When news hit 10 years ago that North Korea was making an atomic bomb, dread fell on the South Korean capital. People hoarded rice, cooking oil, and water. The national-security adviser gravely described an unpredictable neighbor holding or selling nuclear weapons as nothing less than "a question of civilization."
Now, as Kim Jong Il's regime lights all its fireworks - withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), threatening to restart ballistic-missile tests, and orchestrating an harshly anti-US rally of a million North Koreans in Pyongyang on Saturday - the feeling in Seoul is nonchalance. If alarm bells rang too loudly here a decade ago, experts say, they now may be ringing too softly.
For crowds vying for tickets to a puppet show Sunday, or shoppers traversing the festive Myongdong district, the worry factor is not high. Many feel North Korea is playing an elaborate bluffing game of brinkmanship driven by desperation. Others, particularly those under 40, share a growing national sense that Korean reunification is under way, and blame the US for hampering that process. Some also feel cocooned in the prosperity of the South, where careers are the No. 1 obsession.
"We don't take this too seriously," says Mr. Jong, a businessman at a downtown park where yellow sweet persimmons were being sold. "Ten years ago is a long time. The crisis passed then, and it will pass again. We don't think Kim [Jong Il] means to attack. Things have changed."
This week, the UN Security Council will coordinate with the Geneva-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose inspectors were kicked out of Pyongyang last month, on whether to impose sanctions on North Korea because of its withdrawal from the NPT. The North has said such an action would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
South Korean officials and state news organs initially played down the crisis when the North admitted to US envoy James Kelly in October that it had a secret nuclear program. Only in recent days have they taken a stronger tone.
Outgoing President Kim Dae Jung, architect of the Sunshine Policy of engagement with the North, issued a statement last Fridayafter the North withdrew from the NPT, that "the situation on the peninsula has deteriorated." Former diplomats and security experts on a Saturday evening TV panel discussion made a rare criticism of the anti-US zeal that has dominated the public mood here recently, saying that it undercuts the need to take the nuclear issues seriously.
"What's alarming is that most South Koreans are not alarmed or upset that Kim kicked out the IAEA inspectors and is withdrawing from the NPT," says Eun Jung Cahill Che, a research fellow in Seoul for a Hawaii-based security think tank. She adds that budding Korean national feeling and pride play a part in this ambivalence. " 'We are one Korea' is a bigger concept than the idea that Kim is developing nuclear weapons, especially among younger generations."
How much the ambivalence of the public mood in the South plays a role in how the South is coordinating its diplomatic approach is unclear, although conservative critics say it definitely does.
"The complacent mood of the people does have something to do with the attitude of South Korea toward the North," says Paik Jin-hyun, a professor at Seoul National University and critic of the Sunshine Policy.
"TV particularly is government controlled, and during the presidential elections this fall, they never took the nuclear issue seriously," he adds. "Even when the North said it was going to restart its reactor, the media coverage was less than the coverage of candlelight protests against the US."
To be sure, not everyone is comfortable with their northern neighbor's behavior.
On Saturday, some 30,000 conservative evangelical Christians in downtown Seoul held a pro-US, antinuclear rally on the same spot where 100,000 anti-US demonstrators met several weeks ago.
The mostly older crowd, who carried green balloons and many of whom wept during emotional prayers, was a surprise to some observers, who have not seen many public displays of support for the US troop presence in Korea in the past year.
Organizers of the evangelical rally, which emerged from the 700,000-member Yoido Full Gospel Church, say they wanted to show the world their concern about Kim Jong Il's potential nuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
"There hasn't been enough voice for the Koreans who care about the US troops, and to say how necessary they are to our security," says assistant pastor Sam Hwan-kim.
Over the past week, Korean officials have found another rationale for challenging the antipathy that has arisen toward the US in the past year and that has contributed to the current political atmosphere - economics.
Preliminary reports show that US investments in Korea may drop in the coming year. Korean officials are anxious that the ill feeling of younger Koreans - partly based on President Bush's "axis of evil" comment and stoked by nationalist groups who want US troops off the peninsula - not get out of control.
This week, the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul sent a draft letter to the Federation of Korean Industries stating that the current character of anti-US sentiment in South Korea is not something that should be tolerated. If it persists, the letter argued, it could result in withdrawal of investment and trade, and bring a backlash against Korean products in the US.
"Nuclear weapons in Korea is a life and death issue for South Korea and for the US. But this is not a crisis, we aren't on the brink of war," says Ben Limb, a spokesman for the incoming government of Roh Moo-hyun.
"What we are more worried about are the economic consequences of a fear of instability in South Korea. We don't want a decreasing export market and the loss of foreign investors."