ORONO, Maine — North Korea’s belligerent threats are taken with a grain of salt by neighbors to the south, but uncertainty about the intentions of the normally secretive country is sparking some concern for South Korean University of Maine students with families back home.
“People in South Korea have been very used to this kind of threat,” Dahan Kim, a 28-year-old Seoul native and graduate research assistant in UMaine’s physics department, said Thursday. “I think we go through cycles of this kind of threatening. I think this time, North Korea is making these kinds of threats because they’re very unhappy with the sanctions that the international community is enforcing.”
Still, the rhetoric spouted by North Korean officials and military tests in recent months has been disconcerting, he said.
Kim moved to the United States at age 16 and attended a school in Michigan for a year before coming to Maine, where he graduated from Fryeburg Academy.
His parents still live in Seoul, and most of his family is in the area around the densely populated capital.
Seoul is in a precarious position. It lies just 35 miles from the border drawn in 1953 to divide north from south after the Korean War armistice. Seoul also sits just 120 miles from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, which would be the likely launching point for any military action. Half of South Korea’s population is concentrated in the northwest region — in and around Seoul — potentially putting the capital in North Korea’s sights.
“I think the possibility of having a war is really slim, but I am worried … because if a war ever breaks, it would probably become mankind’s first nuclear war,” Kim said.
Nonetheless, his parents in Seoul are more worried about stock prices and the declining value of currency than the potential for a missile strike or a North Korean nuclear device, he said.
War is a “remote possibility,” but the aggressive rhetoric from North Korean officials, especially the nation’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un, still causes some concern, Kim said.
“I think he feels insecure about his leadership, partly because he is very young for a leader,” Kim said of Jong-un. He said the dictator seems to be “flexing” to show his strength, as well as the loyalty of his people and his army.
Myungji Choi, 26, is a business undergraduate student at UMaine who left her home in Gwangju, South Korea, in 2008 to move to the United States.
She believes Kim Jong-un is “showing off his power,” and she said she’s worried he might one day take some sort of military action.
“We have no information about him,” and uncertainty has spurred much of the global concern about North Korea. “We only assume right now. We don’t know anything about what’s going to happen.”
But Choi’s parents, who still live in Korea, “aren’t that concerned,” she said.
North Korea’s threats are a topic of conversation in South Korea, but it stops well short of the fervor the Cold War caused in the United States. There are no drills in schools instructing students to duck under their desks in case of an attack, Choi said.
Concern about a war, however unlikely, also causes worry about how North Korean people would cope. Famine has ravaged North Korea for years. In the 1990s, somewhere from 800,000 to more than 2 million North Koreans starved to death, according to international estimates. Global news outlets have reported that food shortages for the isolationist country continue to linger, spawning reports of cannibalism in some regions of the country.
Malnutrition is reportedly causing youths in North Korea to develop more slowly and be smaller than their South Korean peers. In the wake of the 1990s famine, the New York Times reported on a study by international aid groups that found “an entire generation of children physically and mentally impaired,” because of food shortages.”
Kim said South Koreans feel “very sympathetic” to those in the North.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a parent,” said Kim, who has a 3-year-old son, Aiden. “I’m more worried about the kids who grow up in North Korea.”
Kim Met his wife, Haeyun, while she was studying nursing at Husson University. She’s from a small city in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula.
Choi, who plans to visit home this summer, said she is hopeful the tension will subside and the relationship between north and south will improve over time. She is concerned that the divisiveness and rhetoric of the North Korean government might cause people to “begin to think that we’re not the same — Korean — anymore.”
“We need to remember we are all Korean,” she said. “Nobody would want to hurt their families or friends. We are still the same people. We are Koreans. We are family. We are friends.”