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Joe Mathews

Can Californians learn to be as cool as Koreans in the face of nuclear annihilation?

Visiting Seoul last week, I asked people how they stay sane while living within range of North Korea’s weapons. Kim Jong Un’s capital, Pyongyang, is 120 miles from Seoul — the same small distance protecting San Diego from Los Angeles.

Of course, South Koreans have been living productively under North Korea’s threats for six decades. For Californians, being North Korean targets is disorientingly new — because of the regime’s recent advances in nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

North Korean propaganda has sown fears with specific threats against California, including animations of nuking San Francisco. The L.A.-area Joint Regional Intelligence Center last summer urged California officials to update nuclear attack response plans, drawing nervous headlines and responses from local governments.

In Seoul, locals eased my jitters. “Keep calm and drink beer,” I was advised, in an alcohol-friendly Korean twist on the British advice to “Keep calm and carry on.” The only worries I heard from Koreans involved whether President Trump would honor the longstanding American commitment to protect South Korea even if it risked an attack on the U.S.

“Are you willing to trade Los Angeles for Seoul?” is how the question is often posed by Koreans to the United States. But that question is seen as rhetorical in Seoul, a city so vital that its destruction is unthinkable.

Instead, South Koreans see the current conflict cynically — as a contest between a dictator, Kim Jong Un, and a reality TV-authoritarian, President Trump, who use threats to preserve their power, in service of enhancing their personal wealth. One Korean scholar, boasting that his country had impeached its own corrupt president, Park Geun-hye, in March, asked me if the U.S. might do the same.

Rather than give in to authoritarian madness, locals say, it’s better to behave nonchalantly. That’s why South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-In went on vacation after a North Korea missile test last summer. The news media reinforces such sanguinity; last week, stories about Korea’s business world, rising housing prices, and the upcoming Winter Olympic Games here in February got more notice than the possibility of a nuclear exchange. During a daylong conference I attended on the future of Korean democracy, North Korea got mentioned exactly once.

Yes, South Koreans are making defensive preparations, and discussing the possibility of acquiring their own nuclear weapons. In August, the government conducted a large-scale civil defense drill. And I met a few Koreans who admitted to keeping bags packed with the same items — cash, identification, water, food, first-aid — that Californians assemble in their own earthquake kits.

One afternoon, I had coffee with Leif-Eric Easley, who grew up in Long Beach and lives with his family in Seoul, where he is a professor at Ewha University. An expert on international relations and Northeast Asia, Easley argues that North Korea’s provocations are meant to divide its neighbors, so not rising to the bait is a good strategic response.

Easley says that Koreans stay cool in the face of threats because they understand the situation well, and knowledge reduces fear. But the risk of war is not zero, and he sees a certain desensitization to the war threat. After North Korea’s nuclear test in September, the parks were so full of Koreans enjoying good weather and beer that his family found it hard to find a place to picnic.

After our conversation, I walked by the U.S. Embassy, where I encountered competing protests — one calling for the pursuit of peace with the North, and the other urging a pre-emptive American strike on the North.

Both protests had tiny crowds compared to two nearby events: a huge job fair, for young and underemployed Koreans, and, in Gwanghwamun Plaza, a rehearsal for a concert by the K-pop group Twice.

The girls in the group were singing their huge hit, “Cheer Up.” It’s about dealing with a boyfriend who texts his love too desperately, escalating into something that might sound threatening.

But the chorus offers some good advice, to girlfriends and Californians alike: Stay cool and de-escalate the confrontation. “I’ll act calm,” Twice sings, “as if it’s nothing.”

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square