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North Korean threats prompt first signs of jitter in South

  • Article by: Chico Harlan
  • Washington Post
  • April 4, 2013 - 7:24 PM

– Life in this bustling South Korean capital has long been defined for the most part by traffic jams and luxury shopping malls, long days of work and long nights of sipping rice liquor. Residents rarely appeared to imagine that their routines could be upended in minutes by the unpredictable young leader to the north and his 10,000 artillery pieces.

But after years of largely ignoring threats from North Korea, some residents say they are becoming a bit jittery, with Pyongyang’s fury reaching levels not seen in at least two decades.

Coffee shops are still packed, but South Koreans’ concerns are palpable in quieter moments. Their phones buzz with news updates on the North’s latest moves — its declaration of war; its announced restart of key nuclear facilities; its barricade of a joint industrial complex. Children ask their parents and where they would go for safety if fighting broke out.

On Thursday, the fear spread to South Korea’s stock market, which sustained its biggest daily fall of the year.

Rather than play down the possibility of an attack, South Korean officials in recent days have emphasized their ability to strike back promptly. They have also welcomed recent U.S. shows of force in the region, including a brief deployment to the peninsula of nuclear-capable stealth bombers.

In the event of an attack, South Korea will “respond immediately without political consideration,” said a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share government thinking. “At the initial stage, South Korea is self-sufficient in terms of our ability to strike back. But [thereafter], we will need cooperation from the U.S. and neighbors.”

South Koreans differ in their views of their increasingly belligerent northern neighbor. Some speak with confidence, saying the North’s near-daily threats are part of a coherent plan to force negotiations, not spark war. But others fear that the North’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, might push things too far, perhaps because he thinks he needs a major conflict to coalesce domestic support. Over the past two months, the percentage of South Koreans who say the North is their top concern has more than tripled. Still, that represents just 26 percent of respondents; more South Koreans care about job creation than about Pyongyang.

Over the past several decades, South Koreans have been “gradually immunized” about the North’s threats, said Park Hyeong-jung, a North Korea researcher at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification, South. And for all the North’s recent anger, nothing it has done recently compares with the attacks of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, which included hacking to death two U.S. soldiers in the demilitarized zone; assassination attempts on South Korean presidents; and the midair sabotage of a South Korean passenger plane.

“We have no alternative to remaining calm, because what we can do to personally prepare for emergency? Virtually nothing,” Park said. “We live in a congested area of more than 10 million population. What a catastrophic chaos we will have if individuals begin to worry about tomorrow.”

© 2014 Star Tribune