I grew up listening to stories of the aftermath. Whenever I would complain about my relatively comfortable life growing up in New York City, my parents, born shortly after the end of the Korean War, would reflect on their struggles with abject poverty, deep financial loss, postwar trauma and missed educational opportunities.
Mixed in with the sense of loss and grief, known as han, is unmistakable pride in South Korea’s rapid rise from the ashes and its transformation into an economic powerhouse. Like so many of the other 1.7 million Korean Americans, my parents are forever grateful for America’s help in not only turning the tide of war in South Korea’s favor, but also for the enduring alliance, which continues to bring peace and stability to the Korean Peninsula. To South Koreans, Americans are our brothers and sisters.
That is why it was so jarring to hear Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., quoting President Trump in August as saying, “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there, and they’re not going to die here.”
This glib statement — implying the deadly consequences of any military strike on North Korea would be tolerable as long as it’s not on American soil — plays into a dangerous perception that South Korean lives are somehow acceptable casualties.
This othering ignores two fundamental truths: The number of Americans in South Korea, and how closely intertwined the North and South actually are.
There are 230,000 U.S. nationals, including 28,500 American troops, who reside in South Korea today. In the event North Korea attacks, as many as 300,000 people will die in the first few days of fighting, according to the Congressional Research Service. To put things into perspective, that’s equivalent to the population of St. Louis, Mo., or Cincinnati. A conflict with North Korea would be the bloodiest in modern history, with far reaching consequences to the balance of power in the region and the global economy.
This doesn’t even take into account the horrific health and environmental impacts any use of nuclear weapons would cause.
We must remember also that until 1948, there was only one Korea. And to this day many Koreans, including Korean Americans, still have immediate family members living in the North. There are as many as 100,000 Korean Americans with family members in North Korea. For Korean Americans, an attack on North Korea would affect us all.
While in Seoul on Tuesday and Wednesday, President Trump must recognize the ambivalence and decades of frustration South Koreans are carrying, in regards to their northern brethren. He should use this historic visit to shed light on the history of the divided Korea and the subsequent war that pitted brother against brother from 1950 to 1953. As the Trump administration and other members of the U.S. government talk about bombing North Korea, Americans deserve to understand this complicated dynamic.
Right now, across the world, democratic norms are under attack. Now more than ever, our two countries must stand united, not divided, bound by the democratic values we hold dear.
Right now, Congress is considering legislation that would bar funding for an attack against North Korea without its approval.
At the same time, there is a growing call among Korean Americans, non-proliferation groups, faith-based groups and humanitarian organizations that as the sole superpower, the United States can, and must, do more to de-escalate tension and give diplomacy a chance.
We believe, as most Korean Americans do, that there is no substitute for U.S. leadership on this issue. The time to lead is now.
Jessica Lee is the Director of Policy and Advocacy of the Council of Korean Americans, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of successful Korean American leaders.