Is the North Korean Crisis Driving Expats Away from East Asia?

4 May 2017

Since the Korea was divided along the 38th parallel at the end of the War in July 1953, the communist North and capitalist South have been at each other’s throats, with the North regularly taunting the South and their many allies. There have been ups and down in the relationship between the two sides over the past 50+ years, with the North tending to increase the volume of their near-constant sabre-rattling. With both sides currently on an upward trend of aggressive rhetoric and threats of action, at ExpatFinder we have reached out into our network to see how these events are affecting Expats across South Korea, and the region as a whole.

Times are Changing

Although both sides have been angrily shouting over the fence at each other for the past five decades, it can’t be denied that the current situation seems somewhat different, with the United States becoming more unpredictable with their foreign policy, and an extreme souring of relations between Beijing and Pyongyang.

“US President Donald Trump’s administration has vowed to take a harder stance on North Korea. However, such actions are likely to fall short of military options or other actions that would precipitate a military crisis. Any US response would likely be limited, such as deploying additional military assets in South Korea, conducting fly-overs over North Korean territory or cyber-attacks aimed at limiting North Korean military development. That said, there is an increased uncertainty around scenarios for trying to deter North Korea from further nuclear and missile development and a growing room for miscalculation on the part of both Pyongyang and Washington DC.

      - Jinsung Lim, Regional Security Manager, International SOS and Control Risks, South Korea

China has historically been one of North Koreas few allies, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early nineties. Although, after taking a series of Chinese fishing boats hostage (in all but name) at the beginning of the twenty-tens, and repeated nuclear weapon tests, the relationship has soured dramatically. With China imposing new sanctions, including a substantial restriction on all coal imports from North Korea (the regime’s largest export to their largest customer), the situation doesn’t appear to be improving anytime soon.

“…foreigners in Beijing or in northeast China might be more concerned since they live closer to North Korea. In the event of a conflict or a nuclear explosion, they could be worried since the live closer.”

      - Georges, French expat in China

The Bark and The Bite

No one can deny that North Korea has got a great bark regarding their military, with annual parades in Pyongyang, and Kim Jong-Un performing more ballistic missile tests during his time as Supreme Leader than his father and grandfather combined. This increasing number of tests could, of course, be down to the growing number of missiles at the regime's disposal and in development, but is also a clear message to South Korea and her allies to mind their own business.

“[The escalations between North Korea and the South Korea] definitely concern me as I am an expat living in South Korea. I did register with my local Embassy as a precaution (and because it is wise to do so anyhow when living abroad). However, I believe the Western media overdramatise the North/South Korea tensions a lot. South Koreans are not worried about North Korea’s threats and go about their daily business.”

      - Linda, US expat in South Korea, Linda Goes East

Although North Korea have developed a wide array of ballistic missiles with a variety of ranges (see above), relatively few of the longer-range varieties have been successful, although you should not rejoice just yet. The regime has a large arsenal of fully operational short-range missiles and other weapons systems that could easily cause large about of damage to nearby countries.

“Personally, the current situation wouldn’t have an impact on my long-term plans in Japan, however, if hostilities did commence, whether on the Korean Peninsula or directly engaging Japan, I’m sure I would re-assess my priorities. Amongst the expat community in general the main concern regarding the Trump administration is the inconsistency of message and the possibility of accidentally triggering a conflict with a casual miss-statement.“

       - Jonathan, British expat in Japan

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Time to Run for the Hills?

The presence of an unpredictable and petulant nation, with nuclear capabilities (no matter how undeveloped) and an arsenal of ballistic missiles on your doorstep will always be a concern. People not living in South Korea also often forget the Seoul is extremely close to the border, and well within the range of conventional firepower such as artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, which could cause an unbelievable amount of destruction to the city of 10 million. Despite all of this, will Kim Jong-Un ever push the button, knowing that it will inevitably bring about the end of his grandfather’s decaying legacy?

“I follow Trump’s actions closely in regards to his foreign policies, especially anything that concerns Korea. However, I think North Korea understands the effects of any serious actions towards South Korea will result in immediate war, not only between the North and South, but with the big allies of the USA: Europe and China. Should Donald Trump take serious actions against the North, of course I would be worried. My husband would have to fight in case of war, which is a scenario I don’t even want to begin to think about.”

      - Linda, US expat in South Korea, Linda Goes East

“People here, expats included, are a lot more sanguine about things than people elsewhere are. As things stand, it doesn't have any effect on my plans to stay here. The truth is, day to day life is safer here than it would be back home in the States. That being said, Trump's presence in the White House is... ...deeply worrying in a great many ways, but… …I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't slightly more concerned that something might go off here. I think that saying 'action may be taken' isn't the best way to phrase it. 'Impulse might not be checked in time' is what I'm more worried about.”

