Worry About War? ‘I Am Too Busy,’ South Koreans Say

April 27, 2017

By MOTOKO RICH New York Times


Students learning to use gas masks at a training center next to the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul, South Korea, this month. Credit Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

        Students learning to use gas masks at a training center next to the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul, South Korea, this month. Credit Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea — The fourth graders sitting on a row of benches in central Seoul wore yellow rubber hoods, and they looked like the cast of a school musical with an adorable chorus of Minions.

In fact, they were learning how to don gas masks in the event of chemical or biological attacks from North Korea. Several giggled as they wrenched off the masks, while others gasped for air.

This is what schoolchildren sometimes do on field trips to the War Memorial of Korea, built as a reminder of the costs of warfare on the Korean Peninsula. Lately, talk of war is in the news again, but people here in Seoul are mostly responding with shrugs and nervous giggles rather than emergency drills.

They’ve been through this before.

Students visiting the War Memorial of Korea, a military history museum in Seoul.

For about 25 million people in South Korea who live within 50 miles of the North Korean border — including residents of Seoul, the capital — it has long been a sobering reality that they are the most vulnerable to attack by the regime in Pyongyang, with which South Korea has technically been at war for decades.

That perennial threat has intensified in recent weeks, with the Trump administration warning that it would consider all options, including military strikes, to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea, meanwhile, has conducted missile tests and huge live-fire artillery drills, and analysts say it is prepared to conduct its sixth test of a nuclear weapon.

For some residents — like Hyun Jae-gyun, one of the teachers who brought the children to the war memorial — that has led to a rising sense of foreboding and an urge to prepare. “Teachers are aware that this is an issue, and we should prepare our kids,” he said.

But many more people in Seoul seemed to respond with complete nonchalance.

“I am not worried,” said Chun Ho-pil, 30, a construction manager who was on his way from work in the Jongno neighborhood of the capital. “I am too busy working and too busy going about my life to worry.”

Mr. Chun, his face dwarfed by round, black-frame glasses, shrugged and said he had not stockpiled bottled water or canned food in his home, or purchased a gas mask. Nor did he know the location of the nearest shelter in case of a bombing.

In Seoul, a dense and bustling city with a population of 10 million, there were no signs this month of any hunkering down. Restaurants and bars were crowded, and the roads remained, as ever, clogged with traffic during rush hours.

A sign pointing to a bomb shelter in Seoul. Credit Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

South Koreans will elect a new president in early May to succeed the impeached Park Geun-hye, and the candidates’ policies toward North Korea are definitely a campaign issue. The leading contender, Moon Jae-in, has implied that he would take a less confrontational approach to Pyongyang.

But polls indicate that voters are more interested in economic policy than in national security. In a recent survey by Dong-a Ilbo, a right-of-center newspaper, more than 45 percent of respondents said they were focused on the candidates’ economic platforms, while just over 9 percent said their top priority was how the candidates would address the North Korean nuclear threat.

Even near the border with the North, where thousands of artillery rockets are lined up on the other side of the demilitarized zone that divides the Koreas, residents regarded the talk of crisis with indifference.

Just two days after Vice President Mike Pence toured the zone and warned North Korea not to test the resolve of the United States, busloads of schoolchildren visited a nearby observation point where they could pop coins into large binoculars and peer at the scraggly forests and mountains of North Korea.

As they scampered around a deck behind a building emblazoned with the slogan “End of Separation, Beginning of Unification,” there was no sense of imminent danger.

In Munsan, a city of about 50,000 roughly five miles from the demilitarized zone, Gwon Hyuck-chae, a 72-year-old barber, said he did not think that conflict would erupt after more than 50 years of tensions ebbing and flowing.

“Since I have been living here for so long, I am not scared anymore,” Mr. Gwon said outside his shop on a recent morning. He said he was convinced the impasse would continue without war, but he was fatalistic about the possibility that it would not.

“Even if there was a war now, it would not give us enough time to flee,” he said. “We would all just die in an instant.”

Down the street at an outlet of the coffeehouse chain A Twosome Place, Kong Dong-min, a young employee, said he had not paid much attention to recent news about North Korea.

As he misted tables with a spray bottle and wiped them clean, Mr. Kong, a lanky 19-year-old wearing a gray fedora, said he had grown up watching soldiers patrol the area.

“I have not thought that far ahead,” he said when asked about preparing for a possible attack. “I am used to it.”

Older South Koreans, with vivid memories of the Cold War, tend to be more concerned about the North Korean threat. In polls about the coming election, those who were most worried about relations with Pyongyang were over 60.

At Tapgol Park in Seoul, three men sitting on a bench said they had been discussing the atrocities they witnessed during the Korean War of the early 1950s, which, because a peace treaty was not signed, never formally ended.

“Young South Koreans don’t think it will actually happen,” said Kim Baek-choon, 79, referring to another outbreak of war. “But we are worried because it has happened before, and we have seen it.”

But many Seoulites described a sense of repetition that almost sounded like something from a Samuel Beckett play, with a threat that looms but never arrives.

Kim Yun-hwa, a physical therapist in Seoul, said her patients had recently reported stress about the possibility of a North Korean attack. “They will even say, ‘I should get some more supplies and food and water from the supermarket,’ ” said Ms. Kim, 35.

“But they don’t actually buy any of it,” she added. “They just talk about it.”

Ms. Kim said she empathized with their hesitation. “I don’t feel it in my skin yet,” she said. “It is not a tangible threat.”


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