Skip to main content

I'm writing this from the South Korean capital, Seoul, where I'm on a flying one-day visit. I'm in the South, but can't help thinking, often, about the North.

Seoul always seems to be gray in pictures and when I pass through. Gray buildings, gray skies. There's gray mist rolling across the Hangang River outside my hotel window, the Seoul Tower that was clear on Namsan Mountain across the water now shrouded in cloud. 

Gray, yes. Scared, no. South Korea certainly doesn't seem like a city in military lockdown. But the tension of this summer is a very real backdrop to a capital city going about its business.

My driver on the ride in from the airport wasn't worried. Did he have any concerns about the latest increase in mad-dog barking from North Korea? "No," he replied, "because they [the North] can't do anything. And it's been going on for so long."

But was he worried that President Donald Trump might do something rash, by accident even, that might propel the peninsula into war? He thought longer about that one. Perhaps he just didn't want to consider that prospect, but he shook his head slowly without saying anything, apparently resigned to the status quo.

Only, maybe this time around, the situation isn't the same. The Korean peninsula has gained a lot more prominence in my mind given the events of the summer. With Trump tweeting, cryptically, that "only one thing will work" in dealing with a nuclearized North Korea, I feel there are itchy fingers over red buttons.

When I moved to Asia in 2001, I knew the two Koreas never signed a peace pact after the 1950-53 Korean War. But that asterisk on the record of military history didn't mean anything to me. In the 16 years since then, the fact the two Koreas are still technically at war didn't matter one bit. But it certainly felt, for a few weeks this summer, that we were closer than in many years to a potentially devastating war.

Sitting here 35 miles from the border with the North makes the situation that little bit more real. The War Museum commemorating those events of 60-some years ago is a short cab ride away. And if not outright conflict, then the tension is a constant white noise in the background.

The Korean Joongang Daily -­- "Your window to Korea" -- told me fresh off the plane that former president Jimmy Carter now hopes to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un to broker a new peace pact between the rogue state and the United States.

Carter helped orchestrate a resolution to another nuclear crisis, in 1994, when he met with "founding father" Kim Il-sung shortly before his death that July. His son Kim Jong-il then adopted the Agreed Framework that froze North Korea's nuclear program in exchange for fuel oil and assistance building two light-water reactors to generate power.

It would probably be a mistake for Carter to lead such a delegation, because it would lend credibility to Kim's actions in testing nuclear weapons and sailing ballistic missiles over Japan. And now that North Korea is clearly nuclearized, I'm not sure it would accomplish much. Kim, people often say, saw what happened to Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. There's no way he'll give up his nukes.

Image placeholder title

Recently, he appeared to be acting like a stroppy teenager to keep on attracting attention. But Kim, the grandson and lookalike of the founding "Great Leader," may have had more method to his madness than immediately obvious.

Scroll to Continue

TheStreet Recommends

On Tuesday, South Korean lawmaker Lee Cheol-hee said that North Korean hackers had stolen a digital truckload of military secrets from a defense data center. The theft, according to the Financial Times, includes the latest plans for a joint U.S.-South Korea "decapitation" strike on North Korea to eliminate its leadership.

Kim, needless to say, isn't too happy about all this. He has changed his daily routine, the FT reports, and switched the cars he selects for travel.

His state news agency responded to Trump's latest tweet implying a "military solution" to an unsolvable problem with a more-moderate comment than normal. The agency said the country's nuclear program is a "powerful deterrent firmly safeguarding the peace and security in the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia."

Kim's kin are also clearly waging a crypto-war with South Korean and U.S. forces (who I'm sure are responding in kind). Seoul has already announced the setting up of a special military unit dedicated to eliminating Kim in the case of war, while the CIA said it May it has established a Korea Mission Center to address "the nuclear and ballistic missile threat posed by North Korea."

Lee, a member of the ruling Democratic Party, says that in the recent theft, the North Korean spies got their digital hands on 235 gigabytes of data. That includes contingency plans for South Korean special forces and information about key military facilities and power plants. 

The Korean hackers aren't restricted to military matters. Their own itchy keyboards have led them into cause for commercial concern, too.

North Korean hackers have been blamed for attacks on corporations and governments globally, even for the malwear WannaCry. The National Security Agency has tracked that computer worm back to code crafted in North Korea, and says "with moderate confidence" that it leads back to North Korea's spy agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the Washington Post reports. 

Most recently, hackers backed by Pyongyang have tried to steal Bitcoin from South Korean exchanges, to evade the harsh sanctions put into place against the Kim regime.

South Korean stocks languished this summer while the nuclear brinkmanship played out its tit-for-tat war of words. Having set an all-time high in mid-July, they sailed south to the tune of 5.0% by mid-August, and re-tested that low in September.

Korean stocks have found new perk, up 2.6% since September 27. Investors have remained sanguine that the South is safe, and nothing will ultimately come, physically, from a dangerous diplomatic game. Seoul, too, is cloaked in the comfort of the 9-to-5, as well as cloud.

Just mist and nothing more sinister, I think to myself, taking a last look out of the window before heading off to work myself.

This article originally appeared at 06:00 ET on Real Money, our premium site for active traders. Click here to get great columns like this from Jim Cramer and other writers even earlier in the trading day.

More of What's Trending on TheStreet:

Employees of TheStreet are restricted from trading individual securities.