The Jewish honorary consul of South Korea in Philadelphia thinks that the fiery rhetoric and concrete steps toward war taken by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are just bluster and that an international nuclear conflict is not imminent.
Then again, E. Harris Baum admits, he could be wrong.
“No one can predict what Kim Jong-un and the North Korean government will do at present,” Baum, 79, said, referring to increasingly dire threats that North Korea has made in recent weeks against South Korea, Japan and the United States. “Everybody is concerned. You just can’t turn your back to it.”
In recent weeks, the North has sounded an increasingly belligerent tone, warning foreigners to leave the region because of an imminent conflict.
“To me it raises a number of unanswered questions,” said Baum. “Is Kim Jong-un’s conduct an attempt maybe to consolidate his position with the military? I don’t know. Is his conduct an attempt to maybe gain concessions from China, Japan, South Korea and the United States?”
In Baum’s view, much depends on whether China — one of the North’s few allies and its main food supplier — is willing and able to help resolve the situation. China, he noted, doesn’t want the American-allied South Korea to become too powerful, but it doesn’t want regional war either.
“China must wield all necessary means to stabilize the Korean peninsula,” he said.
If North Korea did something similar to what it did with the 2010 bombardment of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, Baum is convinced that the high-alert status of the South, and of the United States, would mean a large-scale war.
How did a Center City resident and former president of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park become an unpaid representative of the government of South Korea?
It started a number of years ago when Baum — an adventurous soul who, with his late wife, climbed mountains in Tibet and Mongolia — took up tae kwon do, a form of martial arts developed in the Korean Peninsula.
He read up on Korean history and culture and learned the language, having a teacher come to his law office several hours a week. He began to see some parallels between Koreans and Jews, including a focus on education.
Through his language skills, he struck up a friendship with a Korean businessman — a wig manufacturer — and began representing his firm in the United States. In 2006, he was asked to apply for the honorary consul position and, last year, he was appointed to another five-year term.
Currently, he has been trying to organize a group of Korean-American doctors willing to fly to South Korea in the event of war, similar to a program run by the American Physicians and Friends for Medicine in Israel.
There aren’t many parallels between Israel’s security threats and the one faced by South Korea, he said. But he postulated that Iran is surely watching to see how the United States responds to a nuclear power acting as an aggressor.
“They are watching to see what kind of precedents are going to be created,” he said. “It is going to be interesting to see where we go.”
It seems fair to ask: Is it safe to travel to South Korea now?
“I would go,” he said. “Would I tell my children to go? Yes, very frankly. I don’t think that we are in peril at this point. If I thought that, I wouldn’t suggest going there.”