The following is an excerpt from “SEOUL MAN: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan” (Harper Business)
It’s easy to think of North Korea as a joke, because it has done so many childish things. Over the years South Korea has discovered several tunnels dug under the DMZ by the North for spy infiltration. Caught red-handed digging one tunnel, the North told the South, no, the tunnel was not for spying on the South. They were just mining for coal, the North said. And, in perhaps history’s lamest attempt to hide evidence, the North painted the tunnel walls black and hoped the South would buy it.
In a more recent example, instead of simply ignoring the 2014 Hollywood farce “The Interview”—whose admittedly tasteless plot involved assassinating the North Korean leader—North Korea petulantly hacked Sony Pictures, the film’s studio, causing embarrassing internal e-mails to be leaked and costing millions in security and brand damage, not to mention the studio head’s job.
North Korea is no joke to the South. In 1968, North Korean commandos ordered to kill President Park Chung-hee got within 100 meters of the presidential residence, called the Blue House for its roof color, before being stopped by security forces. Six years later came the second attempt on Park’s life, by the North Korean sympathizer who killed Park’s wife. In 1983, North Koreans tried to kill South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan during a state visit to Rangoon by planting a bomb in a ceiling of a building he was scheduled to visit. He was delayed in traffic but the bomb went off anyway, killing several senior advisers already there. In 1987, ostensibly upset that it had been denied the honor of hosting any of the 1988 Olympic games that went to Seoul, North Korean agents exploded a bomb on a Korean Air flight, killing 115. In 2006, North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb, repeating the exercise in 2009, 2013, and 2016.
The spring before my wife, Rebekah, and I arrived in Korea, in 2010, a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan, killing forty-six sailors. When Rebekah and I visited the DMZ, Kim Jong-il had been supreme leader for seventeen years, having inherited the dictatorship from his father, Kim Il-sung, who was installed by the Soviets after they took the northern part of the Korean Peninsula from the Japanese in 1945. Kim Il-sung advocated the political and economic policy of juche, or self-reliance, cutting off his people from the outside world and virtually severing trade.
He also built the gulags that continue to this day and engineered a cult of personality around him. Kim Jong-il took over the country at his father’s death in 1994. On his watch, as many as 600,000 North Koreans starved during a famine caused by incompetence. Health experts visiting the country determined that chronic malnourishment caused North Koreans to be, on average, three inches shorter than their genetic cousins in the South. The country adopted a military-first policy. Kim Jong-il repeatedly outfoxed and embarrassed Seoul with bogus olive branches.
So, the longer one lives in Korea, the less funny North Korea gets.
As bellicose as North Korea can be, threatening to turn South Korea into a “lake of fire” every few months, a full-scale attack from the North was a theoretical if remote possibility. More worrisome to me was a rogue North Korean commander or an accident loosing a missile at one or both of the prime targets in the South: downtown Seoul, where my wife worked at the U.S. embassy, and the U.S. military base where we lived.
Heightening our anxiety was this: One month after we arrived in South Korea in October 2010, North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing four people. Jet fighters screamed over my office at Hyundai Motor headquarters, about 70 miles southeast in Seoul.
The rest of the world thinks North Korea is crazy and unpredictable. South Korea does not. It believes the North is calculating. The South’s thinking seems to come down to this: the South will respond gravely to the North’s verbal threats and even endure the occasional fatal military action, because the South believes the North is not reckless enough to launch a full-scale attack on the South, since the North would be obliterated in a counterattack by combined U.S.–South Korean forces.
So South Koreans learn to live with the North and continue to absorb its occasional deadly attacks. It’s like living next door to a bully.