The North Korean Risk

Category : Surviving in Korea
Nov 26, 2014

The North Korean Risk

Back at home in Canada, and the USA and Western Europe, the media has a field day when North-South Korean relations flare up. In 2010, there was a little incident where a North Korean submarine sunk a South Korean military ship and 46 sailors died. My aunt actually called me from the United States to ask if war had broken out and if I was coming home.

I said, “No, there is no war and no, I am not coming home.”

She exclaimed, “But... it’s not safe! You’re living in a war zone! Aren’t the streets chaotic?! How can you even walk around?!!”

I’m sure she heard me rolling my eyes, but rather than hanging up the phone, I calmly explained that perhaps she had misinterpreted the situation in Korea because of what she had seen on the TV in America. Although my aunt may be overly concerned, it’s certainly a question on the minds of people who have never been to Korea: How safe is the country? And how dangerous is South Korea’s seemingly aggressive neighbor?


To answer the first question: South Korea is safe and most likely nothing bad is going to happen to you while you’re here. According to some UN stats on homicides rates around the world, Korea has a homicide rate of 2.6. This means that there are 2.6 murders for every 100,000 people in Korea every year. To put that into perspective, Jamaica has a rate of 52.2, and Japan 0.2. The USA is slightly higher at 4.2. It’s great to know that you won’t get shot in Korea. Guns are illegal anyway and even the police don’t carry real guns. But that still doesn’t sort out the issue of potentially being bombed by North Korea.


So to answer the second question: South Korea’s neighbor, North Korea is not particularly dangerous; at least certainly not as dangerous as they are portrayed to be in the media. The reason for this gross exaggeration is in part because the North Korean government does do an awful lot of threatening.  These threats, regardless of their legitimacy, send global media outlets whirling. Early in 2012, North Korean military warned that they would "reduce all the rat-like groups and the bases for provocations to ashes in three or four minutes, (or) in much shorter time, by unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style." It is always hard to tell when the Kim administration is serious but, luckily they usually aren’t. North Korea has made threats here and there, fired a few guns, thrown a few grenades and overall made a bit of fuss about this and that (to be exact, North Korea has violated the armistice 221 times with 26 military attacks), but generally you shouldn’t be worried.


List of recent incidents

In recent years, the following military provocations occurred between the South Korean and North Korean military. For the most part, civilians were not harmed (although two were killed and three injured at Yeonpyeong in 2010) and the locations of these incidents were either at sea or in military zones near the South Korean/North Korean border.


  • May 2006: Two North Korean soldiers entered the DMZ, crossed into South Korean soil and were fired at by South Korean military officials until they returned to their side.
  • Nov. 11 2009: A North Korean ship caught fire after it attacked a South Korean ship.
  • Mar. 26 2010: A North Korean submarine sank the South Korean military ship, Cheonan in the Yellow Sea. Forty-six soldiers died.
  • Nov. 23 2010: North Korea bombed Yeonpyeong Island near the border. The attack killed four people and injured 15.


What happened between South Korea and North Korea?

The tension between South Korea and North Korea has grown into a decades’ long hostility that, for now, doesn’t see an end in sight. It began in 1945 when the Korean peninsula was given freedom from Japanese colonial rule. There were communist and anti-communist sentiments running throughout the region; the Soviet Union wanted to claim the peninsula communist under its control, while the USA opposed that idea.


At the Moscow Conference, the country was divided along the 38th Parallel without the consent of any Koreans. The North was supported by the Soviet Union, who at the time boycotted the United Nations (UN), while the South was backed by the rest of the UN member countries. The USA and Korean dictator, Syngman Rhee, were both determined not to let Korea fall to the Red Army, while newly appointed Kim Il-Sung wanted to spread communism across the peninsula. Alas, they were divided into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea/North Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea/ South Korea (ROK).


Despite the division, the two sides couldn’t agree and a war broke out in 1950. Each side hoped to claim the other for its own. The war lasted three years with China and the Soviet Union fighting alongside the North and the UN-directed forces by the USA fighting for the South. In 1953, the fighting came to a stalemate and the two sides signed an armistice. The UN called for the 38th parallel to be a demilitarized zone (DMZ). Today, the DMZ is a 4 km no man’s land that separates the DPRK from the ROK. On each side there is an additional 2 km for watchtowers and military personnel to keep an eye out for their neighbors.


What is the situation between North Korea
and South Korea today?

The DMZ was created nearly 60 years ago. The two Koreas have remained divided all this time and probably will continue to be for years to come. Each side still stakes claims to the entire peninsula and it is commonly felt by both halves that Korea is one country, not two. Technically there remains a stalemate and by definition the sides are still in a state of war, which the media love to point out when even the slightest altercation occurs.


In 1998, Kim Dae Jung was elected as the ROK’s President (1998-2003). Kim instated a new policy called the Sunshine Policy for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. His idea was to improve relations with the North and help them gain economic success so that the people could be helped out of poverty. Kim, who obviously had his heart in the right place, wanted to see Korea (as a whole) move beyond the ideological lines of the past and the physical line at the DMZ that had separated the peninsula for so long. His policy stated:

  • No armed provocation by the North will be tolerated.
  • The South will not attempt to absorb the North in any way.
  • The South actively seeks cooperation.

During this time, relations between the two halves improved rapidly. Kaeseong Industrial Complex was built where North Koreans were employed making goods for the South. Furthermore, tourism to Mount Geumgang (a beautiful mountainous region just north of the border) was developed.


