News Column

Americans in Korea Dismiss Threats

April 15, 2013

Calum MacLeod -- USA TODAY

South Korean flag
South Korean flag

As a stay-or-go dilemma faces many Americans in South Korea -- the target of escalating threats from the North -- most here appear to believe that danger is exaggerated.

"I'm not worried at all, nobody here seems to be concerned about it," said John Franks, 26, who is from New Jersey and has taught English in Seoul for the past year.

North Korean leader "Kim (Jong Un) is making bellicose statements to solidify his own power," Franks said. "It's only a year since Kim formally assumed office, and one way to get everyone on (his) side is to stir up a lot of noise."

Still, not everyone has stayed put as North Korea has increased its threatening rhetoric in the past several weeks, including threats to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire."

One U.S. student left Seoul last week to return to Redding, Calif., two months before her class completed a year's study program in the South Korean capital. "She was worried about the situation, but the rest of the 50 international students still remain," said classmate Hailey Atkins, 19, also from Redding, Calif.

Atkins isn't afraid. "I'm not worried," she said Saturday. "Every day I'm surrounded by Korean friends, and there is no atmosphere of worry. They make jokes about the military threat. My parents (in the USA) are very, very worried. I say, 'I know,' and I tell them it's so calm here."

The annual Yeouido Spring Flower Festival in central Seoul reflected the calm Saturday as thousands of residents converged on the city's mini-Manhattan for snacks, songs, exercise and a look at the emerging cherry blossoms on more than 1,000 cherry trees.

Jackie Oh and Hey Lee, both 25, came to learn rollerblading on the wide expanse of Yeouido Park. Like many South Koreans, the couple said they were not worried about the threats of war from Kim Jong Un.

"In the beginning, in February and March, I used to stay at home more," said Hey, a designer. "The first time he threatened us, we thought it's dangerous, but now, several times later, we don't think it's serious anymore. "

Nam Tae Hyun, 27, a South Korean army reservist, is confident he won't be called up to fight. "We can conquer them," he said. "Kim Jong Un is childish and lacks wisdom, so he's more dangerous (than his father and grandfather), but still no need to worry. North Korea is not our partner to fight with; it's far inferior to South Korea."

Pressure from family in Ohio has weighed on Seth Hammontree, who runs a non-profit group in Seoul for Korean adoptees worldwide, especially for those like himself who have returned to the land of their birth.

"I assured them everything's OK," he said. "It's not crippling the city; there's no mass panic. It's of concern but not changing people's lives."

As a former U.S. Navy lieutenant, Hammontree is watching the North's moves closely. "What's different this time is their movement of artillery, and that before they did not talk so much about nuclear weapons, so it needs to be taken more seriously," he said, "but I don't think they will launch a ballistic missile into Seoul or South Korea, as that would be the end of North Korea."

To curb public worries, South Korea's Ministry of National Defense has in recent weeks run information videos on screens inside subway cars on Seoul's metro. The message is clear: Don't worry; we will respond with several rounds of retaliation to any North Korean attack.

Koo Jang Hoe, 67, an online entrepreneur, was pleased by Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks Friday in Seoul affirming the U.S.-South Korean alliance. "There will not be war, but Kim Jong Un is more dangerous than his predecessors, and we cannot predict what he will do," he said.

Koo's older brother Koo Jung Hoe was kidnapped by North Korean soldiers at the start of the Korean War in 1950. He was never seen again. "My mother died of heartbreak because of this," he said. "We must not repeat the same kind of family tragedy."

Jackie Oh, left, and Hey Lee, both 25, learn to rollerblade Saturday at the Yeouido Spring Flower Festival in Seoul. The South Koreans at first were worried about Kim Jong Un's threats, "but now, several times later, we don't think it's serious anymore," Hey says. Some Americans in the region think otherwise and have already packed up and left.


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Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013


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