Owing to traffic, I arrived around ten minutes late for a meeting Monday with Jong Han Kim, the head of Paul Hastings’s Seoul office. Turns out he wouldn’t have been surprised had I not come at all.
“I thought you must have cancelled your trip,” Han said as he greeted me in the firm’s main conference room overlooking central Seoul. “I thought you must have decided it was too dangerous to come to Korea now.”
As they are elsewhere in the world, the headlines and newscasts in Seoul are dominated by news about the latest threats issued by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Over the past two months, he has tested a nuclear weapon, “nullified” the armistice that ended the devastating war between the Koreas 60 years ago, and threatened preemptive nuclear strikes against American bases in Japan and Guam as well as the U.S. homeland.
But the reaction in South Korean capital—which, as we are repeatedly reminded by CNN, is within range of conventional North Korean artillery—has so far been mostly a collective shrug. No one is stockpiling food or digging shelters. Expatriates, who left Japan in droves following the Fukushima nuclear disaster and Hong Kong in the wake of the SARS outbreak, are so far mostly staying put.
Many lawyers with international firms have only recently arrived in the city amid the spate of office openings that began late last year with the finalization of a new free trade agreement between South Korea and the United States. In addition to Paul Hastings, firms either launching Seoul outposts or announcing plans to do so of late include Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, McKenna Long & Aldridge, Ropes & Gray, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.
At the 36th floor restaurant where Jong Han and I had lunch, there was the somewhat jarring sight of three South Korean military officers dressed in pixelated camouflage fatigues dining amid the bankers and lawyers. But otherwise, it was a totally normal day. And it was everywhere else in Seoul, too.
South Koreans have lived with a threat from the north for so long, Jong Han explained, that it’s hard for them to get worked up over another flare-up. People are following the news, of course. Public opinion surveys conducted by Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies have found that the number of South Koreans naming the North as their top concern has tripled to 26 percent in the past three months. But more people still name jobs as their top concern. That includes lawyers.
People are worried that Kim Jong Un is barely 30 years old and may be prone to rash decisions that could spiral out of control. But the motives and mental state of North Korea’s leaders have long been the subject of as many humorous conversations in Seoul as serious ones.
There is certainly nothing like panic, except, it seems, among people outside of Korea. “People from the U.S. or Europe are cancelling trips,” says Jeffrey Jones, a foreign attorney with Kim & Chang who has lived in Seoul for 33 years. “People are calling me and asking me if they should come. I tell them they should.”
When Jones first visited Seoul in the early 1970s, there had just been an assassination attempt against South Korean leaders by North Korean agents, who would go on to carry on various other attacks, including the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air passenger jet that killed 115 people. South Korea was a much poorer country then, and the threat from the North loomed larger.
By comparison, the South today has a high-tech economy that is larger than many western European nations and 40 times the size of the North’s; a modern, well-trained military of its own; and a defense treaty with the United States, which has over 30,000 troops on the Korean peninsula. If North Korea starts a war, it’s an almost mathematical certainty that it will lose.
Still, there is all that artillery, a few barrages of which could kill thousands in densely populated Seoul—more if nuclear or chemical weapons were to be deployed. But that possibility is so nightmarish that South Koreans mostly just put it out of their minds, the way most Americans lived with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation during the cold war.
John Kim, a foreign lawyer with Lee & Ko, says most people he knows have double-checked their worst-case scenario preparations, making sure they know where to pick up their kids and where they will go if they need to evacuate the country. But not much can be done if the truly worst-case scenarios come to pass.
“If that happens,” he says, “there’s not really anything you can do.”