By Jin Lee
If you Google, South Korea and Seoul are listed as two of the safest countries and cities in the world. That South Korea is the safest country is sharply contrasted with the images of the Korean Peninsula, as described recently by the media in both the United States and around the world. Although North Korea has been a big headache to the U.S. since the Cold War, the nuclear threat of North Korea became more intense lately, especially since President Donald Trump took office.
It is true North Korea’s nuclear testing appears improved enough to threaten the U.S. The missile launched late in August traveled some 1,700 miles and flew over the Japanese territory. Time magazine said, given the distance and type of the missile, the recent test shows North Korea is targeting the U.S. territory of Guam. Indeed, North Korea stated it is “examining a plan” to strike Guam with missiles, hours after Trump warned the North in early August that any threat to the U.S. would face “fire and fury.”
This situation is translated as a “crisis” on the entire Korean Peninsula by both the U.S. and international news media. The frequently appearing news coverage on the Peninsula is heightening the world’s attention and fear as the headlines of major news agencies demonstrate. For instance: “Putin warns of ‘global catastrophe’ over North Korea” (CNN, Sept. 5), “Trump renews threat of force against North Korea over nuclear weapons” (Washington Post, Sept. 8), “Trump: ‘Sad day’ for North Korea if U.S. takes military action” (Reuters, Sept. 8).
However, media in South Korea show the situation in a different light, as “the crisis” is not perceived as provocations of the North and thus fail to draw attention by South Korean citizens. On Aug. 29, when North Korea confirmed the “success” of a ballistic missile test, the most read news stories on South Korean portal websites, Naver and Daum, were “Gangseo District residents (in Seoul) disagreement over a planned special education school for disabled children,” “South Korea spy agency admits attempting to rig 2013 presidential election for the conservative party,” “Hurricane Harvey resulted from global warming,” and weather news. News about the nuclear threat from North Korea’s missile test was located below these and other national news stories and South Koreans saw little news of North Korea’s nuclear tests.
On Twitter on that day, South Korean users massively tweeted about “a clear sky signaled the arrival of the fall in Korea” while sarcastically but rarely mentioning the missile test. South Korea’s fall sky, while clear, is difficult to see due to air pollution from China. One tweet was retweeted more than 41,000 times, saying:
“N.K.: Missile launched! East Sea, passed! Japan, passed!
Japan: OMG, what’s going on? Military provocation? War?
S.K.: Wow, such a fall sky today”
The number of retweets of this tweet demonstrates while South Koreans know about North Korea’s testing, they are not alarmed and see it simply as “old” news.
In U.N. speech on September 19, Trump threatens “to totally destroy North Korea” calling Kim Jong Un as “rocket man.” South Korean newspapers translate it into Korean in their online news articles. One comment on the news article on the Web amounted 1,865 likes within four hours, said, “Is this correct translation? Don’t mistranslate and write news overreacting. I am more scared by journalism that provokes fear and plays on South Koreans than by North Korea’s nuclear threat.”
When Trump tweeted “Long gas lines forming in North Korea. Too bad” on September 17, major South Korean news agencies mistranslated: “A long gas pipe line is formed in North Korea now. Regretful.” Then news continues, “This tweet seems to show Trump’s opinion opposed to President Moon’s discussion of an idea to connect gas pipe lines through South Korea, North Korea, and Russia in Moon’s last visit in Russia. The point is made that Trump’s tweet may criticize South Korea attempting to enhance economic cooperation with North Korea through negotiations with Russia, an ally of North Korea. Given that Trump tweet mentions a call with President Moon, there is a chance Trump might have delivered his opinions directly to President Moon.”
Major news agencies in South Korea are undergoing journalists’ protests, being accused of news managers’ interference in news coverage in favor of the previous government (President Lee, President Park) and Korean conservative party (Liberty Korea Party) after the center-left party Democratic Party won 2017 presidential election and became the ruling party.
Reasons for this lack of concern are varied. One might blame political indifference of young generations or one might blame the characteristic of Twitter as one of the new media where “soft news” is more consumed than “hard news” as users are free to say anything at any moment. Too, there are other explanations for indifference or sarcasm toward North Korea’s missile tests, which are found on new media, such as Twitter, Facebook and other online sites.
While some South Korean traditional media talk about a possible scenario of North Korea’s attack on the South, implying a need to strengthen the army, scholars and international news agencies point out that North Korea targets the U.S., not South Korea. The size of the Korean Peninsula, some 87,270 square miles, is about one-half the size of California. Given this, North Korea’s attempt to broaden the range of its missile is not seen by most media here as targeting the South. South Korean citizens acknowledge this, and thus show little interest in do the North’s missile tests.
In addition, North Korea has repeatedly made such threats over the years as there have been a number of such tests since the end of the Korean War. Tests of missiles have often been covered by “old” media when South Korea’s congress or government needs to conceal something. The most recent example is the corruption scandal of the former President Park. When the scandal began to be revealed, the government and conservative party (majority then) played the North Korea card to distract people’s attention by focusing on security.
However, South Koreans no longer seem to buy this idea. Thus, when the political scandal was exposed, on many online sites and new media South Korean users predicted the missile tests of the North would be performed, and thus covered by the government and news. And that’s what happened. The next day, the North’s missile test took place and the South Korean government and congress used a familiar script in addressing its population: “Dear South Korean citizens. The threat of the North Korean nuclear issue becomes more intense. However, this is the time for us to hold our hands together and push through today’s difficulties…” As this script has been repeated so many times in past years, news of the North Korean missile testing was simply dismissed by most South Koreans.
In recent weeks in South Korea there have been critiques of the Trump administration on Facebook, Twitter and the Internet. One Twitter example said “Trump or Bush? They are just same. Terrify people, evoke fear by repeating North Korea. Trump will try to sell weapons, as always.” Similar rhetoric has frequently appeared in many posts on South Korean Facebook, Twitter and in online news.
Predicted on tweets, three days after North Korea’s missile test, Trump tweeted, “I am allowing Japan & South Korea to buy a substantially increased amount of highly sophisticated military equipment from the United States.” A number of South Korean tweets followed, with people swearing and saying, “I knew it; this was the plan.”
Hong-gul Kim, son of Kim Dae-Jung (the 15th president of South Korea), posted his tweet, “Trump is making every effort to take advantage of this nuclear crisis of North Korea as a chance for selling the weapon.”
Reports from some South Korean news agencies criticized the U.S. Seoul Sinmun, for example, asked in early September, “Trump’s outright pressure on us to buy weapon. Is there a deal going on between South Korea and the U.S.?”
According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea is a major consumer of U.S. weapons, and, the U.S. government sent about $10 billion worth of weapons to foreign countries in 2016. It has long been reported here that the U.S. exerts pressure on South Korea to purchase “high priced but low quality” American weapons.