SEOUL, South Korea – Outsiders might hear the opening notes of a war in the deluge of threats and provocations from North Korea, but to South Koreans it is a familiar drumbeat.
Separated from the North by a heavily fortified border for decades, they have for the most part lived with tough talk from Pyongyang all their lives. In annual defence drills, war alarms ring in their ears.
Foreigners unused to North Korean rumblings have cancelled trips to the Korean Peninsula. But to get South Koreans’ attention, Pyongyang must compete with the economy, celebrity scandals, baseball games and cherry blossoms.
At a restaurant in downtown Seoul that sells kimchi stew and fried cutlets, owner Lee Chul-je said he wasn’t worried about the threats, as news about them poured from a TV in the corner.
“North Korea does this all the time,” the 65-year-old said as he dropped slices of raw meat into a tenderizer. “I’m sure things will become OK again.”
Office worker Park Geun-san is more interested in next week’s Seoul concert by “Gangnam Style” singer PSY than in the North’s dark pronouncements.
“My life isn’t affected by them,” he said. “I’m really excited about going to the concert. North Korea doesn’t distract me from looking forward to it.”
North Korea has responded with fury over U.N. sanctions following its third nuclear test Feb. 12, and over ongoing U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Among other statements, it has threatened a nuclear strike against the U.S., declared that it has scrapped the Korean War armistice, blocked South Koreans from entering a jointly run industrial park and announced that it will restart a plutonium reactor and produce more fuel for nuclear bombs.
The litany of provocations has rocketed North Korea to among the top news headlines around the world, but not always in South Korea. When North Korea vowed this week to restart the reactor, major South Korean dailies gave more space on their front pages to explaining the government’s plans to give tax breaks to home buyers. On Naver, the most visited web portal in South Korea, the most-read news this week has been South Korean pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin’s LA Dodgers’ debut.
There is no sign of panic. At Home Plus, a major supermarket chain, no one was buying up bottled water or instant noodles. “There has been no spike in sales,” company official Koo Doyoun said.
Kang Dong-wan, a cross-border relations expert at Dong-A University in Busan, said South Koreans see Pyongyang as the boy who cried wolf. After almost endless militant threats, they now refuse to believe war is imminent, he said.
“It only takes a week for South Koreans to get bored with threats, no matter how strong they are,” Kang said. “South Koreans have also learned over the years that any war would cost the North most dearly.”
Kang, however, believes South Koreans should start taking North Korean threats more seriously than before because Pyongyang’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, is still tightening his grip on power and has not been proven to make sound military judgments.
South Korea’s Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin told lawmakers Thursday that North Korea’s recent threats are mere rhetoric, although he did not rule out a chance of small-scale conflict, such as the North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong island near the border in 2010. The shelling killed four people and was North Korea’s first military assault on South Korean territory since the Korean War.
An important difference between now and 2010 is that Seoul has promised to respond aggressively to any North Korea attack. Kang said, “A small spark can now easily lead to a fire that can engulf the peninsula. It’s that dry a season now.”
South Koreans are not oblivious about the North. They live with constant reminders that the country is technically in a state of war, since the Korean War ended with a truce and not a peace treaty. All able-bodied men must serve in the military for two years. In addition to military drills, civilians become part of regular defence drills a couple of times a year. During the nationwide drills, road traffic is halted and an alarm rings in the street to evoke the sense of a real war.
Cho Doo-hyeong, whose two sons both serve in the military, said he isn’t too worried about their safety because he believes South Korean troops would prevail if war broke out.
“I’m not anxious because I believe my country will win. If war were to break out, let’s have it and see who wins,” the 52-year-old said on the phone. But he admitted that he may be feeling complacent because he hasn’t seen real warfare before.
Concern may have peaked with the nuclear test. In an Asan Institute for Policy Studies poll of 1,000 South Koreans conducted Feb. 13-15, immediately after the test, 63 per cent said it made them feel insecure. It has not followed up on the poll, which had a margin of error of 3.1 per cent.
At this point, the economy weighs heavier on many South Koreans. Shoeshine man Jeong Yeong-soo said he’s more worried about making a living than about war.
“North Korea could be making threats because of an internal power struggle or because the U.S. scares them. But I wish they’d just quiet for the time being so I can carry on with my life,” Jeong said as he scrubbed a shoe with a piece of cloth wrapped around his hand.
Some South Koreans say the apparent calm among the local people is because they are complacent about national security.
“South Korean people are too indifferent about North Korea. So many people don’t even know that the Korean War ended in truce and technically, we are still in the state of war,” said Kim Jin-hwan, a 30-year-old employee at a bakery shop in Seoul. “If we are not interested in (North Korea), we cannot be well prepared.”
Many foreigners appeared to be more affected by the war rhetoric. Parents of Japanese students headed for school trips in South Korea “are making many calls asking about safety,” said Kang Soon-deog, director of research and development centre at the Korea Tourism Organization.
Andrea Lee, CEO of Uri Tours, which has been arranging tours to North Korea for more than 10 years, said she has seen some cancellations recently, but she said that comes with the territory.
“It’s always a rough time when tensions get high. But this is commonplace for us,” Lee said. “We’ve been through these sorts of high tension periods.”
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