The unpreparedOn Sept. 3, when Japan issued an advisory to residents of Hokkaido as a North Korean missile flew over their heads, South Koreans carried about as usual and were mostly appreciative of the clear blue autumn sky.
North Korea has one thing South Korea does not — a nuclear weapon, giving it the upper hand in the security game. It launched intercontinental and intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Japan and into the Pacific, showing off its ability to strike U.S. military bases on Guam if it cares to.
The nuclear and missile threats from North Korea have become more real than ever, and the foreign media has spent many column inches describing the “surprisingly blasé” reaction in the South. One foreign diplomat in Seoul said he was stunned by the nonchalance of South Koreans when their island of Yeonpyeong came under deadly attack in 2010, killing four people, and was even more stupefied by the shrugging off of the latest North Korea’s threats and provocations.
There can be many reasons for such a reaction. One might be a line of logic that goes: “Why worry? If there is a war, it’s the end of everyone.” Another explanation is that people become immune to fear as they have long lived with the North Korean nuclear threat. Others believe they cannot afford to fret over war or don’t believe North Korea will ever dare to strike. People strike brave or casual poses, but nevertheless cannot hide their feelings of insecurity and anxiety. They hope the government would give them some kind of guidelines on contingency actions.
Some have begun to take action. A working couple in their 40s, who lived abroad for a long time, said that they stockpiled two weeks of bottled water and canned food and even went so far as to set up an emergency toilet. In case they lose contact with their children, the family agreed where to meet in person : first their grandmother’s house, second their home, or, if it is destroyed, a nearby playground. A single woman in her 50s chose to live in a ninth floor apartment instead of one on the 21st floor, which had a better view. Evacuation will be easier from the ninth floor. One 30-something single guy says he is planning to buy a motorbike — which will make fleeing danger easier.
A war should not happen. But no one can say there is zero percent possibility of it happening. We dare not imagine North Korea using nuclear, chemical, biological or powerful electromagnetic pulse weapons against us. But again, we cannot be 100 percent sure.
Many believe Pyongyang and Washington will come to some kind of a deal now that the U.S. is within the range of nuclear-tipped missiles from North Korea. But there is no knowing what actions the United States will take as long as North Korea does not completely forego its weapons. North Korea ultimately wants American troops to leave South Korea. We cannot know how this showdown will end.
Without a U.S. military presence, South Korea is left at the mercy of a nuclear-armed North Korea, China and Russia. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wants to finally finish the half-achieved dream of his grandfather Kim Il Sung. Washington is threatening military options if it runs out of economic and diplomatic ammunition.
Japan has been activating immediate alerts every time North Korea fires a missile. Some say Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is overreacting to get public support for the rewriting of the pacifist constitution and empower the Japanese military. But that’s better than doing nothing. The Guam government has distributed a two-page leaflet on emergency plans in case the island comes under North Korean attack.
Where do we go if a missile flies over our heads? Should we go underground or take to the hills if biological or chemical weapons hit us? Do we head south at the first sign of trouble? Do we take our cars or walk? We have to look straight at reality and get ready in case the worst comes. The government must establish contingency systems and distribute guidelines to the public. Concerns about negative political repercussions should not get in the way.
There is a word “heiwaboke” in Japan, which means “peace at any price” or “peace-dumb.” It is often used by rightists to refer to the complacency of the pacifists, whom they believe are blind to dangers that actually exist. The expression could better describe our state. We may be as inattentive to security threats as safety dangers. We should make it a habit to be prepared just like buckling up a seatbelt when we get into a car. When we gather for the upcoming Chuseok holiday, families should be serious and had better discuss where they will next meet — when the artillery shells start falling.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 22, Page 36
*The author is a senior writer on foreign and security affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.