It was sunny and warm on my arrival on my recent trip to Seoul, but the weather turned south that afternoon. A shorts-and-T-shirt morning gave way to windbreakers and a bit of a shiver -- a hint of the bitter winter to come.
The mood seems to turn just as quickly on the North Korea crisis: one moment calm, the next bleak.
The United States and South Korea are conducting naval war games off both Korean coasts as I write, involving the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier. That's normally a good time for North Korea to blast something off, which would ratchet up the intensity again.
The timing would be bad, given that China is about to start its key twice-in-a-decade National Congress of the Communist Party. This 19th edition, which begins on Wednesday, will set the agenda for the next five years and establish China's leadership structure for the next five years. It will also likely see President Xi Jinping cement his place in power, and possibly the communist firmament, if "Xi Jinping Thought" gets enshrined in the party's evolving notion of Marx's grand theory.
The prospect of embarrassing Xi didn't stop North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un at the start of September. The day before Xi threw down the red carpet for the heads of state of the BRICS developing nations in the Chinese coastal city of Xiamen on Sept. 4, Kim ordered North Korea's largest nuclear test to date. That was followed immediately by a summit in Vladivostok that brought together Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Crazy timing indeed.
So some kind of missile test or explosion is on the cards. Yet my recent trip to Seoul showed that South Koreans aren't worried about Kim. Everyone I asked had a variant of the answer "We've been living with this for long." If anything, there was a defiance that we're definitely not going to let North Korea get to us, dammit. Let's get back to business. Not even worth bothering about.
I did, however, hear loud planes flying overhead shortly before 11 p.m. at night. The next day, I discovered that two U.S. B-1 Lancer bombers carried out air-to-ground missile tests on both sides of South Korea, accompanied by Japanese and Korean fighters in a night-time first. I can't confirm that the sound that I heard was the planes, because the flight path hasn't been released, but at the very least it's not a huge surprise to hear heavy military equipment moving around in Korea. There's a U.S. B-1 bomber on display at the Seoul air show this week.
Despite this, life pretty much goes on. One thing I was interested to see during my visit was how alternatives to smoking are being adopted. South Korea not only has a ton of smokers (half of adult men), but it's also one of the only places on the planet were both vaping and "heat-not-burn" technology is legal.
I'm not sure if people were smoking any more than normal -- Korean salarymen chain-smoke anyway! But they appear to be switching to healthier alternatives, given the choice, as I wrote about yesterday. Investors in Big Tobacco companies such as Philip Morris International (PM) , British American Tobacco (BTI) , Imperial Brands (IMBBY) , Japan Tobacco (JAPAY) and China Tobacco (which is state-owned) should watch for the conversion rates and next-generation sales of those companies, which are better off concentrating on alternatives to what's clearly a dying industry.
I recently switched from drinking to vaping. That's just my personal choice, but I wouldn't be surprised if alcohol purveyors such as Pernod Ricard (PDRDY) , Asahi Group (ASBRY) , Diageo (DEO) , Kirin Holdings (KNBWY) , SAB Miller (SBMRY) , Heineken Holding (HKHHY) and Anheuser Busch InBev (BUD) (in ascending order of size) start to experience the same sort of pressure that Big Tobacco has withstood for years.
South Korean businessmen drink a lot, as a rule, too. I'm not sure that's changed either in the face of the threat from Kim. They might have reached for an extra glass of soju after hearing, as I wrote last week, that North Korea had stolen the plans for a U.S.-South Korean "decapitation" attack to kill Pyongyang's leaders. In this week's war games, there's a detail of U.S. special forces on board a nuclear-powered submarine tasked with carrying out a mock "decapitation" operations, according to Yonhap News Agency.
But South Koreans are worried about Donald Trump. This is a man who threatened to unleash "fire and fury like the world has never seen" two days after the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, apparently without his advisers knowing he would use that language. South Korean, Hong Kong and Japanese stocks are all worth watching when that kind of pressure escalates.
For South Koreans, Trump represents the wild card that they know, if put in play, could lead to game of nuclear Crazy 8s that could see both sides shed their arsenals of nuclear weapons. They're used to an unstable leader just across the border 35 miles to the north. They're not used to the leaders on both sides of the cold battle being unhinged.
There's also a fear that Trump, given his egotistical tendencies and apparent lack of even the basic tenets of diplomacy, will go it alone on North Korea, making his own decisions without consulting Seoul, and Moon Jae-in in the Blue House. That would drive a wedge between Washington and South Korea. Seoul still needs a sensible solution that likely requires gradual rapprochement and eventual assimilation of the 25 million cousins who call the Hermit Kingdom home.
Splitting South Korea and the United States as allies actually represents the best possible outcome of the current crisis for China. The Middle Kingdom would experience any fallout of a hot war, and China is in warm water anyway in the eyes of the global community for failing to rein Kim back in.
But the suits in Beijing who will soon be trotting out on stage for the conference are just as frustrated with Kim as Trump. Their options are all unpalatable: to continue trickling aid to a leader whom they can't control; to quietly turn the other way as a non-economy that means nothing in terms of China's trade stumbles along; to accede to tougher and tougher sanctions that just increase the pressure on North Koreans to cross the border into China; to cut off all ties and precipitate a full-blown humanitarian crisis; or to witness war.
China would love Trump to take on Kim directly, so the problem is out of Beijing's hands. This would obviously be a mistake, but one the president may eventually find impossible to resist. I'm sure Trump would love to meet "Rocket Man," as much as he mocks him. They're kindred spirits. Reason for those souls in Seoul to quiver indeed.