[Letters] Those insouciant South Koreans

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[Letters] Those insouciant South Koreans

Some polls show that 70 percent of Americans think that war between South and North Korea is likely. Why is this? Does the U.S. consider war inevitable? But in South Korea, some would say that people are amazingly nonchalant. In spite of recent North-South hostilities, the Kospi has managed to break the magic 2,000 barrier for the first time in ages.

I get text messages all the time from the South Korean government. But lately, I have been getting a lot of them telling me about emergency drills and that I should seek safe shelter - underground. The problem is that there is nowhere to go. The owner of the Youngwon outdoor store in Samcheok, Gangwon, a man who speaks English well but prefers conversing in Korean, said: “The government advises everyone to go underground. In places like Seoul, this makes sense. But here in Samcheok, there is nowhere to go. So buses stop moving, and cars stop driving. Everyone waits, indoors.”

When asked why people hole up in buildings, Mr. Kim, who owns a convenience store in Samcheok said: “Buildings, particularly schools, are probably the safest places to be. Each room is insulated from the next by a thick wall of concrete, and if you go outside, you are probably going to be taken out by shrapnel. Being in a classroom is probably the safest place to be, granted the missile doesn’t land on top of you.”

If people are supposed to go inside during the drills, why don’t they? During a recent national emergency drill in Donghae, the siren sounded and some elementary schools students sat bored on the steps of the local post office, which had been temporarily closed for such an occasion. I walked up to a woman loading steamed bread into her display case. She quickly waved me into her store. “We’ve been doing this for the last 50, 60 years, and in that time we’ve never had an attack, so people are reluctant to get all excited,” she said.

But some people have been attacked. But to transpose the angst and anxiety that the residents of Yeonpyeong Island feel to residents on the other side of the country would be akin to making Wall Street bankers feel guilty for the suffering that the poor in other places have gone through. I got a letter from a sister some years ago.

It was written in a fairly hysterical fashion, advising me to run to the nearest U.S. Embassy in the case of North Korean invasion or attack. But why? I feel that the USA is one of the least safe societies on earth.

But does that mean things will always remain that way? Yang Seung-won, an educator in Donghae, was a career army officer at one time. He said: “South Korea will never retaliate against North Korea. Lee Myung-bak is too rich. He has too much to lose, personally. We are chicken.” As for North Korea, many people think they won’t risk war either because a war would likely lead to the fall of the North Korean regime, and everyone knows this is what the Kim family ultimately fears.

But try telling this to the former residents of Yeonpyeong Island. They won’t feel very reassured. The North has already barraged that island with artillery fire, and could do so again. But will it lead to war? That depends. It takes two to tango.

By Rick Ruffin, Donghae, Gangwon
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