On Sunday morning, Americans woke to the news that North Korea had apparently tested a hydrogen bomb in the northeast of the country—just days after the country fired a ballistic missile across Japan. Donald Trump, as usual, responded to this development on Twitter. “North Korea has conducted a major Nuclear Test. Their words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States,” he wrote. Then, inexplicably, he directed some of the blame at South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, and threatened to pull out of the countries’ bilateral free-trade agreement: “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!”
Later in the day, I called Dae-Han Song, a thirty-eight-year-old English teacher and community organizer who’s lived in Seoul for the past decade. Song grew up in Germany and the U.S., and is more left-wing than the typical South Korean—he participated in the mass protests that led to the impeachment of the conservative President Park Geun-hye and to Moon’s election, earlier this year—but he understands the country’s casual resignation toward the official state of war. (No peace treaty was ever signed after the Korean War, of 1950 to 1953.) Song’s neighborhood, called Yongsan, sits next to a U.S. military base.
He was preparing for a Monday class—his students are middle-aged businessmen—when reports of North Korea’s latest nuclear detonation popped up on his laptop. He talked to me about his reaction, and about the context in which this news is being received in South Korea. This interview has been edited and condensed.
“We’ve got to dispel the idea that North Korea is crazy. The leaders are very logical; they navigate diplomacy well—that’s how they’ve been able to survive this long. North Korea is not suicidal. Even if you look at it from a very cynical point of view, of regime survival, war with the U.S. is not an endgame.
“My connection with North Korea is the desire for Korean reunification. The division has stunted South Korean democracy: the National Security Law has been used to repress, torture, and kill students, workers, and farmers. All the red-baiting created a bloc in Korea’s population—something like thirty to forty per cent of the Korean War generation—that often votes against its class interests, like people in rural areas that would not benefit from a conservative coming into power. My mother, she comes from Pohang, a very conservative area of Korea. She can be liberal—she has compassion for poor people in the United States, because she was an immigrant—but, being from the equivalent of Mississippi in Korea, she thinks Korean liberals are all Commies.
“When I heard about the test, it wasn’t, like, ‘Oh, my god!’ For Koreans, if you haven’t become desensitized to this by now, you’re gonna die of a heart attack.
“The new President is not a progressive. He’s a liberal. He’s supporting a missile-defense system that will actually cause more conflict. For Korea to have full democracy, you need at least a peace treaty with North Korea. There will be a generation—it may not be mine or my children’s—but there will be a generation born after a peace treaty, who’ll grow up not in war but in peace. Germany’s reunification was through collapse, but Korean reunification will be through peace.
“I think people limit their imagination as to what reunification can look like. Nobody’s paying attention. People just go about their lives. There have been more tense moments than this. People are concerned about jobs, about having full-time work, not contract work. Things have been improving under President Moon. Despite his limitations, he’s a good person, and he has to do right: he’s the President who came after the Candlelight Revolution, where millions of people came into the streets and deposed a President. Unless you want to get deposed, you have to live up to the dream.
“It would be good for people in the U.S. to stop being hysterical, and think a little bit logically. I wish people knew that North Korea was born out of U.S. action and division. The U.S. military base near my apartment is prime real estate. Koreans are living in such highly concentrated apartments surrounding the base, and then you go in, and it’s the suburbs of Los Angeles. It’s spread out—there are lawns and two-story homes. There’s a complete wall. It’s a fortress, just like the U.S. Embassy is a fortress. People are so used to it that they don’t think about a foreign military occupying the country.”