For some folks in business, there is a disconnect between the apparent drum-beat to war on the Korean Peninsula, and the placid reactions from the business community in the US. To understand why this is, I asked a longtime Korea hand for some perspective. But before I give you his perspective, let me offer a bit of mine.
Welcome to the DMZ
As a young man I went to Seoul as a junior financial analyst, and as part of that mission I was invited to tour Panmunjom, the village where the 1953 Korean War armistice was signed and which still functions as a meeting point between North and South. In this instance, “South” includes a ready force of the US Army, which has been stationed there for 64 years as a buffer against a resumption of the land war. The demilitarized zone between north and south is patrolled by both sides, and my military guide reported an ongoing but largely un-reported war of attrition–sniping, attempted kidnapping and other provocations. On the Northern side, traditional style buildings face the South. As pretty as they are, they are not real, but simply props build to look like buildings.
Panmunjom was still used occasionally for meetings between military representatives in the 80’s–not sure if it still is–and the report was that representatives of both sides had learned to be stony-faced and formal. Korea, then, is like the modern equivalent of the Cold War. Both sides take positions of apparent long-term strength, subject the other side to propaganda points large and small, and probe for weaknesses. From the point of view of the troops at the DMZ, there was no predicting when that conflict would end, or how.
Enter The Donald
Enter Donald Trump, eager to stoke the long-simmering rhetorical fires in response to Northern Korea’s increase in missile and nuclear tests. Isolated from the alarming nature of the tests themselves, the language our president uses seems to belie the long-term nature of the conflict. He promises speedy resolution, via “fire and fury” if necessary, and belittles our long-term adversary with personal insult. To the person who visited Panmunjom all those years ago, this talk feels like be an unnecessary escalation, one that could put Seoul and much of the South Korean population at risk.
Which brings me back to my friend the Korea hand. “Are you worried?” I ask. And the answer is, “Not at all.”
Stock Index? Or Fear Index?
It turns out that those who have followed the political and economic situation in Korea for many years have been trained to consult an overall fitness indicator. That is the so-called Kospi Index, which is the Korean equivalent of the S&P 500.
This indicator was kicked off in the 1980’s with a value of 100, and at this writing the index clocks in above 2,400. So for those who believe that Korea’s economic strength will win a long, cold-war style conflict with a tyrannical regime, there is comfort in the numbers. When it come to fear, the Kospi has traditionally measured economic fears and not military ones.
And those in-the-know who wish to see a market reaction to all the war rhetoric–after all, wars are generally bad for sales and profits–turn again to the Kospi.
My guess is that if any increase in war talk results in a dramatic decrease in the stock market index…well, that’s an indicator that the world has come down with a new, and worrisome, set of nerves.