South Koreans show indifference to North's threats
SEOUL — North Korea has threatened to turn Seoul into a sea of fire, but such rhetoric has become so familiar in the South Korean capital that it’s falling on deaf ears, even among those old enough to remember war.
“The North will only talk and won’t do anything for real,” said Lee Hwa-ja, who remembers how North Korean soldiers killed her brother-in-law and forced her family to flee their home more than six decades ago.
Now a 70-year-old housewife, she worries somewhat that the North will follow through on its recent threats to start another conflict. She and her friends even joke about stocking up on instant rice and dried noodles and pulling their money out of the bank for safekeeping.
But they won’t do it. They don’t see the point.
“North Korea won’t provoke us, because they know that if they do, we will die together,” she said, half-joking. “We will meet them in hell.”
North Korea’s increasingly belligerent threats toward South Korea and the United States are making headlines around the world. Analysts and politicians say they have to take them seriously, given that the North does have nuclear bombs, a variety of missiles, a massive military and possible biological and chemical weapons.
Yes, South Korea residents watch attentively as the prospect of some kind of provocation over the next week is discussed in the media. They listened when the North’s Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday urged foreigners living in the South to evacuate or begin arranging for shelter because of possible war.
And there was interest when Pyongyang took the unprecedented step of withdrawing all of its 53,000 workers from Kaesong Industrial Complex on Tuesday for the first time since the two Koreas established the jointly run facility in 2004. Kaesong was seen as the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.
But for a populace that has thrived while facing threatened annihilation for decades, the latest statements from Pyongyang are met mostly with a shrug. They’ve heard it all before. And they know North Korea must realize that launching a major attack would surely be suicide, given the U.S. weaponry that would be used in retaliation.
At U.S. military installations across the peninsula, life also continued largely as normal this week, with servicemembers and their families watching the news but doing little to alter their lives.
“This is how North Korea negotiates. They don’t necessarily want violence, but I think this is how they try to bargain,” said Maj. Kourt Clarke, who is stationed at Yongsan with his wife and three children, ages 5, 10 and 13. Since moving to Seoul last fall, the family has been more worried more about adjusting to a new culture than being attacked by Pyongyang.
Like other military families, the Clarkes keep a packet of information ready in case of a U.S. State Department-ordered evacuation, a scenario U.S. Forces Korea rehearses regularly. They also keep a bag packed with 72 hours’ worth of supplies in case they have to leave suddenly.
“There’s not really anything else you can do but be ready to evacuate,” Stephenie Clarke said.
Two DODEA teachers stationed on Okinawa didn’t let the North’s bombastic rhetoric stop their planned spring break trip to Seoul this week. Friends in South Korea said they would actually be safer on the peninsula than in Okinawa, because the North would be more likely to attack Japanese territory and the U.S. bases there than South Korean citizens.
“I think the media is hyping this up,” said one of the teachers, who brought her 3-year-old daughter with her. “If you look at North Korea, are they really going to do something?”
She compared North Korea’s threats to those of a child that wants something from its mother: “It’s like, how far can I push her or how mad can I make her?”
Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University in Sejong City, said that in the past, South Koreans responded to the North’s threats with panic buying of daily necessities. But time and time again, those threats amounted to nothing, and South Koreans have learned to tolerate them.
“We are not worrying much right now,” he said.
Major South Korean retailers say there has been no run on food or other supplies. And at Seoul Station, a bustling subway and train hub in the middle of the city, the mood among commuters generally ranged from nonchalance to mild concern.
“People are just paying attention to their work or playing around outside because it is spring,” said Kwon Sun-a, a 21-year-old university student. “They aren’t paying attention to North Korea.”
One man, a 32-year-old company worker, said he simply isn’t interested in North Korea’s rhetoric. Instead of hoarding food, he and his friends are more worried about stockpiling another necessity that is becoming increasingly expensive for reasons unrelated to the tensions with the North — cigarettes.