Thomas Hubbard, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, explains the roots of the North Korean attacks and weighs in on the prospects for all-out war on the peninsula.

Americans considering business trips to South Korea should make “no change of plans” as a result of North Korea‘s Nov. 23 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea told GlobalAtlanta.

Many South Koreans are angry over the attacks, which killed two soldiers and two civilians, but cooler heads will prevail even after one of the gravest skirmishes since end of the Korean War, said Thomas Hubbard, who served as the top U.S. diplomat in South Korea from 2001-04. 

“I saw nothing in my week in Korea – and I felt very safe there – that suggested any danger. The Korean Peninsula is going to remain tense, but deterrence still works on a broad scale,” Mr. Hubbard said. Fresh off a trip to South Korea, he visited Atlanta Dec. 9 to moderate a discussion at the Commerce Club on doing business in the country.

Escalation is unlikely, he noted, as North Koreans “know they would lose” a war with the U.S.-backed South. Conversely, South Koreans don’t want to jeopardize their booming economy, which has given them lifestyles starkly contrasting with their impoverished northern neighbors.

“Koreans are angry, upset, frustrated, but there’s no sense of panic there. They have some confidence as I do that the South Korea government … will react calmly, will take every step to avoid escalation of this conflict,” said Mr. Hubbard. “I don’t see this potential of a broader conflagration.”

South Korea’s ambassador to the U.S., Han Duk-soo, also spoke at the Atlanta event, where he spent most of his time promoting the recently revised U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement. He said the pact solidified the countries’ alliance at a crucial time.

He reaffirmed South Korean President Lee Myung-bak‘s vow to retaliate against future North Korean attacks while noting that a coordinated response from the U.S. and South Korea should help the North “get the message” that such brazen “bad behavior” won’t be tolerated.

“My president’s posture and emphasis on self-defense and also the countermeasures toward that kind of bad behavior is quite natural and an absolute necessity for restraining North Korea’s preposterous and outrageous provocations,” Mr. Han told GlobalAtlanta in an exclusive filmed interview.

The ambassador said that disciplinary measures, possibly in the form of further economic sanctions, should also be used to get North Korea back to the negotiating table on the issue of denuclearization.

Despite such grave rhetoric, businesspeople in Korea don’t spend their time worrying about the prospect of war, said Song Jung, a Korean-American patent attorney who travels to Korea frequently and represents companies there and in the U.S.

Mr. Jung, a partner at McKenna, Long & Aldridge LLP in Washington, said he is more worried about dealing with an earthquake in California than a missile in Korea, where he travels on business 10-12 times per year.

Though the situation can get “uncomfortable” in times of high tension, Koreans don’t let fear impede their business activities, Mr. Jung said.

On the morning after the Yeonpyeong incident, Mr. Jung called a contact at his client LG‘s flat-panel-display factory within sight of the North Korean border. Business was going on as usual, he said.

“From a business point of view—and many of my U.S. clients ask me about this—we don’t cancel trips because of [incidents like] this,” he told GlobalAtlanta by phone after speaking at the Atlanta event.

A Korean scholar visiting Atlanta Dec. 4 said the situation may get worse but that North Korea does not want all-out war.

Not only is broader conflict against the country’s interests, but its depressed economy couldn’t sustain it anyway, said Jung-hoon Lee, professor of international relations at Yonsei University‘s Graduate School of International Studies.

“North Korea’s interest is not war; North Korea’s interest is regime survival,” Dr. Lee said.

As for the reason behind the North’s belligerence, he speculated that North Korea is trying to show its strength as a military state despite its poor economy or that leader Kim Jong-il‘s heir apparent, his youngest son Kim Jong-un, is trying to make his own display of force to military officials as he prepares to succeed his father.

The action also fits a longstanding pattern of North Korean behavior: attempting to use threats or attacks as leverage to win aid concessions or to bring the U.S. back to nuclear talks, Mr. Hubbard said.

The Atlanta event was hosted by the Korea Society in conjunction with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta. For more information on the council’s programs, visit


Korean Professor: Attack on South Korea Won’t Lead to War

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...