There are more than 100,000 Americans living in South Korea, many of them in Seoul, which is only around 35 miles from the North Korean border. Generally, though, that border feels a world away. Whatever threats had come from the North in the past were obviously empty bluster; an actual war blooming on the peninsula was unimaginable.
Then, in early April, apathy turned to anxiety as tensions rose to a point few of us had seen before. That month was when Donald Trump tweeted, "North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A." An American naval strike group was said to have been dispatched toward the Korean Peninsula. (Later it turned out that it actually wasn't anywhere near Korea.) At the same time, 150,000 Chinese troops lined the North Korean border to guard against a potential flood of refugees. The US had just hit a Syrian airbase with a missile strike and dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb ever built on Afghanistan. All of this was leading up to April 15, North Korea's Day of the Sun, where Kim Jong Un would display his military might to the world.
It was making my fellow expats nervous. Many had been through tense times before—the issue was the guy in the White House.
"What's different is the unpredictability of Trump. A lot of us have been saying, 'Kim Jong Un is more predictable than Donald Trump,'" said Christensen Low, a university teacher who has been living in South Korea on and off since 2001. "Every time there's a Korean election or the joint US-Korean drills in the spring, the threats increase from North Korea, but nothing ever comes of it. Whereas we've already seen Trump sporadically bomb Syria and Afghanistan then send an Armada to the Korean Peninsula."
"Any other time, I wouldn't care because even though Kim Jong Un is unstable, Obama was level-headed," said Carolina Chavez, who has lived in South Korea since 2012. "Trump, on the other hand, IS as brash and stubborn as Kim. Trump's aggressive tweets made me think, Shit, this motherfucker is going to get us all killed."
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Some took the saber-rattling more seriously than others. Natalie Willman has been teaching in South Korea since July and has five children living in the US or the Middle East. When Kim Jong Un threatened to destroy all US military bases in South Korea, she reacted by "messaging all my kids individually with pictures and telling them how much I love them just in case I die. I thought all of Korea would be gone."
Low told me that when the Chinese troops moved to the border, people began to think in existential terms: "Old-timers who have been here more than a decade talked of finally leaving Korea. Some of my Chinese university students left right away."
For Chavez, a state of panic was induced by the instant reactions of social media and a 24/7 news cycle. Right before the Day of the Sun, she woke up to a bunch of messages from worried friends and family before scrolling through her newsfeed filled with articles about how World War III was about to start on her doorstep.
"But what was most alarming was a well-managed Facebook group I'm part of called 'Expat Women in Korea,'" Chavez added. "There were a lot of women legitimately nervous, some were even army wives. I've never seen that many expats worried. They were all asking each other what we should do and where we should go if war breaks out. And the worst part was I didn't feel like anyone had a concrete answer besides getting registered with the US embassy."
Everyone I spoke to had given their info to the embassy as part of the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program so they could be contacted in case of emergency, but that seems like a small step when faced with the prospect of nuclear war.
Most Americans here have thought in more detail about what we would do if shooting started. I always carry my passport on me in case I need to flee to the nearest air base or airport. Chavez, who lives less than a mile from Yongsan military base, is nervous about being caught up in an airstrike and plans on rushing to Itaewon station, which is a designated bomb shelter. Tony Skelton, who's in his sixth year of teaching in South Korea, has a simple plan: "First I'd contact who I need to before the cell towers go down. Then I'd ride my bike as far south as fast as possible."
Low was one of a few expats I spoke to has put together a "bug-out bag" filled with everything needed for survival in the woods. His first move would be to head straight out of Seoul, a sure target in a war. Like Skelton, he then talked of riding a bike south—he figures highways and public transport would be complete chaos.
But Low thinks nuclear war is a whole different situation—he believes that if he's not in ground zero of a nuclear attack then he has about five minutes to find a good bomb shelter and wait it out. If he is in ground zero, "then that's it."
This is all just speculation—no one knows whether or how a war would start, or what Seoul would look like once the shooting started. But having a plan, even a rough one, can provide some solace in uncertain times.
And these are uncertain times—people aren't even sure what they're most afraid of. When I asked about his biggest concern, Low replied, "Kim is still testing missiles, so who knows? With Trump anything is possible."
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