North Korea’s bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island today, which killed two soldiers and destroyed several houses, is being called one of the worst attacks on South Korean civilians since the Korean War. But you wouldn’t have guessed it from the streets of Seoul this afternoon.
A Starbucks not far from the president’s office was bustling as usual when news of the clash broke. Jazz renditions of “Good King Wenceslas” and “Jingle Bells” played while customers sipped their lattes and chatted on their cell phones.
Street vendors selling cheap hoduk pancakes and tteokbokki, spicy rice cake stew, turned their portable television sets to the news only to switch back later to coverage of the Asian Games now being contested in China.
South Korean archer Yun Ok-hee took gold in the women’s individual competition as the conflict was unfolding. Despite the tensions, Yun shook hands with North Korean bronze medalist Kwon Un-sil at the awards ceremony.
Yun told Korea’s Yonhap News Agency that South and North Korean athletes are on good terms when it came to the sport of archery. “Whatever is happening back home is between the two governments and that doesn't affect us at all,” Yun explained.
This mentality seems to permeate beyond the sphere of sports in Korea.
Merely 75 miles from this afternoon’s skirmish, office workers packed into bars as night fell and high schoolers cracked jokes on the subway. Perhaps the only thing out of the ordinary was the endless replays of the artillery explosions on television. Though even this coverage was replaced by the regularly scheduled dramas and crime shows as the night pushed on.
The only ones that seemed shaken by this afternoon’s events were South Korea’s young men. Military service is compulsory for men between 20 and 30 years of age, and conscripted soldiers are afforded no extra protections compared to career soldiers.
Dong Wook-kim, a soldier in the South Korean Army, told the BBC, “My military camp is located on the front line with North Korea. I have to go back to my camp tomorrow so I am quite worried and anxious about this crisis.”