BY JAMES FARRELL
Before moving to the United States eight years ago, Insoo Oh, a 35-year-old pastor at the Korean American Presbyterian Church of Queens, was a military officer for the South Korean army.
These days, as tensions on the Korean Peninsula rise, he’s considering returning to his old job.
“If a war happens in South Korea, then I should go,” he said. “I’m from Korea, so I should go. As a previous officer, I should go and, as a Christian, I think I should go.”
In recent weeks, the rhetoric from North Korean leaders and other global stakeholders has made the possibility of war seem increasingly likely. Under the leadership of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, the country has accelerated its nuclear program. The nation has prepared itself in recent weeks for a sixth nuclear bomb test and carried out several other missile tests.
President Donald Trump has met the threat more aggressively than previous administrations, directing a U.S. aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Vinson, to sail near the Korean Peninsula. The action has prompted threats of attack from North Korea and warnings from China, leading to an escalation of tensions not seen in the region for years.
For Queens Koreans, there are concerns about what the escalating tensions could mean for them—both as residents of the United States and South Korean immigrants with lingering ties to the country. And while some discount the threats as unfounded or nothing new, others, like Oh, are watching nervously, hoping that cooler heads prevail.
Thomas Kim, the president of the Korean American Association of Queens, said that Queens is home to more than 150,000 Koreans. That’s the highest population outside the peninsula in the tristate area, he added, and the highest population per capita in the country.
“Most of us are from South Korea, as far as I know, and the tension between South Korea and North and also the United States, it really worries a lot of people,” Kim said. “We have our families back there.”
He added that the tensions at this point in time are the highest in recent memory. Until 2008, international stakeholders in the crisis were participating in the Six-Party Talks, an international roundtable working toward denuclearization. Kim said that without the talks on the table, the international discourse has shifted toward war, with too few discussing peaceful alternatives.
The Korean community in Queens, Kim said, has heightened its attention to the issue, but with few options for action, many are turning to outlets such as religion to cope with the rising tensions.
“They’re watching the news very carefully now,” Kim said. “A lot of them are associated with the churches, temples, things like that. So, last Sunday, there were a lot of prayer services going on.”
Oh said that he hears congregants discussing concerns about the possibility of war, but that aside from coming to the church and praying, there isn’t much for them to do to act on those concerns. There is much deeper urgency in his conversations with his mother, who is still living in South Korea.
“A little bit, we talk about the need to pray for South Korea more, but there is no actual action yet,” he said. “What else could we do? I don’t know.”
However, he added that the church has been emphasizing deep compassion for the people of North Korea. It’s the government that’s causing the problems, he added.
“We need to reach out to the North Korean people—people, not the government,” Oh said. “And we need to help them. And we’re praying for their freedom from the evil government.”
He also added that for many congregants, war with North Korea is not the only pressing issue. In March, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was impeached and the country is embroiled in an election to replace her. In that realm, the threat of North Korea looms as politicians use the situation as fodder for their campaigns.
Young Kim, an elder member of the church and a Long Island resident, said that he’s worried about the escalating tensions, but that as an American of 37 years, he is just as focused on staying up to date on domestic policy.
“More than Korea, I’m thinking about the United States because I was here more than Korea,” he said. “But Korea is my native country, so that’s why I’m worried sometimes. I see reports, newspapers, they say something. I’m worried about the people, that’s my people. We pray for Korea—both Koreas. North, South, it doesn’t matter.”
Young Kim added that he felt that the United States was doing a good job preventing a crisis up to this point, but emphasized the importance of avoiding war.
“The point is we don’t want war in Korea again,” he said.
Others were hardly concerned at all. When asked about his thoughts on the rising tensions and the discourse over nuclear powers, Queens resident Chang Lee shrugged off concerns, dismissing Korean leadership as “gangsters.”
“I don’t worry about that,” he said. “They cannot push the button.”
He believed global powers would “take care of it.”
Jun, another Queens resident who declined to give his last name, said that North Korea has always projected an aggressive bravado and that this time was no different.
“A long time ago, it happened, the same situation, but nothing happened,” he said. “We don’t need to fight—we can resolve the situation peacefully.”
Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing), the state legislature’s first Korean American representative, told the Queens Tribune that he had seen a “mixture of anger and frustration” in the Korean community and a generational distinction in responses.
“The older generation tends to be very anti-North Korean and they are somewhat angry at the regime and how they’re behaving, while the younger generations are more angry because of the lack of progress in reunifying the country,” he said.
“But I think the common sentiment is fear of potential escalation and no one wants to see this situation get worse, resulting in any kind of war.”
He added that he is working with Flushing’s Korean American community to draft a resolution at the state level calling for a peaceful resolution. He expects that to be completed in a few weeks.
Assemblyman Kim said that the situation is different now from that of past years because “we have two very similar personalities” in Trump and Kim Jong-un, “who are both acting somewhat impulsively, instead of fully understanding how to deal with geopolitics.”
He called Trump’s style of international policy “frightening and volatile.”
Meanwhile, in Queens, Koreans are debating how realistic the possibility of war is. Oh has had to consider what it would mean for his family if he chooses to return to Korea’s military in the event of war.
“How should I tell this issue to my wife?” he said. “These days, I was thinking like that.”
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.