Choi Yong Wook woke on his 29th birthday to the news that North Korea had repositioned a missile days after threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” That didn’t stop him from a romantic dinner with his wife in one of the South Korean capital’s busiest areas.
“This is how we survive, we continue living our lives,” Choi, a Daewoo Electronics Corp. salesman, said in an interview. “North Korea has always threatened that war can break out any day. But who can believe them?”
As tensions escalate, life for 10 million South Koreans in their capital 40 kilometers (24 miles) from the world’s most fortified border goes on uninterrupted. Schools, businesses and public offices keep regular schedules and there are no reports of panic-buying in shops. While Choi and his wife blew out his birthday candles, Seoul’s LG Twins lost their baseball game against crosstown rivals the Nexen Heroes, 4-3.
South Koreans have grown accustomed to North Korea’s threats, including its frequently repeated “sea of fire” warning. While the nuclear strike threat is new, the North’s bellicose rhetoric has occasionally led to direct action against its neighbor. In 2010, the sinking of a South Korean warship killed 46 sailors, and four people died when North Korea shelled a border island eight months later.
“Just look around, nobody worries about it,” said Choi, whose grandmother fled North Korea during the 1950-53 war. “Even if they were to launch a nuclear attack, we’d be dead within minutes anyway.”
Not everyone is so sanguine. North Korea may simultaneously conduct another nuclear test and fire a ballistic missile this week, South Korea’s Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said today.
South Korea’s Kospi stock index gained 0.1 percent today, following a 3 percent slump last week as North Korea said it was poised to conduct a “smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike.” The won slid 0.6 percent to 1,138.78 per dollar as of 1:35 p.m. in Seoul after touching 1,139.59, the lowest since July 27, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Opinion polls reflect the mixed feelings of South Koreans as they consider how seriously to take the threats from Kim Jong Un’s regime. More than two-thirds of respondents to a poll by Seoul-based Realmeter last month said Kim will never give up developing nuclear weapons, just over half don’t expect an all-out war with the North, and 43 percent do.
The divisions may be generational. Han Jae Jung lost her husband and elder brother during the war, which ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty. Now she can’t sleep.
“I’m paranoid about another war,” the 70 year-old said on her way to visit her pastor. “If North Korea attacks, I’m not going to run. I’d prefer to wait for death at home.”
Nearby at Bosingak square, which houses a bell tower restored after it was destroyed during the war, Oh Gyeong Hoon, 38, played on an iPad while enjoying the spring weather.
“Even if North Korea attacks tomorrow, I won’t be bothered,” the Metlife Inc. office worker said. “North Korea will make another provocation for the sake of showing off.”
Such calm belies rising aggression. North Korea fired a long-range missile in December then detonated its third nuclear bomb in February in defiance of international sanctions, and says U.S.-South Korean drills that began in March and last through the end of April are rehearsals for attacks against it.
The U.S. has responded by flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and B-2 stealth bombers over the Korean peninsula. It has also sent two Navy destroyers to the region and is deploying a missile-defense system to Guam. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel over the weekend decided to postpone an intercontinental ballistic missile test to avoid exacerbating the situation, according to a Pentagon official who asked not to be named.
As a result, South Korea’s government should be raising civilian alert levels, said Sung Nak Sul, a judicial scrivener who served as a major in the army from 1977 to 1985, including near the border.
“Whether wanted or not, the war can happen at any time and we have to fight to win,” said the 64-year-old Sung, adding that his four children say he’s too combative. “Looking around Seoul and the general lack of security awareness -- that’s what’s frightening.”
Seoul’s residents don’t have to go far to see reminders of the risks associated with proximity to the North. The city’s subway stations double as evacuation points in case of emergency. Almost 350 gas masks and two oxygen tanks are stocked on each side of the track at Jonggak station in central Seoul, used by nearly 100,000 people every day, said Lee Kang Se, a spokesman for Seoul Metro.
South Korea began holding monthly nationwide evacuation drills in 1972 in case of North Korean attack. Nowadays they happen once a year, and the National Emergency Management Agency is considering an additional drill in light of the North’s recent threats, the agency’s civil defense director Han Kwang Soon said in a phone interview.
In the meantime, residents cope in different ways.
“My mom recently put up newspaper clippings on the fridge on what to buy to prepare for a war and where to evacuate to,” said Kim Hannah, a 23-year-old trade major at the University of Incheon, west of Seoul. “This is the first time she’s shown so much concern for North Korea, but she also hasn’t done any of the things the clippings say we should be doing.”