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Islands in the Stream, That Is What They Are

While the security threats that both countries face are indeed quite different, evidence shows that Israelis and Koreans refuse to internalize external threats and wallow in a life of post-traumatic stress disorder
Residents of Seoul line up to greet President Shimon Peres on his visit there in 2010  (Photo credit: Moshe Milner GPO /Flash90)
Residents of Seoul line up to greet President Shimon Peres on his visit there in 2010 (Photo credit: Moshe Milner GPO /Flash90)

Living in the midst of hostility, Israel and South Korea strive and thrive unlike their enemies.

I recently reached out to a friend living in South Korea, asking him how he was doing in the midst of the increased tensions between North Korea and the United States.  He was shocked how “nonchalant” everyone is in the midst of an impending threat of nuclear war.  The Wall Street Journal picked up a similar sentiment, in its August 10 article in the print edition, “Despite the Looming Threat, Seoul Residents Carry On.”

Having been to Israel a dozen times, this sentiment sounds quite familiar.  I think it is a good thing.

To Life, To Life…

The Israelis have a saying: Hakol yehiye b’seder (English translation: “Everything will be OK.”)  Despite the ceaseless conflict, Israel is the 11th happiest country in the world.  While the security threats that both countries face are indeed quite different, evidence shows that Israelis and Koreans refuse to internalize external threats and wallow in a life of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Instead, they choose to live.  South Korea is thriving like Israel.  Life expectancy is equal in both countries, at 82.4 years, according to 2016 estimates from the CIA Factbook.  While that ranks them 11th and 12th internationally, they have the highest longevity among countries with significant security concerns.

The Little Engines That Do

It is truly remarkable how Israelis and South Koreans have managed to so successfully build their countries since the establishment of the modern iterations of their states in 1948. Whereas they once were steeped in poverty, both are now modern economic superpowers.  Like Israel, South Korea’s greatest asset is its human capital.  Bloomberg named South Korea as having the most innovative economy in 2017.  South Korea’s long-time rival, Japan, ranked 7th, while Israel cracked the top 10 on that list for the first time.  Israel boasts a robust start-up culture featured in the 2009/2011 book Start Up NationIt is a world leader in innovations in medicine (ReWalk, PillCam, Mazor Robotics), computers (USB flash drives, Intel processors, ICQ), navigation (Mobileye, Waze), cyber security (Check Point Software Technologies), military platforms (Iron Dome, Arrow), and water technologies.   Israel also has the 13th highest number of Nobel Prize winners per capita.

Very Old Origins, and Rebirth Against All Odds

South Korea, like Israel, is a very young and modern country with deep roots. The National Museum of Korea in Seoul has Korean artifacts that, like Israel’s Dead Sea Scrolls or artifacts from the First and Second Temple periods, go back at least 2,000 years.  Korean and Hebrew antiquities demonstrate the rich histories of these indigenous/modern peoples.

In ancient times, the Jews enjoyed sovereignty and pseudo-sovereignty in their ancestral lands from 1020 BCE to 617 CE, and fought battles of survival against Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman invaders, succumbing to conquests and expulsions.  Thereafter, Persia, Byzantium, Arab and non-Arab Muslim conquerors (e.g. Sejuk, Ayyubid, Mamluk, Ottoman), in addition to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and the British Empire, occupied the land until 1948 CE.

Koreans had sovereignty in several states from approximately 57 BCE to 935 CE (during the Three Kingdoms, North-South States, and Later Three Kingdoms periods), and then as a unitary state from approximately 918 to 1910 CE (as Goryeo, Joseon, and the Korean Empire).  Koreans fought against invasions by the Manchus in 1627 and 1636 CE, and the Japanese during 1592-1598 CE, and were occupied by Japan in 1910-1945 CE.

