In the escalating standoff between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, Seoul is ground zero. Just 35 miles from the demilitarized zone, the metropolitan area of 25 million, with its fashionable, upscale entertainment bars, globe-spanning banks and new 123-story Lotte Group building, could be wiped off the map in any conflict by North Korea’s artillery, let alone its ever improving nuclear arsenal.
But it’s not Kim that the urbane population of this capital is most worried about. It is Trump’s seeming indifference to the value of Washington’s alliance with their city that confuses the citizens of Seoul. They worry that the American President, who has suggested he might abandon U.S. defense of the South, or open a trade war with it, is working with an outdated understanding of the peninsula, and the region.
South Korea’s growth story is the envy of the developing world. In the 1950s, postwar South Korea was one of the poorest places on earth. Thanks to smart economic policies, incentives for entrepreneurs, foreign investment and generous U.S. government and military support, this nation has emerged with one of the dozen highest GDPs in the world, and has an annual per capita income of more than $27,000. Today Seoul is a Big New York. Its people are well fed and well dressed, and its young strivers are far too cool to think Brooklyn is the only place to live. While South Koreans may complain that their new, shiny cars are often stuck in traffic, they take pride in them and in the scores of impressive new buildings. We should feel good about what Americans and South Koreans have accomplished together.
At a moment when the U.S., South Korea and their Pacific partners have so much to lose, South Koreans worry that Trump isn’t helping. First there are the economic dangers. After abandoning the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump has threatened to pull out of America’s free-trade deal with South Korea, and there is concern that he may seek additional protectionist measures. There could be big costs in such a separation of South Korea’s interests from America’s. Already, South Korean trade with China is more than twice as great as its exports to the U.S. If America fails to support South Korea, it increases the odds that South Korea may find China a more reliable partner.
Then there are the military concerns. Many Seoul-based analysts who have studied Kim Jong Un say Trump is wrong to think him a “madman” bent on self-destruction. They insist that Kim is rational and that his goal is to stay in power for decades, ultimately reunifying North and South Korea under his control. If Trump’s “Rocket Man” taunts are supposed to bring Kim to the negotiating table, they aren’t working. Instead, that belligerence plays into Kim’s hands, giving him justification for devoting so many resources to his own military buildup.
Which is not to say South Koreans are soft on Kim. They cringe when they hear him talk about his dreams of reunifying the peninsula under North Korean rule. They rightly agree that his family dynasty has turned North Korea into a criminal enterprise whose economy benefits from drug trafficking, counterfeiting, cybercrime and money laundering. They fear that Kim, given the chance, would have no qualms about treating South Koreans as badly as he treats his own citizens. That feeling stretches beyond the peninsula to the rest of the countries in the region. Neither China nor Japan wants to see a nation of 75 million people on the peninsula reunified under North Korean control.
The issue of nukes turns Trump’s potential misreading of the peninsula into a matter of life and death for each of them, and millions more. My first visit to Seoul in 1973, fittingly, was to attend a conference hosted by Herman Kahn, the author of On Thermonuclear War and then head of the Hudson Institute. Kahn, who had spent years analyzing Japan’s postwar economic miracle when he wasn’t contemplating nuclear annihilation, had trained his sights on South Korea, convinced that it would become the next great growth story. Kahn also thought nuclear proliferation was inevitable and worried that leaders of small countries possessing such weapons might be more likely to use them when threatened.
To forestall that possibility, and to bolster its crucial East Asian alliances, the U.S. may want to consider putting tactical nuclear weapons of its own in South Korea, should Kim insist on continuing his nuclear buildup while refusing to negotiate in good faith. The U.S. first surrounded Seoul with a nuclear arsenal in the late 1950s, and it wasn’t removed until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Many in Seoul would oppose the reintroduction of nuclear weapons in South Korea. But fear of such weapons, coupled with a continuing U.S. military presence there, might be the one threat that convinces North Korea and China to look for peaceful alternatives.
Pearlstine is a former Time Inc. chief content officer and editor-in-chief
This appears in the October 09, 2017 issue of TIME.