Kim’s successor Roh Moo-Hyun (2003-2007) followed in his footsteps and continued the Sunshine Policy. Roh started building a train line that crossed the DMZ from South Korea to the Kaesong Complex to move goods, and eventually people. In 2007, Mount Geumgang received 345,006 visitors, more than at any other time before or since. As well, Roh increased the humanitarian aid that Kim’s administration started. In 2004, South Korea sent 423 million KRW in aid, while in 2007, 439.7 million KRW worth of goods were sent.


The Sunshine Policy has received praise and criticism. Its strengths are obvious. It aimed to help starving people who were in desperate need of basic necessities (and still are). On the other side of the coin, the policy has been under fire for being too lenient. People feel that the Sunshine Policy is a band-aid solution to quiet North Korea when it whines about its problems. As well, the Sunshine Policy has developed a reputation for neglecting to deal with North Korea’s blatant disregard for denuclearization. The Lee and Roh administrations did not address the North Korean armistice violations rigorously enough and all the while, they continued to give aid. Furthermore, South Korean conservatives worried then and now that helping the North will damage relations with Western powers, namely the USA.


Lee Myeong Bak Administration

Recently, the situation has changed quite a bit. A new administration under Lee Myeong Bak (2008-2012) took a hard line against North Korea. Beginning in 2008, Lee took actions to cancel programs that Kim and Roh had started. The Sunshine Policy was officially deemed a failure in 2010. Lee, a conservative, believed that North Korea shouldn’t be rewarded with economic exchanges and humanitarian aid when the DPRK clearly didn’t made any moves toward disarmament or democratic concessions. He adopted the MB Doctrine (after himself), which translates his thoughts on the matter into policy. He stopped the train construction, closed Mount Geumgang’s tourism complex and slowed progress at Kaeseong Industrial Complex. In 2008, there were barely any tours to the DMZ, and the UN base at Panmunjeom completely closed for visitors. In 2011, the Lee administration and the North Korean government held one military talk, while in 2007 there had been 55 bilateral discussions that brought forth a range of issues from military concerns, economic issues, social problems and humanitarian relief.


The incidents that happened in 2010, first with the sinking of Cheonan and then with the bombing of Yeonpyeong Island, are a reflection of the hard stance the ROK took towards the DPRK’s government regime. Rather than engaging in diplomatic discussions, North Korea lashed out. Despite less friendly terms between the North and the South, the South certainly aims to avoid war.


2011 marked a momentous occasion with the death of Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean dictator. At the time, it was uncertain what would happen in North Korea and the South “put its military on high alert”. However, Lee also told citizens “to go about their lives” until new leadership could be resolved. He was confident that peace would be maintained. After Kim Jong-Il’s death his son, Kim Jong-Un, took over the leadership. Many felt (and still feel) he is unprepared to follow in Kim Jong-Il’s footsteps and this might be a good chance for diplomatic peace talks and possibly progress toward reunification.


This year, South Korea held a presidential election. With a new presidency in the South (Park Geun Hye just won the election) that began this year and North Korea’s new young leadership, North-South relations are indeed uncertain, yet stable. Park Geun Hye is the daughter of Park Chung Hee, a Korean dictator who held office from 1963-1979. He was assassinated by two North Korean spies when he was president. Park Geun Hye, a conservative who has witnessed violent actions perpetrated by North Korea, will probably follow in Lee Myeong-Bak’s footsteps. While the days of the Sunshine Policy are long over, perhaps the conservative stance will force the North into meaningful conversation about reunification, democracy and most importantly a peaceful future.


North Koreans in South Korea

Since 1950, North Korean defectors have been slowly making their way into the country. According to South Korean Ministry for Unification (MOU), the country received 607 refugees prior to 1989. In 2009, the country’s North Korean arrivals peaked at 2,809. Last year 2,737 people made it to the South. At the end of 2011, MOU estimated that South Korea had accepted 23,100 refugees to date.


North Koreans are unable to cross at the DMZ because it is so well-guarded. Instead, they cross the Chinese/North Korean border at Jilin or Liaoning Province. It is believed that there are between 10,000 and 30,000 North Korean refugees living in China. However, the Chinese government refuses to grant these people refugee status. They are deported back to North Korea if caught, an act that is in strict violation of the UNHCR Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Some defectors make it to a third country, and from there they can pay a broker to help them get to South Korea. Once they arrive in South Korea, they are granted asylum and are given South Korean citizenship. Like Cubans escaping to the USA, when North Koreans reach South Korean soil, they are allowed to stay. They must spend three months living in Hanawon/Hana Center, a place for North Koreans to adapt to South Korean culture and life. There they learn about modern South Korean life. They are given money and resources and taught language and job skills to properly adjust to their new home.


What are the dangers to you?

As mentioned before, the dangers to individuals living and traveling in South Korea are minimal to none. When armistice violations do occur, it is between military personnel not civilians. If a war were to break out, in which case there would be escalating tension between the two sides with ample time to understand the severity of the situation, reach your respective embassy and get back to your home country. If you still feel worried about a possible violent outburst, make sure you register your name and contact details with your embassy in South Korea. The embassy can easily update you on the situation regarding North Korea and also provide immediate assistance if something were to happen. See your embassy’s homepage or call them to register.


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Tags : North. South. Korea. Democratic. Republic.

Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.