Op-Ed Contributor: Mr. Trump, I Live in South Korea, and You’re Scaring Me

Protests against President Trump in Seoul, South Korea, in August. Jung Yeon-Je/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

SEOUL, South Korea — In the late 1980s, when I was in third grade in South Korea, a teacher spent an entire class period telling us that the United States was deliberately keeping the Korean Peninsula divided so it could sell weapons to our country.

I repeated the story at home, and my mother and brother told me that my teacher must be a radical pro-North Korean sympathizer. I should know that the United States is our ally, they said, and that our real enemy is Kim Il-sung up north. Communists want to destroy us, and Americans were simply trying to protect us and our precious democracy.

I believed it then. But it now looks like America could bring our doom.

As the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, put it, President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, are acting like “children in a kindergarten,” spewing incendiary words and issuing threats. And while Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim try to outdo each other with verbal pyrotechnics, fear is growing in South Korea that we may be heading toward war.

The new variable is Mr. Trump, who has no problem stooping to the level of a dictator. The man who’s supposed to be Seoul’s dependable ally is playing a dangerous game of one-upmanship to the peril of everyone who lives on the Korean Peninsula.

Back in April, Mr. Trump tweeted that if the Chinese don’t help the United States deal with the North Korean nuclear problem, “We will solve the problem without them!” This was followed by Mr. Trump’s threat to rain “fire and fury” down on North Korea. He has taken to belittling Mr. Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” promising that North Korean leaders “won’t be around much longer!”

More recently, Mr. Trump said that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on a diplomatic mission to East Asia, was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” He added, “Save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

And late last month an adviser to President Moon Jae-in, publicly questioned how far South Korea should bend to American policy in the age of Donald Trump. “Even if the U.S.-Korean alliance comes undone, war must be stopped,” said the adviser, Moon Jung-in.

In another measure of how destabilizing Mr. Trump can be, his tweets routinely send the South Korean stock market downhill. The Korean won has lost about 10 percent of its value against the euro since the current troubles began in the spring. (Against the dollar it is stable because the dollar, too, has been depreciating.)

The national mood in South Korea has turned darker. Survival kits were marketed as appropriate gifts for the mid-autumn festival last week, a major holiday. There’s been an uptick in sales of gas masks, canned food and portable radios. Domestic support for acquiring nuclear weapons here in South Korea, to counter the North’s growing arsenal, appears to be at 60 percent, rising from about 49 percent in 2014.

Then there are the South Koreans who are emboldened by Mr. Trump’s diatribes and relish the prospect of finishing North Korea off with an invasion spearheaded by the United States. When Washington flew two bombers close to North Korea’s coast recently, a segment of the domestic news media labeled them “swans of death,” romanticizing their firepower. Right-wing newspaper editorials are rationalizing the Trumpian rhetoric, often without consideration of its consequences.

Pyongyang is not without blame. It has been making substantial progress with its weapons program in violation of United Nations resolutions. Kim Jong-un has threatened the United States territory of Guam and last month conducted yet another nuclear test — its sixth in a little more than a decade. The North has also launched intercontinental ballistic missiles that potentially could reach the United States mainland. And the whole time Mr. Kim has kept up his own barrage of fighting words.

Lately I find myself discussing evacuation plans with my parents. My initial idea, if war were to break out, was to drive to their apartment about seven miles away and pick them up. My father laughed at me. “Don’t you know roads will be blocked?” he said. I suggested then that they should get to the nearest train station and travel to Busan, the port city on the southeastern tip of the peninsula.

My mother sighed as if I were a complete idiot. “If there is war, we will all die,” she said. “This is why I keep telling you to get out of the country before anything serious happens.” She does not say anymore that America will save us from the Communists.

News source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/opinion/trump-south-korea-north-korea-nukes.html?partner=rss&emc=rss