In the United States, citizens are hanging to the edge of their seats for updates on a tense and closely-followed situation with North Korea.
But life is still moving as usual in the Pacific. Local students and military dependents are boarding busses for school every morning. Service members are taking leave and traveling with their families around the region. And many troops stationed there say the panic level is considerably higher in the U.S. than it is across the Pacific.
“If you walk around the streets of Seoul you wouldn’t think for a second anyone is nervous of war,” Capt. Phil Hilaire, a U.S. Army operations officer stationed in Seoul, told Military Times on Wednesday.
Secretary of Defense Gen. Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford joined military leaders in Seoul for two days of talks, and on Friday visited the Demilitarized Zone.
One Okinawa-based Marine who has lived on the island before said he doesn’t feel more of a threat now than he did on his past rotations. It’s an ebb and flow of tension, he says. But he isn’t scared to let his children travel around the region or send his son to play sports games in Seoul, he said.
Hilaire, who has been stationed in Seoul since February said, “People are a lot more worried in the States than they are here.”
“I’ve had several friends reach out to me while I’ve been out here inquiring how I’m doing and whether I’m safe,” he said in a message to Military Times. “Meanwhile nobody out here is as nervous of a war breaking out.”
Military leaders in Okinawa insist even with increasing rhetoric, mission and orders have not changed.
“From our perspective in the MEU it has not changed,” Col. Tye Wallace, commanding officer of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, said in a late-September interview at III MEF headquarters at Camp Courtney, Okinawa.
“Our job is to be a crisis response force at all times — whatever that crisis might be. We always train for the most dangerous, and we have the flexibility to change.”
If North Korea were to invade South Korea, the Marine Corps’ 31st MEU would likely be among the first American units called in.
“We will go where they ask us to go,” Wallace said. “We are one of the fastest elements that could embark and move and be where they need us to go.”
Col. David E. Jones, deputy commander of Marine Corps Installations Pacific, said in a late September interview on Okinawa: “I would say there‘s always anxiousness. Do I feel nervous? No, I don’t. People go on with their daily lives. All of our allies in the region and leadership have stated this is a diplomatic solution we’re looking for.”
President Donald Trump has previously said the United States would “totally destroy” North Korea if necessary to protect itself and its allies from Pyongyang’s nuclear threats.
On Oct. 7, Trump said “only one thing will work” in dealing with North Korea after previous administrations’ diplomatic efforts failed. Trump did clarify his comments, but many people believed he was suggesting that military action was under consideration.
The North Korean nuclear threat is not new, Kang In-sun, Washington bureau chief for South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, told a group of reporters and analysts at a D.C.-based Korea Economic Institute panel on Oct. 16.
She said when asked by an American friend if her family in Seoul had plans to move south to avoid potential military threats: “No, I have never thought about it.”
Kang feels more alarm and worry when reading U.S. news and living in Washington, D.C., she said, than in South Korea.
But President Donald Trump’s July “fire and fury” comments in August are something South Koreans are taking very seriously, she said. The rhetoric is something the South Koreans haven’t seen from a U.S. president before, and it is giving fuel to North Korea, she said.
Before Trump’s July comments, Kang asked friends in South Korea if they were prepared for a military strike.
“At the time, they just laughed,” she said. “Are you kidding? We are OK. We have experienced these kind of things hundreds of times.”
“But this time they are worried,” she said, noting that she still doesn’t think war is imminent. “If something happens, where do we hide ourselves? …. If that’s a nuclear attack, then what should we do?”
U.S. troops understand the seriousness of a North Korean threat, and say they are watchful and ready. On Okinawa, III Marine Expeditionary Force’s motto is “fight tonight,” and it has been and will continue to be prepared for anything, Marines there say.
Mattis has hammered to Marines that Korea is a top priority.
But so far, a North Korean threat is not stopping most troops in the Pacific from taking leave, traveling or enjoying life.
Navy Yeoman Second Class (YN2) Samantha Rosemond is attached to Commander Fleet Activities Okinawa in Japan.
“Alert and prepared. Those are the words that will always stand strong here,” she said in an email Oct. 13. “We are aware of the situation that is currently at hand but nonetheless we still enjoy Okinawa to the fullest.”
Andrea Scott is managing editor of Marine Corps Times. On Twitter: @_andreascott.