A war of words has erupted between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The Koreatown shopping district bustled with life on a recent Friday as people in Flushing, Queens, eased their way into the weekend. Shoppers glanced into store windows while passersby ran to catch buses with bags of groceries purchased at J-Mart inside New World Mall.
Daniel Cho, 52, hung clothing in his store on Roosevelt Avenue while pop music bumped from the speakers. An immigrant from South Korea, Cho spoke nonchalantly about the ongoing conflict between the United States and North Korea, which has become part of the normal backdrop in the lives of many Korean New Yorkers.
“Two crazy guys,” he said, dismissing the recent spats between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
Last week, President Trump tweeted that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” a nickname he gave Kim Jong-un. In response, the North Korean leader threatened the United States, calling President Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”
With the unpredictable nature of both leaders, many Korean Americans have been left to speculate about possible outcomes.
“I’m afraid of a war with North Korea and South Korea,” Cho said. “Kim Jong-un will never attack the United States. It’s too far and he is afraid. But with North Korea and South Korea, it’s a problem.”
Cho has a cousin in South Korea who he talks to sometimes, but doesn’t believe many people there are worried about a war.
“People are afraid a little bit,” he said, suggesting that probably only 20 percent of South Koreans fear that war is imminent.
Pyong Gap Min, Director of the Research Center for Korean Community at Queens College, said that he and his wife have extended family in South Korea, but do not worry too much about them. As for other Koreans in New York, Pyong does not think the possibility of war is constantly top of mind.
“I don’t think they worry as much as you think, in South Korea, too,” Pyong said. “Maybe North Korea will force the dialogue. There is no alternative. Trump is very dangerous. Kim Jong-un is more dangerous.”
Perhaps some Korean Americans take this stance because South Koreans have been living with the threat of war for decades. The first Korean War is technically still not resolved.
Recent reporting from South Korea suggests that South Koreans do fear a war, but their feelings have slowly simmered for many years and concerns may now seem commonplace.
While experts argue that a U.S. war with North Korea is unlikely, Jessica Lee, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Council of Korean Americans, thinks that many Americans feel less certain.
“Mainstream media and public debate on North Korea is really dominated by folks in the military and security experts,” Lee said. “They tend to get lost in the technical aspects of North Korea as a threat. They talk about nuclear weapons capability and sanctions. Meanwhile, for most Americans, it’s really hard to grasp what this all means.”
Lee suggested that many Korean Americans feel uncertain about a nonviolent resolution, or any one solution at all.
“The rhetoric in recent months has been very troubling,” said Lee. “In response, the Korean American community is very concerned. There could be miscalculations or an accidental stumbling toward war. It’s not clear to us whether there is an off ramp for things to calm down.”
Still, President Trump and Kim Jong-un appear to be goading each other into a nuclear war, a path that feels realistic for many older Korean Americans.
John Hong, 72, a real estate broker and community leader in Flushing, Queens, immigrated from South Korea 40 years ago. In between business calls at his office on Union Street, he spoke about his experience as eyewitness of the Korean War as a child in South Korea. Hong said that he and other Koreans his age worry about another war. About the conflict between North Korea and the U.S., Hong said, “I know it so well.”
“My generation experienced the Korean War, and worries about (another one),” Hong said. “Mostly we want a peaceful solution, but that is impossible. We don’t know what the future will be.”