold winter day at a major road crossing and handed out morale-boosting leaflets, shouting “Cheer Up! Cheer Up!”
Some passersby seemed almost too hurried to notice. But more than a few found a moment of joy in the cheerleading and got their first and perhaps only laugh of the day.
Some commentators might find my belief that South Korea’s long record of resilience can offer ways out of the country’s current troubles too hopeful and simplistic.
For example, David Feith wrote in mid-January in The Wall Street Journal that “…South Korea’s domestic political turmoil appears to be sending its foreign policy adrift.”
This, he says, “invites North Korea and its patron, China, to press their advantage and make life more dangerous for the U.S. and its friends in the Pacific.”
The recent strains in South Korea’s relations with Japan are especially troubling, Feith says.
Meanwhile, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, three scholars from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. argue that China has increased its economic coercion of South Korea.
China appears to be “[taking] advantage of domestic uncertainty in Seoul in a bid to undermine its security cooperation with Washington.”
They conclude that if China succeeds in blocking a new missile defense system in South Korea, this “could set a dangerous precedent” that emboldens Chinese policymakers to “expand their use of economic leverage as a coercion tool against China’s other trading partners.”
Given these challenges on several fronts, it appears that South Korea’s resilience will once again be tested, as it has been so many times in the past.
But no matter what South Koreans do on the home front, so many external factors are now involved that “it will take more than just resilience and hard work to get over it,” says Greg Scarlatoiu of the U.S.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
Scarlatoiu, who worked and studied in South Korea for many years, says that “South Koreans have come to the painful realization that the hard core of their industrial base is also the origin of their endemic political corruption.”
“And many of them,” he says, “are no longer willing to accept that as a way of life.”
Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding executive editor.