A Haliburton perspective on peninsula threatBy Darren Lum
Published Nov. 14, 2017
The Korean peninsula has had the attention of the world in recent months for North Korea’s role in threatening nuclear war. Much of this is rooted in the alarming rhetoric between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Former Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MP Barry Devolin has been living in Seoul for close to two years with his wife and two teenaged children and provides insight on what South Koreans think of this threat.
“South Koreans have lived with this for more than 60 years. It’s a fact of life that there is this threat that’s there and it’s real. The threat level and the rhetoric gets hot for awhile and then cools off and hot[again],” he said on a call from Seoul. “Basically, it’s the Cold War. Cold War has ended everywhere else on earth except on the peninsula and so people here are remarkably used to it. Quite frankly, if you’re younger than 70 years old you cannot remember anything different, right? If you’re in your 50s it’s been like this ever since you were born.”
Devolin has been teaching comparative politics to international students at Sejong university in the country’s capital, which has some 10 million people in the core and 25 million in what would be the city’s equivalent of the Greater Toronto Area.
Devolin, who isn’t overly worried about a nuclear conflict, said he is aware of the ever-present threat North Korea poses.
Although there has been violence, South Korea is a safe place to live day-to-day, he said, noting the violent crime rate is low, rivalling Japan. He has no issue with his 13-year-old daughter riding the subway with her friends, for example. “I’m not sure I’d let her do that in Toronto,” he said.
There are threats everywhere, he points out; there are natural disaster threats in Italy and California and violent crime in Chicago. Unless you leave those places, it’s difficult to avoid. “My view is I think the risk of something bad happening here is a lot lower than the popular media outside Korea is currently suggesting and that’s because it’s the flavour of the month in terms of the news cycle,” he said.
Where his fear comes in is when it comes to the American and North Korean leaders, who he refers to as “egomaniacs.”
“My fear is not a calculated conflict here. My fear is just a stupid mistake that starts an escalation that is hard to stop,” he said.
Devolin’s pragmatic perspective comes from his decade as a member of parliament, which provided him insight.
“All my experience in politics teaches me is that the world is a way less organized place than other people think it is. When I read in the paper about these elaborate Mission Impossible [conspiracy] theories about how somebody is manipulating something or some evil genius pulling the strings of everything, [I shake my head]. It’s the opposite of what I saw in politics, which is it’s really chaotic and there is misinformation,” he said.
He doesn’t envision either Trump or Kim making a calculated decision based on well-founded advice.
“I just have a fear like a flock of birds will fly into a radar station somewhere or some civilian aircraft strays somewhere it’s not supposed to and that triggers a series of dominoes, basically, that is difficult to stop. That’s what my political experience tells me, which is if something bad happens it will be an accident rather than [based on] a strategy,” he said.
However, North Korea has a poor track record in developing nuclear weapons, which gives him optimism.
Devolin said they have been working on it for more than 25 years. Compare that to other countries with nuclear weapons, which developed in three to five years. The U.S.-North Korea rhetoric can be likened to the hoopla surrounding a big boxing match, he said.
“That’s the way the Koreans view it,” he said. “The difference now is the American president. People are a lot less confident that he will take measures to turn down the temperature.”
Taking a teaching job in Seoul came from a longstanding relationship with the country and its people. Ever since he and his wife Ursula taught English in Korea 20 years ago, he has maintained ties with the country.
When Devolin was an MP he was the government liaison between Canada and Korea. He would go to Korea once or twice a year for functions. He and Ursula also worked with North Korean defectors and refugee/human rights issues.
In a conversation with the Korean ambassador in Ottawa, he was encouraged to seek a job teaching at a Korean university.
He was offered the teaching job six months before he left politics in September of 2015. His job didn’t start until March, 2016. For the six months in between, he travelled with his family around the world, including Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and then Korea. This trip provided perspective on safety.
They visited several countries where it felt far more dangerous than Korea, such as Israel and Turkey.
The university he chose provided an experience that allowed Devolin and his family to be immersed in a Korea that was as close to a genuine experience as a Korean resident would have. It was important to the family to have an experience unlike foreigners, some of whom live in an enclave with other ex-patriots.
This past autumn, his 15-year-old son George stayed in Haliburton with his grandparents to attend Haliburton Highlands Secondary School. Barry, Ursula, and daughter Molly will return to Haliburton early in 2018.
Although the family returned to Haliburton for the past two summers, Devolin said he missed visiting with extended family during the holidays and the clean air in Canada. Rather than talking about the weather (such is the preoccupation here), people are often talk about the air quality, or lack thereof.
As much as he taught the students, he also learned a lot about the world.
“The experiences I’ve had in the classroom talking about politics where I have students [who] live in 10 or 12 different countries is kind of exhilarating ... some of the insights I have in the world don’t necessarily come from the Koreans that work with me in my department, but they come from all the other people around the world that I interact with on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
He hopes to see the Olympics when Pyeongchang hosts the world from . Devolin joked about his odds to get tickets for curling, which is far less popular than figure skating.
Curling is expected to be the cheapest ticket at just $40 while figure skating will command $800 and $1,000 for the gold medal night.
While at service at church that draws many foreigners, he remembers defending curling as an “awesome” sport with another Canadian against the misgivings of the church’s American pastor and a Korean resident. Despite the heated discussion, Devolin and his compatriot could not change their minds.
“That was one Canadian moment I had here that I didn’t expect,” he said.