        - Charlie, US expat in South Korea

Although the threats from both sides have been going backwards and forwards for the past fifty years, with Trump sitting in the White House, the United States’ foreign policy of firmly calming the situation between North Korea and the outside can no longer be relied upon. This issue is the primary source of worry for many of the expats we talked to in South Korea and Japan, the two nations most likely to feel the wrath of Pyongyang if it were to come to war.

“The current escalations between North Korea and the US concern us on a daily basis now in Japan. The threat has always been there with North Korea regularly firing test missiles over the Sea of Japan that land very close to Japan. The news here in Japan has been covering the situation very closely, so we are staying updated. I don't think if the current situation persists it will affect my long-term plans to remain in Japan. The threat is always there, and will probably always remain. I think having Donald Trump in the White House might lead to some action against North Korea finally being taken.

       - John, Australian expat in Japan

From speaking to those across the South-East Asia, we can’t see the current situation changing the minds of many people living in the region, which has long been a popular destination for expats from all over the globe. Many have lived in the area long enough that the constant war of words between the two sides has become the norm, and is no longer a big concern.

“At this time, we have not observed any increase in the number of people looking for medical and travel insurance policies which are specifically covering war related occurrences. Nevertheless we do offer these as part of our portfolio and I believe that this point of cover will be requested more and more in the future.”

       - Thibaud Sarrazin, Business Development Manager at Abacare, an insurance broker in Asia

“Although a nuclear tipped missile, or even a conventional one for that matter, is a grave concern, it’s essentially one amongst others. The longer-term expats witnessed first-hand the impact of the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and some of us the destruction of an entire city when Kobe was razed in 1995. Living in Tokyo we know it’s only a matter of time until a catastrophic event occurs, however, we obviously don’t know when, and so live with the risk in the back of our minds all the time; but we do live with it and carry on.”

       - Jonathan, British expat in Japan

Although tensions are on the rise once again, many people across the region, whether they are locals, expats, or human resources professionals remain calm and undeterred from carrying on as usual in their day-to-day lives. As others have stated, regardless of how the geopolitical landscapes are shaping up at any particular time, companies should always have emergency plans in place to protect their employees should anything untoward happen.

“The geopolitical issues which have been highlighted in the news a great deal as of late are not entirely new to South Korea and are typically considered part of daily life. For the most part individuals and businesses in South Korea are little influenced with regard to their behaviour nor business activities altered. Although recent developments have garnered more attention and certain facets of the situation have become more serious to a certain degree the perception of risk by Koreans, Korean businesses, long-term foreign residents and foreign companies who have retained operations in South Korea for a number of years remains unchanged.

       - David Rohlfs, President of The Delaney Agency, South Korea

When living abroad registering with your embassy should always be a top priority irrespective of how stable the situation in your host country. If anything major should happen while you are abroad, embassies will be able to provide a tremendous amount of support to their citizens within the country, and accessing this help can be a lot easier if you are previously registered.

“Regardless of the degree geopolitical concerns and perceived threats of any location it is always advisable for client companies to have a formal emergency plans for their employees in place in consideration of not just civil strife but the possibility of natural events. Assignees should be well versed in what their responsibilities are to comply with these action plans and be familiar with how to be best prepared at their particular location.”

      - David Rohlfs, President of The Delaney Agency, South Korea

When we talked to International SOS and Control Risks, the world’s leading medical and travel security risk services company, their Regional Security Manager Jinsung Lim explained that they had seen an increase in companies seeking advice on how to handle potential risks for employees. “While most organisations continue to allow their staff to travel to, and remain in, South Korea, risk managers have shown a renewed interest to develop plans that would help minimise an organisation's exposure in case of a deterioration by linking developments on the Korean Peninsula with actionable advice around inbound travel, in-country movement and the withdrawal of staff from South Korea.”

“Heightened tensions on Korean peninsula are the norm. Similar to the tensions we’ve seen since early April, these persistent tensions are punctuated with periodic escalations that consist of vitriolic rhetoric and threats as well as increased military activity on the peninsula. Even during periods of escalated tensions, we have not seen, and do not expect to see a change in the number of South Koreans visiting Southeast Asia or the number of other travellers visiting Southeast Asia.” He explained.

Mr Lim finished by saying: “International SOS and Control Risks believe that travel to South Korea can continue as normal; we have, however, escalated our advice to recommend that our clients should defer non-essential travel to North Korea as a security precaution, given that in the past, the government has previously restricted the mobility of foreigners in the country during periods of heightened diplomatic tensions. However, the high-impact nature of a military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula necessitates that security managers maintain robust escalation plans to help organisations identify developments that genuinely presage an escalation of military tensions.”

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