Like the Jews, the (South) Koreans fought for their state’s existence in the modern period, as their ancestors did in ancient times.  Although South Korea, unlike Israel, had the assistance of American troops, both modern states successfully defended themselves in wars of survival, and emerged standing against overwhelming odds: Israel in its War of Independence (1948-1949) against eight armies and the Six Day War (1967) against four armies, and South Korea in the Korean War (1950-1953) (South Korea and its allies had approximately 970,000 troops, while North Korea and its allies had approximately 1.6 million troops).

While Americans are quick to recall D-Day and the landing of Normandy (1944), perhaps just as remarkable is the less-recalled Battle of Ichon (1950), an American-led amphibious landing which turned the tide of the Korean War at a time when South Korea seemed doomed.  Equally miraculous was the fact that South Korea retained Seoul as its capital after five battles for its control, all in the span of under a year (1950-1951).  Touring the Korean War Museum in Seoul, America’s bravery and sacrifice as brothers in arms during that war does not go unnoticed.  There is a long hallway with large, long plaques where every fallen U.S. soldier is commemorated by name, with their names sorted under the flags of the states where the soldiers were from.  The museum also recognizes that the United Nations’ initial goal of the war was to have the United States command the war to unify the entire Korean peninsula under the South’s government.

Perpetually Fending Off Attacks

South Korea, like Israel, has faced heightened threats to its security.  Israel is close to facing an official nuclear-weapons capable archenemy (Iran), much like South Korea has in North Korea for the last several years.  More historically, the security situation for both countries is so significant that both countries have a mandatory draft (in South Korea, it is mandatory for males only).

Of course, the means, method, and scope of North Korean terrorism differ from Arab and Iranian-sponsored terrorism.  Jews in their ancestral homeland have been battling countless terrorist attacks, massacres/pogroms, and all out wars since at least the 1920s, before even the re-birth of the Jewish state in 1948 and the international outcry about Jewish building in Judea and Samaria (i.e., the “settlements” in the “West Bank”) post-1967.  Since the armistice following the Korean War, North Korea has been incessantly attacking South Korea, perhaps most famously in the Blue House Raid (1968), a failed attempt by North Korean commandos to assassinate South Korean president Park Chung-hee, and the Axe Murder Incident (1976), where North Korean soldiers murdered two United States Army officers for trying to cut down a tree in the Joint Security Area (JSA).  But North Korean provocations are not limited to targeting the South Korean government and military.  Approximately 3,800 South Koreans have been abducted by North Korea since the Korean War.

Standing on the Frontier of Civilization

My conversation with my South Korean friend brought to mind my own visit to South Korea in November 2015, specifically my tour of the Joint-Security Area (JSA) and the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea.  Visiting the Freedom House, Peace House, and one of the Blue Houses on the border, and watching the South and North troops literally staring each other down, I felt like I was on the frontier of civilization.  My tour drove (in an armored bus) in the JSA near the Bridge of No Return, and saw the memorial of the Axe Murder Incident.  An American soldier told us a true story of a Soviet defector who in 1984, of all years, chose to vacation in North Korea–specifically to sprint across the JSA to freedom. This resulted in a firefight between North Korean soldiers, who wanted to murder him, and South Korean and American soldiers, who wanted to save him.  Three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean soldier were killed in the firefight.

But perhaps most memorable was a nondescript souvenir shop in the DMZ.  In a rare display of cooperation between the two Koreas, we had the option of choosing to purchase either North Korean liquor, or liquor made in the South by defectors who risked their lives to flee the North and are now trying to eke out a living in their new freedom.  Interestingly, I was the only person on a bus filled with Westerners who chose to purchase the liquor made by defectors.

Never before have I been so angry about what people around me chose to drink.  But when I told my Korean friend about it the next day, he wasn’t as fazed.

We should take North Korea seriously.  But I think that everything will be OK.

This article is dedicated to my friends and family living in South Korea and Israel.  Thank you for holding the line.  This article’s title is inspired by the song “Islands in the Stream,” written by the Bee Gees and recorded and performed by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.  This article is inspired by the article “The Other Israel” about the similarities between Israel and Taiwan.

About the Author
Steve works in the Washington, DC area.
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