North Korea threats? After six decades, uncertainty is nothing new for South Koreans

Technically, North and South Korea have been at war for more than 60 years. But a 'cold war mentality' has helped Seoulites keep perspective, even as tensions ratchet up again – although their city is prepared for attacks.

Kim Hong-Ji/ Reuters
People watch a TV broadcasting of a news report on North Korea's missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, on April 29, 2017.

The shaded lawns and winding paths in Yeouido Park offer a respite from this frenetically modern city. But the park’s elongated shape betrays one of its original functions, which was decidedly less peaceful: an airstrip for emergency evacuations in the event of a North Korean attack.

The strip of land the park sits on, now covered in cherry trees and picnic tables, was once one of the world’s largest public squares. Commissioned by President Park Chung-hee in 1970, the square was made of concrete – not grass, as its designers had initially proposed – to make it more suitable for aircraft. If North Korea were to attack, the thinking went, planes could easily land on the square and whisk away government officials who worked nearby. The National Assembly building is 2,000 feet away.

Then, in the 1990s, Seoul’s municipal government transformed the square into the city’s version of Central Park – its history largely forgotten as more and more Seoulites became nonchalant toward North Korea’s belligerent posturing and seemingly empty threats.

“I’m not worried,” says Seo Young-chae, who was having a picnic with his wife and two daughters at Yeouido Park on Friday. “The situation may seem more dangerous to people outside South Korea, but people here are going about their usual lives.”

During decades of tension between the two Koreas, which technically remain in a state of war even after the 1953 armistice, South Koreans' anxiety toward their northern neighbor has ebbed and flowed. But despite the occasional uptick, many people have settled for something in-between preparing for the worst (a nuclear attack) and expecting the best (a peaceful reunification or coexistence). They've learned to live with a degree of uncertainty that seldom disrupts their daily lives. 

That attitude has been put to the test in recent weeks, amid a string of ballistic missiles tests and live-fire military exercises in the North. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has deemed "strategic patience" a failure, and warned of possible military action, while pressuring China to rein in its neighbor. The administration has also deployed a nuclear-powered submarine and aircraft carrier to Korean waters in an effort to thwart the North’s nuclear ambitions.

Yet many South Koreans have responded to the escalations with a collective shrug. Park Myoung-kyu, a sociology professor at Seoul National University, says the relative calm reveals how distant the fear of a second Korean War has become. 

“South Koreans have lived under this situation for more than 60 years,” Dr. Park says. “In Korean society, a kind of cold war mentality has been internalized. That’s why people seem so normal or indifferent to the current situation.”

That indifference is palpable in Seoul; the city’s vibrancy appears undiminished. If it weren’t for the bomb shelter signs that hang at every subway entrance, it would be easy to forget how the city has prepared for a North Korean attack. About 4,000 underground shelters are located around the city in subway stops, tunnels, and public buildings. The metropolitan government maintains an online map where people can find the closest one.

Shin Gi-wook, a sociology professor and director of the Korea Program at Stanford University, says he’s worried about how lax South Koreans have become about the possibility of an attack. He still remembers the air-raid drills that occurred on the 15th of nearly every month when he was growing up in South Korea. The drills became less frequent in the late 1990s and have virtually disappeared since then. The last large-scale drill occurred in December 2010, three weeks after a North Korean artillery strike killed two soldiers and two civilians on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island.

“I’m someone who believes that you have to get ready for the worst case scenario,” Dr. Shin says. “If something does happen the consequences would be huge.”

About 25 million people, or half of the South Korean population, live in the Seoul metropolitan area. The center of the city is 35 miles from the border, where hundreds of North Korean artillery pieces are stationed within firing range. A 2012 study estimates that up to 64,000 people could be killed in the first day of an artillery barrage – most in the first three hours.

James Kim, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, says a person’s perception of the North Korean threat is often a reflection of his or her age. Polls conducted by the Asan Institute show that South Koreans who lived through the Korean War are often more fearful of renewed conflict. So too are people under the age of 20.

“There is a heightened level of anxiety that is due to their unfamiliarly with these kinds of provocations,” Dr. Kim says. “Young Koreans simply haven’t seen this enough yet.”

Kim says a new complication is President Trump, whose controversial statements have put South Koreans of all ages on edge. In the past two weeks, the US president warned of a “major, major conflict” with North Korea and declared he would make South Korea pay $1 billion for an advanced missile-defense system, THAAD, whose controversial installation began last month. The White House has backed off the demand, but not before it rattled nerves across South Korea. How to handle Mr. Trump has become a major policy question ahead of the country's presidential election on Tuesday.

“There’s more anxiety about what the Americans are doing than what the North Koreans are doing,” Kim says. “Is Donald Trump serious about the possibility of war or is it simply a lot of saber rattling?"

Nam Gyu-han, a retiree who walks through Yeouido Park almost every day, is old enough to have experienced the Korean War firsthand. Sitting on a bench, the septuagenarian grows solemn as he tells the story of how his father and older brother were killed during the conflict. But Mr. Nam says he’s no longer fearful of North Korea on a personal level. He’s become used to the hostile, uneasy peace of the last six decades. He’s just not sure how long it can last.

“Because I’m old there’s nothing for me to lose,” Nam says. “But I’m worried about the next generation. They’re the ones who will have to face this.”

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