Jews in South Korea: In range but unfazed


The world’s media is in no doubt: North Korea’s despotic regime presents the biggest threat to world peace in decades. The rogue state’s latest escalations, firing a missile over Japan and testing what it calls an “advanced hydrogen bomb”, has led US Defense Secretary James Mattis to warn of “a massive military response”.

Kim Jong-un responded with more fiery rhetoric, sending a chill down spines across the planet.

But what of the Jewish communities living in South Korea, a stone’s throw from the North’s deadly arsenal?

They may be few in number, but expat Jews can be found living all over South Korea — particularly in Seoul, a mere 35 miles from the border with the North. The capital sits directly in the line of North Korean artillery fire and could quickly feel the brunt of the hostilities should inter-Korean tensions overspill.

So are the South’s Jewish residents now fearing the worst, packing their belongings and preparing to flee? Actually, no. Instead they seem to be getting on with life as though nothing untoward were going on at all.

Maurice Daniel, a Jewish community leader who has lived in South Korea for 25 years, says, “We are concerned, but not the point where we’d want to leave. Naturally, Jews here talk about issues like these. And of course they worry, but it seems no one really takes these threats seriously. Life goes on as normal.”

In fact, although North Korea’s nuclear aspirations dominate the news, most long-term residents have seen it all before. Missile launches have been a regular occurrence since the early 1990s, while nuclear testing began in 2006. There have also been numerous cross border and naval skirmishes, many of which have resulted in casualties.

Ben Adam Lee is another prominent figure in South Korea’s Jewish community. Like many, he regularly attends weekly Shabbat services held at Seoul’s American military base. He says, ”I don’t see anyone here readying their bags and heading for the airport. Threats like these have become commonplace in this country.”

And while Kim Jong-un’s forces ready their arms, it appears the country’s only Rabbi, Chabad’s Osher Litzman, has bigger fish to fry. Amid the news of the North’s tests, Rabbi Litzman has announced he is preparing to open a kosher restaurant in the South Korean city of PyeongChang, the venue for next year’s Winter Olympic Games.

British teacher David Ross says, “I’ve been in Seoul for less than a year, and my family back home keeps ringing to ask if everything’s OK. But when you see ordinary South Koreans just getting on with life, it sort of reassures you. They seem totally unfazed – I’m starting to feel the same.”

Jewish mother of two Noa Jo agrees. “It’s just a way of life in this part of the world,” she says. “The North’s a nagging concern. But you see expats and citizens alike just getting on with their daily routines amid it all, so you tend to assume it will all come to nothing.”

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