So this missile test means that North Korea is committed to go its own way in defiance against the United States.
And the second, more important reason is that this was the first time North Korea fired a missile over Japan. They have never done that before, although they fired rockets over Japan back in 1998 and again in 2009. But those were rockets, not missiles; they were carrying satellites. And this is the first time North Korea fired missiles, which is a weapon.
North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan, which landed in the sea after traveling about 1,700 miles.
Is North Korea trying to test the new American president similar to what they’ve done in the past? Like when President Obama was new in office?
Yes. North Korea has a history of provocations as a way of testing the policy and determination and then intentions of a U.S. government. But we also have to remember that it has been a long-term consistent policy for North Korea to develop its capabilities. So it is part of their long-term goal.
A few months ago North Korea directly threatened Australia and basically said, if you continue to be an ally of the United States we’ll attack you. Where does Australia rank on its list of targets, if such a list exists?
Well it doesn’t really talk much about Australia at all. Australia is seen as a possible ally for the United States in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula. And Australia and the U.S. have been conducting some naval war games recently and [Prime Minister] Turnbull has been telling news media, as I remember, that if there is a war on the Korean Peninsula, Australia will have to come to the United States’ aid — and that makes Australia the enemy of North Korea.
You live in Seoul, you wake up every day and deal with this. What’s the mood in Seoul like these days with these latest threats?
Oh, people here are very calm and you know, you don’t have a crisis here. If you stop people here and ask questions about North Korea, yes, they will talk about those nuclear weapons and they will talk about the threat from North Korean missiles. But if you walk around downtown Seoul it’s business as usual. Life goes on and there’s no sense of panic or no sense of a crisis at all.
What would it take for Seoul to panic? Or for you even to think, “Ok, this is a more realistic threat”?
Well, for me as a reporter, I have to cover a story every day so I guess it really matters for me, but for ordinary South Koreans I don’t think that they really care until they do have a realistic sense or signs of some kind of war looming up.
For example, if there are signs of a possible war on the Korean Peninsula, including possible evacuation of American citizens out of South Korea; and larger troop movement along the border with North Korea; and maybe the arrival of a massive number of American warships toward South Korea. I mean, when people see any of those signs I guess they will panic and they will start stocking up on food, etc.
What’s the view in Seoul or in South Korea generally of the way Donald Trump is handling this?
A lot of this anxiety and uncertainty and news about North Korea these days is actually driven by President Trump. Mr. Trump is being seen as someone unlike other previous American presidents. Mr. Trump is seen as unpredictable a little bit. You don’t really know what Mr. Trump is going to do. And he says one thing one day, and he’s likely to say another thing the next day. And so people here have a feeling that they can’t really understand Mr. Trump and what the U.S. policy on North Korea is under President Trump.
Nobody really knows because South Koreans, they don’t really know Mr. Trump, and Mr. Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is new as well. He’s someone people are still trying to figure out. So there is uncertainty there.
But many South Koreans believe that all this is part of a pattern. I mean the tension has been ebbing and flowing on the Korean Peninsula in a repeating cycle. This thing comes and goes with no obvious solution. This crisis has been going on for decades and is something Koreans are very used to. So I guess a lot of Koreans are thinking that, well, this is one of those months where we live with a lot of tension. But hopefully it will subside.
Is there anything you think people don’t fully understand about this conflict? What do you think people might miss?
It always helps to know a little bit of history on the Korean Peninsula, to see this current event in the historical context. You have to remember that Korea used to be one nation, and it was divided against Koreans’ wishes into a Communist north and a pro-American south at the end of World War II. And that division was vastly unpopular among all Koreans and that was the basis of the war; the war was a war for unification.
North Korea wanted the whole country under Communist rule and South Korea wanted to hold the peninsula under its own rule. The war of course ended in stalemate with the Korean Peninsula still divided, and that rivalry and tension continues for the past 50 years.
Can you imagine a unified Korean Peninsula in your lifetime? Can you imagine that as a possibility? I’m just curious.
I’m a South Korean, and you know since childhood we have been taught to believe that unification with North Korea is national wish No. 1. And there is even a song called “Our National Wish No. 1,” which is the unification with North Korea. So yes, I grew up with this sort of brainwashing or national belief that the unification should have happened.
And as a South Korean, yes, I do want unification, but I don’t think it will happen anytime soon. The North Korean government, whether we like it or not, is very, very durable in my view.
Finally, is there anything in your notebook, or things that you’ve reported, that didn’t quite make it into stories you think people should or could know, that might add some context or detail to help people understand this conflict?
One thing that people outside South Korea should realize is that this thing suddenly became big news — especially among the Americans — because the Americans are realizing that North Korea is developing ICBMs. But within South Korea, the ICBM is not such big news because the ICBM is not for South Korea.
And the South Koreans have been living with the thousands of North Korean artillery pieces and chemical and biological weapons and the rockets along the border, and Seoul is within the range of those weapons. And they have been living with this threat for decades.
So among South Koreans this sudden test of an ICBM, yes, it is really concerning, but it is not as big news as it seems to be in Washington. There is a gap in the sense of crisis between South Koreans and their most-important ally — which means at least to South Korean minds that the United States should have become more involved and should have been more aggressive in dealing with those kinds of issues long, long, long before.