Citizens’ Perspective: South Korean Reactions to Nuclear Tests


North Korea has now performed its third nuclear test, the latest since two previous tests in 2006 and 2009. Analysts around the world are scrambling to decide what the test reveals about North Korea’s capabilities and intentions, and politicians around the world are scrambling to decide what will be done to discourage further development of nuclear weapons in North Korea, and how to send a message to other nuclear developers like Iran.

How will China respond to the tests? A state-owned newspaper ran a February 6 editorial (before the test) saying, “If North Korea insists on a third nuclear test despite attempts to dissuade it, it must pay a heavy price. The assistance it will be able to receive from China should be reduced.” Is the newspaper voicing the policy of the Chinese government, as most media maintain (e.g. Business Insider, MSNBC)? Or does the editorial reflect the more populist stance of the paper? Either way, what action would China actually take against its ally?

These are interesting questions, but Markus Bell and Geoffrey Fattig, writing at, ignore them “in an attempt to offer balance to the mountains of analysis being churned out.” Bell and Fattig decide to focus on the average South Korean’s response to the nuclear tests instead of the response of world governments. Their conclusion? Most South Koreans aren’t paying much attention. Bell and Fattig write, “The prevailing response [in South Korea] to the third nuclear test is much more likely to be a ‘there they go again’ resigned acceptance.”

In the recent South Korean presidential elections, the authors note, North Korea’s nuclear program was not a major political issue. Most citizens perceive the North’s nuclear program as being aimed at the United States, not South Korea. North Korean scholar Brian Myers would probably agree, as he points out that internal propaganda very intentionally makes the United States an enemy, so that North Korean citizens will feel a sense of unity in opposition, and of legitimacy in their government’s focus on military defense.

So, while the third nuclear test is a very big deal for governments around the world, including the United States, Bell and Fattig think it is worth remembering that for the average South Korean citizen, it’s more of a minor nuisance than major issue. It offers little new insight into the North Korean government’s intentions and capabilities.

Bell and Fattig are also interested in the test’s effects on the lives of North Korean defectors currently living in South Korea. There are some 24,000 of them, and integration continues to be a difficult process even after the help they receive from the South Korean government. The nuclear tests make it harder. Bell and Fattig recall having lunch with some North Korean defector friends in 2009, when news of the second test came on the TV. The table went silent. After a moment one of the North Korean defectors said, “These crazy bastards make it so hard for us to be here. Every time this happens, we feel some guilt.” Even though it’s unjustified, it’s also understandable that they feel a collective guilt about their home country’s belligerent actions, and it certainly makes it more difficult for them to integrate successfully into South Korean life.

Bell and Fattig are right that the analysis in these cases focuses too much on rarefied politics. It is too easy to neglect the effects of these actions on ordinary citizens. It’s good to have some voices restoring the balance.




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