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At least we're beyond a swift threat

President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim

President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un walk on North Korean soil toward South Korea in the Demilitarized Zone(DMZ) on June 30, 2019, in Panmunjom, Korea. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un met for the second time, in Vietnam, in what both sides hoped would lead to some sort of agreement on sanctions and denuclearization.

The meeting ended abruptly, however, and high-level talks between the two countries appeared to be at an impasse. Until a little less than a month ago, when Trump stepped over a concrete slab that marked the borderline in the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula and into North Korea.

He and Kim then walked side by side, stopping to shake hands as half a dozen cameras surrounded them. Through an impromptu meeting initiated just 30 hours previously via a tweet, that day Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to walk on North Korean soil.

On Wednesday, however, just weeks after Trump and Kim had their picture-perfect moment at the DMZ, North Korea launched two short-range missiles that flew 267 miles and 428 miles, respectively, before falling into the sea. South Korean officials say the missiles — in the second batch of tests this year — appear to be new technology.

It should come as no surprise that even after the “historic” Trump-Kim meeting last month, North Korea is testing nuclear weapons and developing new military technology. Neither the United States nor North Korea seems willing to budge on denuclearization. As long as Trump and Kim remain the leaders of their respective countries, I have little hope of any tangible developments on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But, as someone who has lived half of her life on that peninsula, I remain happy as long as there is no relapse into what U.S.-North Korean relations were like just a few years ago.

Most of 2017 and early 2018 witnessed nothing but hostility between Trump and Kim, frequent North Korean missile tests, and occasional bouts of name-calling (who could forget the squabbles between “dotard” and “rocket man”?). Since then, however, Kim has met with more world leaders than he had in his previous six years since assuming office in December 2011, and has met Trump personally three times.

The DMZ, the stage for Kim and Trump’s photo-op, is one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders. What it also represents, however, is the surefire promise of devastation that a war would cause if hostilities between the United States and North Korea ever escalated beyond repair. While most of North Korea’s missiles still don’t seem to have the capacity to reach the United States, virtually all of them have the potential to reach South Korea’s capital and my home, Seoul, a city of around 10 million people just 30 miles from the DMZ. If a war ever did break out, experts say millions would most certainly die in mere weeks.

As a South Korean, I am occasionally asked whether I ever grow concerned over the safety of my family or loved ones in Seoul because of the threat of the North. In the past, I would always roll my eyes and respond with a matter-of-fact “no.” The threat of a nuclear war for me growing up was just that — mere background noise. But at the height of U.S.-North Korea tensions a few years back, as Koreans stood to lose the most if the bombardment of verbal threats between Trump and Kim ever manifested into military action, I felt myself growing more hesitant in giving my answer.

What will happen in the coming months between the United States and North Korea is impossible to predict, but with every step away from where we were, I feel I can more confidently give my rehearsed “no” when I am asked that occasional question.

 Yeji Jesse Lee is an intern with Newsday Opinion.

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