The Korea Herald


South Koreans learn to live with constant threat

By 윤민식

Published : Aug. 23, 2015 - 19:48

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A restaurant in a busy metropolitan area of Sinchon, Seoul, on Saturday was packed with families, couples and friends. They engaged in animated conversation, merrily chatting away about their week, vacation plans and dating advice as Seoulites went on with their regular weekend routine.

This merry scene was just two days after North Korea had fired artillery shells at the inter-Korea border, and one day after Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong-un declared a “quasi-state of war” and put his troops on war footing.

In spite of threats of war from the hermit kingdom, South Koreans generally appeared comfortable, almost indifferent about the tension going on at the front lines. Amid frequent muscle flexing from their neighbors to the north, South Koreans say they have learned to live their lives adjacent to the openly hostile country, with whom Seoul is still technically at war.

“No, there isn’t anyone around me who is really worried about a possible war. I guess it’s like people living in earthquake-prone areas. It’s not that you don’t care, but you stop making a fuss about it,” said Kim Min-ho, a 30-year-old office worker living in Seoul.

Sales numbers revealed by local retailers showed no signs of panic buying, either. According to retailing giant E-Mart, sales of emergency supplies -- such as instant noodles, water, canned food and portable gas stoves -- from Thursday to Saturday decreased compared to the same period in the week before.

“It’s not like we can be warned (of the war), so I don’t think we can really prepare for it. Personally, I think it’s just a political show of the two Koreas,” said Kim Min-gyeong, a 38-year-old mother of two. 

A child uses his mobile phone outside an underground evacuation shelter guarded by police in Yeoncheon, Gyeong Province, Sunday. (Yonhap) A child uses his mobile phone outside an underground evacuation shelter guarded by police in Yeoncheon, Gyeong Province, Sunday. (Yonhap)

There was a time when tough rhetoric from Pyongyang induced nationwide panic.

In 1994, the inter-Korean tensions rode high amid suspicion that North Korea was seeking nuclear armament. Media reported that major retailers were jam-packed with customers, which was repeated later in the year when then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung died.

“It was different when Kim Il-sung died. I was in another country at the time, and even though I was young, I seriously contemplated if I should return home if the war broke out,” said 36-year-old office worker Ha Eun-jae.

But decades of tough words ending up as rhetoric led Ha and other Koreans to worry less.

“Now, it’s nothing new. We just think ‘they are at it again.’ I guess in the back of my mind, war is not really considered an option,” she said.

In addition, South Korean’s feeling toward the North has considerably softened since former President Kim Dae-jung initiated the “sunshine policy” -- based on increased inter-Korean interaction and economic assistance for the North -- in the late 1990s.

A recent survey by Albamon, a local online part-time job recruitment site, showed that 48.5 percent of the college students thought that Japan was South Korea‘s greatest threat over North Korea at 38.3 percent. 

“Whenever we hear North Koreans saying they will destroy us, we assume they want us to give them something. They did it so many times before,” said a 24-year-old student surnamed Yoo.

Nonetheless, a deeply rooted fear of war -- no matter how slim the possibility -– remain in the hearts of many South Koreans. In a popular online thread titled “What South Koreans can do in a war against the North” on the online portal Daum, an anonymous man said he had no faith in the military’s capacity to protect its people in a war, which was echoed by several men who had completed their mandatary military service.

Some South Koreans say their seemingly calm demeanor stems from the fact that reoccurring threats have virtually become part of their normal lives.

“It’s not that I don’t care about security, but this (South Korea) is the foundation of our lives, so all we can do in these situations is to just hang on,” said Lee Ho-jeong, a 40-year-old housewife. “No country is 100 percent safe, anyway. We’re not going to flee our country just because of a war that ‘might happen’.”

Thirty five-year-old mom Yoon Yeo-jeong said she has learned to cope with fear, as there is little choice otherwise. “It’s not like worrying about it will do any good. Living with such tension is something I have to accept as a South Korean.”

“But I do feel bad for bringing my son into such a complicated country. I certainly hope that there will be peace (between the Koreas) by the time he turns 20, so he won’t have to do the (mandatory) military service,” she said.

By Yoon Min-sik (