As North Korea rattles sabers, South Koreans yawn
SEOUL — Residents in South Korea’s capital have adopted a nonchalant, if not defiant, attitude about the barrage of threats from the North, even as the U.S. and the South plan a forceful but limited military response to any attack from North Korea.
All types of commercial enterprises carry on unabated, entertainment districts and traditional markets bustle with the usual crowds, and the city’s notorious traffic is as snarled as ever.
Indeed, it is difficult to find any ordinary South Korean reacting to the longest-running stream of threats and bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang in recent memory.
“I am not frightened. That’s it,” said Kim Mi-hyun a 38-year-old public relations executive. “This kind of activity has always happened, and days or weeks later, everything goes quiet. We don’t see this as very serious.”
Kang Seok-jae, 50, an official with the World Taekwondo Federation, said, “We don’t think there is going to be an attack, but we are strong enough to defend ourselves. … We are used to this, we know the reality of North Korea. It’s part of their brinkmanship.”
On Monday, the isolated communist nation suspended operations at a major North Korean industrial complex run jointly with South Korea and located north of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. The move to close the Kaesong complex temporarily threatens the jobs of 53,000 North Koreans.
That action follows weeks of North Korean threats to attack the South, as well as the United States.
“We welcome efforts by Beijing and Moscow to encourage Pyongyang to refrain from provocative rhetoric and threats,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “We will continue to work with our Chinese, Russian and other partners to get North Korea to abide by its international obligations.”
The dynastic regime of Kim Jong-un, the third member of his family to lead North Korea, has revved up vitriolic state propaganda to new heights. But not a single bullet has been fired at South Korea under his leadership.
His grandfather, Kim Il-sung, launched the Korean War, oversaw commando raids against the South and seized the spy ship USS Pueblo. His father, Kim Jong-il, masterminded a range of deadly espionage, terrorist and naval operations against South Korea.
Absent any killing and with no reports of North Korean troop or equipment movements expected to herald a major attack, Seoul residents maintain a blase attitude, even living within artillery range of the heavily militarized Korean border 35 miles to their north.
Opinion polls show that long-range public confidence in national security remains steady at about 60 percent, said Karl Friedhoff, who oversees public opinion research at the Asan Institute think tank in Seoul.
“The South Korean public looks at this as part of a cycle,” he said. “South Koreans think North Korea has decided it needs to get paid, and think this is how this situation will be resolved.”
Still, there are some signs of unease.
Capital flight brought down South Korea’s stock market and currency in March, but analysts are divided over whether that was sparked by geopolitical risk or the impact of a currency devaluation in Japan, which has made the Japanese market attractive and impacted rival South Korean exporters.
Local government officials in the border city of Paju have been posting fliers detailing emergency evacuation procedures, South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo newspaper reported Monday.
Several media outlets have reported soaring sales of crisis rations such as bottled water and dried noodles. On one day in mid-March, personal survival kits were briefly the top-selling item on South Korea’s main Web portal.
Over the past few months, North Korea has claimed to have scrapped the cease-fire that stopped the fighting in the Korean War, cut telephone hotlines to the South and warned foreign diplomats that their safety could be at risk if they remain in the capital, Pyongyang.
The hostile moves followed the imposition of tougher U.N. sanctions after North Korea conducted a third nuclear test in February and ballistic missile test in December.
The United States has responded by moving additional missile interceptors to Fort Greely in Alaska, adding another radar system to Japan and deploying a sea-based radar system off the coast of North Korea. In a show of force, Washington also sent two B-2 stealth bombers from a base in Missouri to participate in ongoing U.S.-South Korean military exercises and dispatched F-22 stealth fighter jets to the war games.
Analysts were struggling to interpret the significance of Monday’s move at the Kaesong industrial complex, which will hurt North Korea’s economy.
“It’s a wrong decision, but they won’t change it because it’s not their top priority,” said Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University in Seoul.
Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea specialist at the Sejong Institute, said he thinks the North will have to reopen the complex. He noted that North Korean workers there are paid in U.S. dollars that the North Korean government cannot acquire because of the sanctions.
The 53,000 North Korean employees of the 120 companies at Kaesong made $80 million in salary last year, according to South Korean government estimates.
Over the weekend, Japanese news media reported that the Defense Ministry had put destroyers with anti-missile systems on alert to shoot down any rockets fired from North Korea.
“We are doing all we can to protect the safety of our nation,” said government spokesman Yoshihide Suga.
⦁ Shaun Waterman and Dave Boyer, both in Washington, contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.